Remember the fifth of November

18 November 2014

In a couple of months it will be the 410th anniversary of the first attempt at the Gunpowder Treason in the UK. By the time this issue reaches you, Guy Fawkes Night (‘Bonfire Night’ in the UK) itself will have passed. But less well known is an attempt, 11 months earlier, to blow up the British Parliament with a tunnelled cache of explosives, rather than the less exciting option of a cellar rented beneath the seat of government itself.

The famous Guy Fawkes himself had earlier adopted the pseudonym 'Guido' Fawkes to join Catholic Spanish forces fighting the Dutch Republic. The sketchy history suggests that it was here he learned some rudimentary military tunnelling skills, which he would later try to use against the Protestant English ruling classes.

Unfortunately for the plotters, their limited skills were no match for the stone foundations. Or perhaps the alignment was off. It might be both, or neither; a lot of the information was obtained after several rounds of torture. The tunnel was never found. What is known is that the hapless traitors changed to the aforementioned cellar tactic, were discovered, and were hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Bonfire Night was celebrated for patriotic and religious reasons over the next few centuries. Many an effigy (a 'Guy') was burned. In the days following the recent financial crash, and a growing recognition of the excesses of the political and financial sectors, there has been a burgeoning, sometimes hysterical, backlash against the establishment. At least for the last decade, many people have been remembering the Fifth of November in an entirely different light.

I have spent some time recently reading blogs and opinions on the UK's newest planned rail link, High Speed Three (HS3). It doesn't read well for construction. Interspersed among the disapproving NIMBY masses, the major advocates of the line are our unavoidably blue-blooded current political leaders. Prime Minister David Cameron, descended from King William IV; Chancellor George Osborne, who has somehow traced his lineage back to King Henry III; and less significantly for HS3 Mayor of London Boris Johnson, descended from King George II.

There was a Harding Lecture in London a few years ago delivered by Bill Grose. In it, he stressed the importance of engineers taking it upon themselves to advocate ambitious, sometimes controversial projects. To educate people, and articulate to them what can be achieved, and what improvements to their lives can be made.

If the engineering community wants HS3, or any project anywhere in the world, it should never just leave the job of promoting the scheme to the least popular people in society. And more importantly still, as Guido learned, a tunnelled solution is great at keeping the surface world blissfully unaware of progress. I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.