The brave boys of Tham Luang give us hope in a world of despair

Television screens across the world, in every country and every language, are beaming the same images today.

They show the rescue of children who have been trapped in a cave in the northernmost tip of Thailand. The twelve boys and their coach from the Wild Boars youth football team went on an outing to Tham Luang two weeks ago. Heavy rains flooded the limestone caverns and left them stranded amid rising water and plummeting oxygen.

Yesterday, the weather finally let up and the rescue operation began in earnest. The boys’ story is compelling to billions around the world because it is so horrifying and yet so ordinary. That children could find themselves in such danger is unthinkable; that it could as easily have been our children is all too thinkable.

What has grasped our imagination even more forcefully is the heroism of the boys and their rescuers. Despite being perched on a high ledge cloaked in darkness, the children have demonstrated a remarkable resilience of character, even passing rescue divers letters telling their parents not to worry.

The divers have risked their lives squeezing through narrow miles of tunnel. Last Thursday, Petty Officer Saman Gunan, a former Thai Navy Seal, volunteered to take oxygen tanks to the boys. He completed his mission but it left him without enough air to get back to the surface. He was given a full military funeral.

Other volunteers have flocked to the site to cook for the rescuers. Clerics from every faith have offered prayers and services as well as pastoral care to the boys’ families. Thais — and people across the globe — have kept vigil with the nightly news.

In 1987, America was similarly transfixed by the heart-stopping mission to rescue Jessica McClure, an 18-month-old girl who fell down a well in a garden in Texas. The police and fire departments were inundated with offers of help.

Local oil workers raced to the scene with their drilling equipment and began hollowing out the shaft from which Jessica would be freed two days later. Cut and bruised and hungry but miraculously alive.

For much of her 58-hour ordeal, CNN broadcast live from the garden and Americans prayed, phoned in their good wishes, and donated more than $1million to Jessica’s parents. It could have been their child and they felt they were standing there with her family, listening to the toddler sing ‘Winnie the Pooh’ 22ft underground, begging God that the singing didn’t suddenly stop.

Nancy Reagan watched from her hospital bed, where she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She refused to go for her biopsy till she saw Jessica was safe. Ronald Reagan explained: ‘Everybody in America became godfathers and godmothers of Jessica.’

These human dramas capture our empathy but they also speak to something deeper, to something lost which we thought was unrecoverable.

Almost two decades in, this century isn’t shaping up to be much better than the previous one in the human misery stakes. Anti-Semitism has been disinterred from the ashes of the Holocaust and its virus is spreading again. Nationalism, once discredited, has found a new currency and socialism has escaped the crumbling asylum of Soviet history.

A migrant crisis ranges on Europe’s borders as do Russian tanks, eager to gobble up more territory. In Syria, a barbarian is systematically butchering men, women and children while the world looks on. There is a nativist in the White House and white supremacists in the streets of America.

The world feels like a dark place right now and the temptation to despair is mighty. Why not just sink into the gloom and the cynicism and accept decline? What is there left to cling to?

Well, there is hope. As long as children can be as brave as the Wild Boars in the face of overwhelming odds, there is hope. As long as men like Petty Officer Gunan are prepared to give their lives to save the lives of others, there is hope. As long as a nation can resist despondency and unite in prayer and good will and charity, there is hope.

Not sunny optimism or mantra-chanting ‘positivity’, but honest, hard-headed faith. From the caves of Tham Luang has sprung overdue proof that courage, selflessness and compassion still beat inside the best of us. We have to believe that decency, however diminished it may be these days, still has the edge.

There is a great deal wrong with the world today. We should not suppose that politics, having caused much of the problem, is the answer to it. The style of politics currently in the ascendancy is one based in resentment, aggression and exclusion.

It doesn’t bring us together to make people’s lives better; it cleaves us apart then tells us to blame one another for things getting worse. Time-honoured values — respect and tolerance, neighbourliness and duty — have been usurped in favour of permanent outrage and competitive grievance.

We could throw ourselves into politics and fight to redeem these customs but we would be coming at it from the wrong direction. Demagogues didn’t make us fractious and mean, they pulled at threads already loosened. Restoring the principles we cherish means living them every day, teaching them to our children, insisting on them from ourselves and others.

This begins with small steps that might seem trivial — checking in on Mrs Robertson two doors down, pestering the council to keep community spaces clean and safe — and far from the efforts seen at Tham Luang.

But the most gradual changes make meaningful improvements and set off ripple effects of proper behaviour. In short, Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’ should be brought back into commission.

If you anguish at the state of the world around you, know that it doesn’t have to be this way. We won’t solve the world’s woes on our own but we can revive and spread the values that will. In doing so, we will have learned from the valour of a dozen extraordinary schoolboys and will in turn begin to create a world worthy of the spirit of the Tham Luang Twelve.


When the Cabinet arrived at Chequers on Friday, their mobile phones were confiscated. As their chauffeur-driven cars pulled away from the Prime Minister’s remote country estate, ministers were informed that the local taxi firm had gone bust. It sounded like the opening scenes of an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

And it was. Before the night was out, hard Brexit had been bumped off and the prime suspect was Mrs May in the drawing room with the Facilitated Customs Arrangement. Brexiteers were stunned by the sudden twist; after two years of having their back, the PM suddenly plunged a dagger in it.

If it was ruthless, it was in service of realism. Theresa May’s blueprint is neither soft nor hard but parboiled Brexit and while it won’t be to everyone’s taste it stands a decent chance of clinching a deal with Brussels. It’s the least-worst of all worlds.

The mysterious affair at Chequers might have been heavy on intrigue but it showed Mrs May still has the killer instinct.


It’s a shame Holyrood is in recess. After England’s World Cup win over Sweden, it would have been fun to spot all the glum Nats traipsing around parliament this week. If England goes all the way, they’ll probably consider it grounds for Indyref2. Fair enough, as long as we can have Gareth Southgate in charge of the No campaign.

Agree? Disagree? Want to have your say? Email

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at image © NBT News (cc/3.0).

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