Why Antarctica remains vital to the wider interests of the UK

Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham spoke about Captain Scott's legacy at a reception marking the centenary of the party reaching the South Pole.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Henry Bellingham

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Excellencies and honoured guests, I would like to offer you a very warm welcome to this evening’s reception in the magnificent Locarno Suite.

This evening, I would like to briefly speak about Captain Scott’s legacy and why Antarctica remains vital to the wider interests of the United Kingdom and of the planet itself.

But firstly, I want to say how wonderful it is that so many of the descendants of Captain Scott and his brave team have been able to join us this evening to celebrate their legacy and one hundred years of discovery and diplomacy in Antarctica. I know how active many of you have been in planning this year’s commemorations. So thank you for everything you have done and continue to do.

I have been fortunate to see some of this year’s exhibitions - particularly the fantastic exhibition at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge - and I hope to see others.

I am proud to say that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been able to assist financially with a number of the centenary events. Not least the Commemoration Service on the 29th of March in St Paul’s Cathedral.

I know how much planning, fundraising and sheer hard work goes into the huge range of exhibitions and events that are taking place this year. It is very much to your credit that they are so professional and well-organised.

Of course this evening is primarily about Captain Scott and the Pole party. We are nearly halfway between the 17th of January - the day on which they reached the South Pole - and the 29th of March - the last date in Scott’s diary.

Both those dates are incredibly poignant. But of course there is also something moving about the time in between.

Scott knew now that through huge endeavour, planning and skill Roald Amundsen and his team had achieved their goal of being the first to reach the South Pole. A fantastic achievement which we are delighted to join His Excellency, the Norwegian Ambassador, and our many Norwegian friends in remembering and celebrating.

By this time one hundred years ago Amundsen and all his companions were safely on board their ship, Fram, en route to Hobart to announce their achievement to the world.

But back in Antarctica, Scott’s team was reduced to four, following the death of Petty Officer Edgar Evans on the 17th of February. They had left the South Pole plateau behind them and successfully negotiated the descent of the Beardmore Glacier. They desperately hoped for better conditions and more supplies in the final push for home.

And yet in Scott’s diary for today - 20th February 1912 - with temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius all day, he wrote:

“Terribly slow progress, but we hope for better things as we clear the land. There is a tendency to cloud over in the S.E. to-night, which may turn to our advantage. At present our sledge and ski leave deeply ploughed tracks which can be seen winding for miles behind. It is distressing, but as usual trials are forgotten when we camp, and good food is our lot. Pray God we get better travelling as we are not fit as we were, and the season is advancing apace.”

I find that incredibly moving. Particularly because of the almost overwhelming hardship, disappointment and bad luck on the remainder of their journey to what would be their last fateful camp.

Many people have commented that on that return journey from the Pole, Captain Scott, Dr Wilson and the team retained their focus on recording their findings, carrying on scientific experiments and collecting samples.

Some have called that folly. I call it bravery. And bravery that has had key role in making Antarctica the place of peace, scientific excellence and common endeavour that it is today. That is their legacy. And it is a legacy that deserves great pride.

There is a golden thread that stretches from Scott and his contemporaries, through the early days of international cooperation, to the most cutting-edge climate change and environmental science.

There is no doubt in my mind that the lasting legacy of Captain Scott and his expeditions has been the focus on ensuring the importance of discovery, science and peace in the governance of Antarctica.

It is this legacy that helped to build the cooperation and goodwill needed to create the Antarctic Treaty. Those two attributes endure today because of the continuing work of so many of you gathered here this evening.

I can reassure you that the British Government is more convinced than ever before of the importance of Antarctica.

And that was confirmed by the message that the Prime Minister recorded for the centenary of Scott’s arrival at the Pole last month. In that message he said:

“The Antarctic Treaty System continues to be one of the most successful international agreements in the world and the UK will continue to play a leading role.”

I am immensely proud of the enormous contribution that the United Kingdom is able to make in the fields of science, monitoring and environmental protection in Antarctica. From the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer in 1985, right up to the Lake Ellsworth drilling programme this year. Working with international colleagues, I know that British scientists are making a huge contribution to increasing our knowledge of the continent, the planet and the future challenges we will face.

We take our responsibilities under the Treaty seriously and we have implemented all the key measures in domestic legislation. We are hoping to bring forward a new Antarctic Bill this year to bring into force the new environmental liability framework agreed by the Treaty’s parties.

Making the Treaty ‘live’ through domestic law is vital to maintaining the force of the Treaty’s provisions. So, if you will allow me, I would like to take the opportunity of having representatives of countries from across the world here this evening to encourage all parties to the treaty to do that.

For any parties not yet signed up to the Environmental Protocol, I would particularly urge you to ensure that you have appropriate measures in place to make sure any activities undertaken by your nations in Antarctica are done so safely and in an environmentally sound way.

You can be sure of the UK’s practical help and support in these matters to any who ask.

We are absolutely committed to working towards peaceful multi-lateral solutions to the challenges facing the region: in slowing down the rate of climate change; adapting to the inevitable consequences of such change; and ensuring long-term sustainability and protection of the Southern Ocean and the animals that live within it.

And I know how important it is to match words with deeds. So I am very pleased to say that the good relations that we promote through international diplomacy are complemented by practical cooperation with other international Antarctic Treaty parties.

The high-level agreement that the Foreign Secretary signed with Norway on polar cooperation at the end of last year is a prime example. But I know there are many others. The British Antarctic Survey has nearly 200 international arrangements in place to facilitate polar science and logistical cooperation.

All that makes a real and positive difference to our global reputation and to the way we work internationally. More importantly, it makes a practical difference to how together we can learn from, and protect, the great white continent.

We are committed to continue working in that spirit of cooperation in the years ahead.

But I know that despite all the modern scientific and safety improvements, working in Antarctica is still an incredible challenge.

So I want to offer my thanks on behalf of the Government - and I am sure on behalf of many of you as well - to those working today in this harshest of environments.

Particularly to the scientists, the logistical support staff, heritage conservators and the many others from across the international polar community. Their hard work, skill and dedication is an example to us all.

And I also want to pay tribute to the Royal Navy and other armed forces who play a vital but understated role in logistical and surveying support in and around Antarctica. The new British ice patrol vessel HMS Protector is currently at work in the Antarctic Peninsula.

I hope that Captain Scott - a navy officer himself of course - would be encouraged that the senior service is still so actively engaged in Antarctic exploration.

So thank you for joining me here this evening. And thank you for everything you do to keep the legacy of Captain Scott, Dr Wilson, Lieutenant Bowers, Captain Oates, Petty Officer Edgar Evans and the other members of the expedition - as well of course as Amundsen and his team - so vibrant and meaningful.

I look forward to us now starting the next one hundred years of discovery and diplomacy in Antarctica. I know that with your commitment and skill we will live up to what Scott described in his final moving message as “…the tale…of hardihood, endurance and courage…”

Let me finish this evening by asking you to raise your glasses and join me in a toast to Captain Scott, his brave team and his fellow early Antarctic explorers.

“To Captain Scott and the early Antarctic explorers.”

Thank you.

Published 21 February 2012