Financial Scandal, Corruption and Censorship: Part 3

by ecologics

Part 3: The Beeching ‘Axe’

to engage in corruption, and to expect to survive in public life is to have either a generous faith in the mechanisms of secrecy or a confident sense of what one can get away with in the event that activities hitherto hidden are suddenly made visible to others. —John B. Thompson, in Political Scandal

Please note: this is the third post in a series: to read the rest of the series, click on any of the following:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: When Knowledge Is Exchanged
Part 3: Case Study A: the Beeching ‘Axe’
Part 4: Case Study B: the Newby-Mandelson ‘Axes’
Part 5: Scandal in the Times of the Internet
Part 6: Conclusions: Financial Scandal and Neoliberalism

Dr Richard Beeching may well be one of the most maligned figures in the history of Britain’s public services. This reputation is not entirely undeserved. Beeching’s myopic proposals for a drastic reduction in the size of the British railways have rightly earned him the opprobrium of generations of Britons. However well-intentioned and honest, Beeching’s work as the first chair of the British Railways Board arguably constituted a key precedent for the kind of business-led ‘reform’ of public services that was to become one of the hallmarks of neoliberalism in its Thatcherite and New Labour guises.

That said, anyone who takes the time to study the events the led up to the infamous ‘Beeching Axe’ (the name given by the press of the day to the proposed closure of approximately a third of Britain’s railway lines and stations) will quickly conclude that another man played the more important role: that man was Ernest Marples, the road builder-cum-Tory politician whom Harold Macmillan gave the job of Minister of Transport in October 1959. Indeed, today we probably ought to speak of the ‘Marples Axe’, or as David Henshaw put it, the ‘Marples-Beeching Axis’(1). While Beeching became the public face of the proposed closures, it was Marples who was the true architect of the overall political process, and the man who proved to be a cunning manager of the visibility of scandal.

In this first case study, I will thereby be as interested in describing the events that led up to the Beeching Axe as I will be in examining how Marples managed to avoid the worst consequences of financial scandal. While the events in question precede Britain’s neoliberal era by a decade or more, I suggest that the Marples modus operandi was a prototype for the kind of politics that have become almost commonplace today.

* * *

At the start of the 1950s, Britain’s recently nationalised railways still showed a profit before interest and other charges. By 1960, the profits had vanished, and the railways were showing a working loss of £67.7 million. One year later there was a loss of £87 million, and by 1962 it was £104 million (2).

A detailed examination of the process by means of which this extraordinary transformation took place is far beyond the scope of this post. We may, however, identify two sets of challenges: one internal to the railways (or their management), the other external.

Where the former challenges are concerned, after WWII Britain’s railways were suffering from extensive war damage, underinvestment and mismanagement. Immediately after the war, Britain was close to economic collapse, and lacked the finance required to quickly repair and modernise the war worn lines and the often antiquated rolling stock. To make matters worse, a series of arcane legal obligations meant that it was difficult to close or otherwise change some of the lines; to cite one example, a small station in Devon had to be maintained in perpetuity ‘for the convenience of the Duke of Bedford and his heirs’ thanks to a Statute of 1899(3).

To these challenges we must add external, and more explicitly political motivations such as the fact that the Labour party was reluctant to make changes that might undermine Britain’s vast, and well unionised coal industry (a case in point: the much delayed introduction of more efficient diesel or electric locomotives). Or indeed, that after Britain’s transport industry was nationalised, especially the road hauliers effectively declared war on Labour and helped to get the Tories back into power in 1951. This meant that the Conservative Party had its own ‘lobby debt’; small wonder that, during the 1950s and early 60s, the Tories were increasingly inclined to adopt the proposals of a growing road lobby made up of a coalition of road hauliers, motor vehicle manufacturers, oil companies, and road builders.

The British Transport Commission (BTC, the increasingly bureaucratic body set up by Labour to oversee the nationalised transportation industry and to promote integrated transport policy) thereby had to contend with a series of ‘special interests’ even as it tried to modernise Britain’s dilapidated railways. During the Attlee government it was the coal and union lobbies. Thereafter it was the Tory road lobby which almost literally paved the way for automobility via a succession of Conservative transport ministers.

The ‘socialist’ lobbies may have held up the introduction of more efficient railway technologies; but the motor transport industry competed for the passenger, and especially for the crucial freight business. If there was a dramatic transformation in the finances of the railways between 1950 and 1960, it was mainly because the railways went from being a near monopoly operator on many routes, to being a Tory price-controlled, and increasingly antiquated competitor to road-based forms of transportation which were the recipients of a growing, publicly unacknowledged, and more often than not Tory state subsidy.

The analysis has thus far emphasized the power of the lobby, but it should also be recognised that this was a time when automobiles were becoming more affordable to the middle classes, and when many in the working classes hoped to own a car one day. There was thus also an electoral calculus at stake: if Britain’s highly uneven, and in many cases seriously unreliable railways were starting to be seen as a ‘second class’ form of travel, a relic of a grimy industrial era whose time had come and gone, automobility was becoming at once a symbol of social mobility, and a sign of the future. The Tories must have realised that it would risky, if not suicidal to oppose what was fast becoming a social movement.

This was, however, a social movement that was very much the outcome of the road lobby’s efforts. For example, on the eve of the 1955 general elections, the road lobby organised into the ‘Roads Campaign Council’, and launched, with the backing of the right-wing Aims of Industry group, what it described as a ‘roads crusade’. The crusade took a mobile film show around Britain, but it concentrated on sensitive marginal constituencies in the run up to the election. One pamphlet suggested that ‘Whichever way you look Britain’s roads are in a jam’, and it exhorted its readers to ‘ask your MP what he is doing about it’(4).

The reference to the political inclinations of the Aims of Industry group is not an incidental one. An important inspiration for the lobby was the system of autobahns that were developed in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. In May 1937 the Automobile Association proposed that the German Ambassador in London, His Excellency Joachim von Ribbentrop, should be elected an honorary member of the association. The Nazi government corresponded in September by inviting members of Britain’s road lobby to visit Germany. A total of 255 people, including 58 MPs, 54 county surveyors, councillors and road engineers travelled to Nazi Germany to experience the autobahns first hand. As a kind of bonus, the members of the delegation were also invited to witness a public meeting between Hitler and Mussolini which was held in the Berlin Olympic Stadium(5).

The delegation came back suitably impressed, and in 1938, the road lobby proposed a first map of Britain’s own ‘motor roads’ (as motorways were then known), which its members drew with crayons onto a road map published by Tit Bits, a magazine whose name referred to the publication’s images of scantily clad women (6). While the war was still raging, members of the Society for Motoring Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and the British Road Federation (BRF) met in Bloomsbury, London, where they agreed on a plan to lobby the government to build 1000 miles of motor roads(7). Although it was Attlee’s Labour government that agreed to build the first 800 miles, it was to be a Conservative government, with Ernest Marples as the Minister of Transport, which took the rather more than symbolic step of agreeing to complete the full 1000 miles, and to do so at a much faster pace than had originally been planned (8).

Now it can be argued that Marples’ decision to complete the 1000 miles was no more than a continuation of policies developed by both John Boyd-Carpenter and Harold Watkinson, Tory Ministers of Transport and Aviation from 1954 to 1955 and 1955 to 1959. A more critical interpretation is that after Macmillan named Marples as Minister of Transport, Britain’s transport policy swerved to the right, and became motivated by the kind of conflict of interest that Thompson notes can be loosely regarded as a form of corruption (9). Actually, in this case it may well have been a rather tight form of corruption. At the time that he was named minister, Marples owned 64,000 of the 80,000 shares of Marples Ridgeway, a civil engineering firm that specialised in building roads (10).

The naming of Marples as Transport Minister constituted a double whammy for the road lobby; it not only meant that the road lobby had ‘their’ man at the heart of government, but also, that the railways would now have to contend with a man who might well be happy to let the railways die a slow death. It was the equivalent of saying that a farmer should give a fox the task of sorting out a farm’s low egg production; who, after all, might know the chickens’ habits better than a fox?

As was to be expected, a financial scandal broke out soon after the fox entered the coop. As noted by Mick Hamer, Marples’ shareholding ‘became a scandal in 1960 when the firm [Marples Ridgeway] was successful in its bid to build the Hammersmith Flyover in London. For although it was a council road, the ministry was heavily involved in local road planning, giving the road a 75 per cent grant. Marples defended his continued shareholding by saying that he took no active part in the firm’s affairs and that the sale of his shares had taken some time to arrange. It was subsequently said that the shares were sold to his wife’(11). While the latter information was apparently not made public at the time, Marples himself admitted a possible conflict of interest when he made a ‘personal statement’ to the House of Commons on 28 January 1960, in which he said

‘When I became Minister of Transport, last October, I realised that there was a risk of a conflict of interest appearing to arise in consequence of my holding a controlling interest in the company [Marples Ridgeway]. I immediately took steps to effect a sale of my shares. It has taken some time to arrange this as the company is a private one engaged in long-term contracts in civil engineering, but I hope that it will be completed very soon. Then I shall have no financial interest in the company. But I think that I should tell the House that the prospective purchasers have required me to undertake to buy the shares back from them at the price they are to pay if they ask me to do so after I have ceased to hold office. I myself have no option to buy the shares back. […] I have not, of course, had anything whatsoever to do with any tenders put in by the company while I have been a member of the Government’.

The Speaker was more than happy to take up a Tory MP’s suggestion that this was a purely personal statement, and this made it ‘wholly undebatable, and nothing may be asked about it’(12).

This conflict of interest ought to have forced Marples to resign (indeed, Macmillan should never have given the job to Marples). Instead, Marples not only remained as Minister of Transport, but once the first whiff of scandal blew over, carried on with his plans, albeit now with a rather more cunning disposition. Indeed, it seems that, after getting burnt at the beginning of his ministerial career, Marples developed a strategy that would ensure that in future no one could accuse him of a direct conflict of interest.

We will return to this strategy in a moment. First, it is necessary to ask the question: why did Macmillan give Marples the post of Minister of Transport? The most immediate reason appears to be that Macmillan wished to return a political favour. In 1951, when Macmillan was a Housing Minister, Marples’ diligent work as his Under-Secretary led to the then unheard of construction of 300.000 new homes in one year (13). Richard Stott, the tabloid editor whose exposé eventually sealed Marples’ reputation as a scoundrel, noted in his book Dogs and Lampposts that Macmillan told his biographer, Alistair Horne, that ‘… Marples made me PM, I was never heard of before Housing’(14).

In fairness to Marples, his work first as Under-Secretary of Housing, and then as Postmaster General meant that he had a reputation for ‘getting things done’. In Macmillan’s rather patronising terms, ‘He [Marples] was a sargeant major, never got a commission, came back, started up Marples Ridgeway. Up to a point, he was a genius. He had no vision – unlike all those people who talk—but he brought in American principles of business and construction…’(15). These may be taken as coded references to the fact that Marples was a ‘self-made’, that is working class man, a position that was in stark contrast to that of his forebears in the Ministry of Transport, and indeed in the rest of the Macmillan cabinet. Then as now, the Tories were led by men (and it was then exclusively men), many of whom started their political careers via budding political networks in Eton, and/or Oxbridge. While Marples did not have the political advantages of this background, it appears that he more than made up for it with his industriousness and pragmatism – qualities which must have seemed like just the thing that the Tories needed to ‘sort out’ what was now conceived as the railways ‘problem’.

Marples did not disappoint — which is to say, he did not disappoint the road lobby. After his first brush with financial scandal, he devised a brilliant strategy which had the effect of binding together three elements, or what Geoffrey Dudley and Jeremy Richardson describe as ‘policy streams’(16): if the railways had a huge deficit (the problem), then this was because the BTC had been incapable of managing them (the cause); in turn, the ‘solution’ was to subject the railways to the logic of market forces. And this would mean closing down ‘uneconomic’ lines. If this policy was pursued radically enough, then the railways would be seriously weakened if not destroyed, and motor transport would have to take its place.

It doesn’t take a logician to figure out that there was nothing strictly necessary about this rationale; however, political credit must be given where it is due: Marples managed not only to bind the different policy streams together, but in time succeeded in making it seem that his solution (or as we shall see, his proxy’s solution) was, if not ‘natural’, then certainly ‘inevitable’.

Alas, and as was noted above, less than six months after he’d become Minister of Transport, Marples was already constrained by the publicity of financial scandal. In John B. Thompson’s terms, this must have decreased his symbolic power, i.e. his capacity to use symbolic forms (language, the trappings of state, etc.) to publicly intervene in, and influence the course of the railways. Marples was doubtless keenly aware that his political career might be on the line; both he and Macmillan would also have been aware that it would be political suicide to be seen as the public advocates of a radical programme of railway closures.

As part of his overall strategy to drastically reduce the size of the railways, Marples’ tactic was thus to apparently delegate responsibility to what is now known as an ‘epistemic community’: a group of experts whose task it was to define for decision-makers the nature of particular problems, and how they should deal with them.

In February 1960, after a number of meetings with Marples, Macmillan announced that the details of the reorganisation of the BTC would be worked out by a new planning committee. The committee (which eventually was demoted to the status of an ‘advisory group’), came to be known as the Stedeford Committee after its nominal chair, the industrialist Sir Ivan Stedeford. Initially, it was suggested that the committee would be made up of representatives of the BTC, officials of the Treasury and the Ministry of Transport, and probably some independent advisers. But Macmillan emphasized that it would be desirable to appoint an independent person as special adviser to the Minister of Transport, who could also be the chair of the planning committee. The government itself would only decide on the broad lines of the reorganisation, effectively delegating the work to the new committee (17).

In fact, Dudley and Richardson note that, at the same time that Macmillan appeared to delegate the reorganisation to the new committee, he sketched quite a detailed plan for the BTC reorganisation (18). The same authors note that, one month later, in March 1960, Macmillan made a Commons Statement in which he said ‘First, the [transport] industry must be of a size and pattern suited to modern conditions and prospects. In particular, the railway system must be remodelled to meet current needs, and the Modernisation Plan must be adapted to this new shape […] Second, the public must accept the need for changes in the size and pattern of the industry. This will involve certain sacrifices of convenience, for example, in the reduction of uneconomic services’(19).

Contrary to what Macmillan initially suggested, in the end the Stedford Committee actually excluded a true epistemic community in the sense of members with expertise in running the railways, e.g. members of the BTC, and of the then powerful railway trade unions (20). Instead, the committee was made up of businessmen drawn from some of the UK’s leading private corporations.

Beyond the question of relevant expertise, this kind of exclusion went very much against the political grain of the times. When questioned about this by Tony Benn MP, Dudley and Richardson note that ‘Marples gave the not very convincing reply that the government had decided the group should be small, and that neither the BTC nor the unions should be on it because the latter should be able to put their views in evidence without inhibitions’ (21).

Now a conspiracy theorist might well conclude that the very make-up of the Stedeford Committee sealed the fate of the national railways even before the committee began to deliberate. Actually, the critics of conspiracy theories might point to the fact that a rather strange thing happened to the committee — something which suggests that, if there was a plot, then Stedeford, a very successful industrialist credited with having launched the first hostile takeover of a public company in the UK, failed to play the role ostensibly assigned to him. By the autumn of 1960, Stedeford and at least one other member of the committee had decided that it really should be a government body that should determine not just the ‘broad outlines’ of the policy, but its detail and the nature of its implementation.

It is unclear whether Stedeford smelled a fox and decided to sabotage the Marple tactic of apparent delegation, or if he was simply intent on pursuing the kind of consensual politics that had dominated British governments in the early postwar period (these two motivations are of course not mutually exclusive). Either way, he generated a dilemma for Marples and Macmillan; in effect, his recommendations might well be interpreted as advocating the pre-1960s policy of delegating the power of decision-making to an entity such as the BTC.

In the end, the dilemma was resolved in a manner that was itself scandalous, and which arguably strengthens the view that there was indeed a ‘great railways conspiracy’.

First, Marples decided to ‘disappear’ the Stedeford report—or at any rate, any recommendations he put forward (there appears to be some debate as to whether an actual report was produced). As noted by Henshaw, ‘The findings of the Stedeford Committee remained such a well kept secret that even Barbara Castle was unable to see them on becoming Minister of Transport in 1966’ (22). In fact, we now know that Stedeford actually proposed that the government should set up another body whose task it would be ‘…to consider the size and pattern of the railway system required to meet current and foreseeable needs, in the light of developments and trends in other forms of transport… and other relevant considerations’ (23).

Even as he disappeared Stedeford’s recommendations, Marples turned to a committee member who was more receptive to what was clearly the preferred course of action (a programme of closures of the kind hinted at by Macmillan). That member was, of course, Dr Richard Beeching, whom Marples asked to write a report that went on to be known as the infamous The Reshaping of the British Railways (24). Significantly, the report was not published by the government until March 1963, some two and a half years after Beeching was asked to take over, and just six months before Macmillan left 10 Downing Street.

Beeching was a senior executive at ICI, the chemical engineering giant. Though a physicist by training, he had become an accountant specializing in cost accounting, and he gained a reputation by ruthlessly streamlining ICI’s factories and achieving striking reductions in production costs (25). He had no experience whatsoever of running a railway. Despite this—or perhaps precisely for this reason—Marples not only delegated the production of the report to Beeching, but decided to make Beeching the head of a new entity that was to replace the railway aspects of the BTC: what would be known as the British Railways Board.

This change entailed effectively firing the BTC’s pro-rail director, General Sir Brian Robertson, who had led the BTC from 1953 to 1961 (in compensation, Robertson was made a peer in the House of Lords). To add insult to Robertson’s injury, Marples and Macmillan decided, despite the objections of Lord Mills, the Paymaster General, to give Beeching a salary that was itself scandalous: where Robertson had made £10,000 a year, Marples and Macmillan decided that Beeching should earn £25.000. In the media storm that followed, a laughable concession of £1000 was made (pay should be £24.000 instead). While the progressive tax structures of the day meant that the difference in salaries was not as significant as it might be today, Dudley and Richardson note that a precedent was established, according to which figures from the private sector could not only be brought in to ‘reform’ the public services, but they could command private sector salaries.

Beeching’s report went on to propose that approximately one third of Britain’s 18,000 miles of railway, i.e. some 6,000 miles, should be closed. The lines that were to be closed were mostly rural branch and cross-country lines. The proposal was made even more radical by the fact that it suggested that many other rail lines should be closed to passenger traffic. Moreover, even in those lines that were kept open to passenger traffic, Beeching further proposed to close about a third of the country’s 7000 or so stations. This meant that, even if there was a line running through a region, there might well be no trains stopping anywhere near the communities that could once count on a regular railway service. The justification for this sweeping programme was, in Beeching’s terms, that

‘…the changes proposed are intended to shape the railways to meet present day requirements by enabling them to provide as much of the total transport of the country as they can provide well. To this end, proposals are directed towards developing to the full those parts of the system and those services which can be made to meet traffic requirements more efficiently and satisfactorily than any available alternative form of transport, and towards eliminating only those services which, by their very nature, railways are ill-suited to provide’ (27).

A full critique of how Beeching arrived at these proposals, and the manner in which his report biased the representation of railway finances is beyond the scope of this post (for a thorough critique by a self-avowed advocate of a ‘speedy’ programme of line closures, see D.L. Munby’s excellent essay, ‘The Reshaping of the British Railways’[28])

Here it suffices to note four general issues with the report.

First, and most obviously, Beeching failed to take into account the question of social costs. His report was, in this sense, a textbook example of the kind of bias that is inherent to bean-counting: if one is intent on counting beans, then one will not count things that are not beans. This bias was by no means a new one; already during the Attlee government, the search was on for uneconomical lines to close. What was new, or at any rate newer, was the fact that in this case the bean counting was conducted by a man with something of an academic reputation, and who proclaimed that his one–size–fits–all rationale would be objectively and rigorously applied to the entire network. There was, in this sense, a shift from an ad hoc to an ostensibly systematic, and universal programme of closures.

Even if one adopts Beeching’s own accounting frame, there were at least three other serious problems with his study. First, the report involved a badly flawed research methodology in so far as its calculations were based on a week-long traffic survey conducted in April 1961. As noted by Dudley and Richardson, ‘Remarkably, the traffic surveys on which Beeching based his calculations were taken from only one week—that ending 23 April 1961, because the massive recording effort could not be sustained for a longer period. From these , he produced the apparently damning statistic that one-third of the route mileage carried only 1 percent of the total passenger miles, and 1 percent of the freight ton miles of BR. Similarly, one-third of stations produced less than 1 per cent of total passenger receipts and half the stations produced only 2 per cent’ (29). This meant that the report did not allow for significant fluctuations in seasonal use, fluctuations which might well be crucial for communities that depended on the railways for tourism in the summer.

Second, the report contained serious flaws in its accounting procedures; the footnotes of this essay quote an aspect of Munby’s analysis in some length to provide an example of one of the many problems (30).

Third, Beeching appears to have assumed from the outset that the solution to ‘ill-suited’ railway lines and ‘uneconomical’ stations was simply to close them. In so doing, he not only failed to take into account the often high direct costs of closure, but also, the possibility of alternative forms of redevelopment. Here one might cite, for example, what happened to Britain’s canal system, which was also threatened with closure and was in the middle of an even worse financial crisis, but which came to be given alternative uses (31). More significantly, one might also point to the kind of reorganisation enacted by Gerard Fiennes, the General Manager for the Eastern Region, who succeeded in bending the Marples-Beeching policy frame. When the East Suffolk line was going to be closed, Fiennes built an advocacy coalition, and, by adapting the line to basic railway standard, turned a loss-making line into a profitable one (32).

* * *

How, then, did such an ill-considered, and arguably corrupt set of proposals go on to become a de facto template for the ‘reorganisation’ of Britain’s railways?

The Beeching report certainly generated a national, and very public outcry. Beeching’s proposals targeted in effect if not in principle the poorest, most marginalised, and/or most ‘outlying’ communities in the UK, many of which depended on branch lines for transport to urban centres. It is hardly surprising that many not only protested, but came to regard Beeching as the symbol of everything that was wrong with Tory—and perhaps not just Tory—politics. The real question is, how did Marples get away with this stratagem?

An adequate answer to this question would require an even longer analysis. This post offers an answer that reflects this series’ interest in the question of the management of the visibility of financial scandals—in this case, a financial scandal that might equally be described as a ‘power’ scandal—a scandal that, in Thompson’s terms, ‘involve[s] the misuse or abuse of political power as such. [It is] based on the alleged occurrence of actions or activities which contravene or seek to circumvent the rules, laws, and established procedures that govern the exercise of political power’ (33).

The first point that might be noted is that, if Marples was corrupt in the general sense described with Thompson in the second part of this series, then his corruption may well have been normalised, at least within the Conservative Party itself, by the Tories’ links to the road hauliers. While Marples’ role as the shareholder with the controlling interest of Marples Ridgeway made for a direct and explicit conflict of interest—one that was especially prone to generate a scandal—the potential for a full-fledged scandal may well have been dampened by the fact that the Tories were, as party, both sympathetic to road building, and in political debt to the road lobby. An analogous argument may be proposed with respect to the hegemonic consensus regarding road transport more generally: at the time, a broad swathe of the ‘leading classes’ regarded cars as the vehicle of the future, and so may have been more willing to ‘look the other way’.

That said, it is clear that, after his first brush with financial scandal, Marples proved remarkably adept at managing the visibility of his conflict of interest. This management involved a variety of actions. First, we have seen that Marples acted by way of proxies (the Stedeford Committee, and then Beeching himself) whose effect was arguably to make it seem that Marples, Macmillan, and the Conservative Party itself were all simply acting on the advice of a duly constituted epistemic community.

Second, it seems clear that direct censorship played a significant role in managing the potential for scandal. This aspect involved a number of forms, and a variety of domains, in its own right. It was noted earlier that the Speaker in the House of Commons was happy to enforce the procedural rule that Marples’ ‘personal statement’ regarding his financial interests was ‘wholly undebatable, and nothing may be asked about it’. Marples, with the Tories’ backing, also employed a variety of other legal procedures to enforce silence, or a degree of silence. In 1962, the Tories passed a law which ensured that the Transport Users Consultative Committee (TUCC), which had been set up after transport nationalisation to investigate passenger’s complaints, could not act to prevent closures on basis of financial objections(34). The TUCC held stormy local hearings which received considerable publicity in the provincial press; however, after 1962, complaints about closures could only be made on the ground that lack of a train service would cause ‘personal hardship’, and not that Beeching’s assessments of losses on particular lines were invalid or that the lines could be run more economically (35). In a remarkably canny twist to this principle, in some of the few cases were users were successful in contesting proposed or actual line closures, Marples made sure that an informal arrangement was reached such that the contestation did not reach the high court and thereby imperil his overall modus operandi(36).

As noted by Henshaw, it would appear that the government also acted to remove a variety of documents from public circulation. We have only to consider what happened to Sir Ivan Stedeford’s recommendations, and it seems that a similar principle was applied to a variety of other documents. As Henshaw explains, ‘Railway records are not, strictly speaking, government records at all, but the British railway system has become so intimately entwined with government affairs since the war that railway files are disclosed only under the same rules as documents relating to political affairs, defence matters, and other state secrets: those that are considered suitable for eventual public scrutiny are mostly held for 30 or more years before to the Public Records Office’. ‘Whether there really has been a conspiracy to withhold information—either at the then Ministry of Transport or the Railways Board…records dating [after the late 1950s]… are distinctly lacking in candour’(37)—and this despite the fact that, by the time that Henshaw published the first edition of his book in 1991, records from 1959 and 1960 should have been available.

For their part, railway managers kept silent about the scandalous chain of events for at least a decade. This was perhaps a combination of a misguided, if strongly lived sense of loyalty to the own organisation (‘…one does not wash the dirty linen in public’). But perhaps it was at one and the same time the result of a very real fear that speaking out might result in controversy and then dismissal. Marples certainly demonstrated that he was capable of launching counter-attacks on anyone who questioned the Beeching Axe. For example, he repeatedly tried to discredit Professor Hondelink, a world-renown railways expert who had denounced the Marples-Beeching plans; he ordered government and railways officials not to communicate with Hondelink, and wrongly accused Hondelink of having ‘gone over to the Labour side’ (38). Unfortunately, it appears that these and other ‘second order transgressions’, the term coined by Thompson to refer to secondary acts that may worsen a scandal, did not give rise to further scandal.

It was, to be sure, not just the managers that ‘kept mum’; any researcher of this subject is bound to be surprised by the extent to which the railway unions failed to put up a fight; this was, after all, an era when unions were arguably at the peak of their strength. Can it really have been that the union leaders were simply bought with generous redundancy packages? Or was there a more sinister process at work?

Thus far this analysis has focused on the social space of scandal. But another key element in the management of the visibility of scandal involved the dimension of time. Marples and Macmillan could arguably have acted far more quickly to publish plans which, in all probability were, if not already drawn up in detail, then certainly outlined by the time that the Stedeford Committee was established. This is indeed one of the criticisms of Munby, the Oxford don cited earlier, and who reproached Beeching for the slow pace of his programme of closures: ‘It is…disappointing to be told that “much (though not necessarily all) of the Railways’ deficit should be eliminated by 1970”’(39).

But of course, the last thing that the Tories wanted was a massive programme of closures just before the 1964 elections. In the event, the Profumo Affair (itself a sex scandal) meant that the Tories lost the election, and that it was actually the Labour government of Harold Wilson that had to get on with the bulk of the recommended closures. This last point reveals the extent to which, ‘in the fullness of time’, Marples’ delay of the actual axing also allowed the Marples-Macmillan frame to become normalised, or at least, to be regarded as a ‘necessary evil’.

We might also consider the fact that the railways, unlike the road lobby, appeared to involve what Dudley and Richardson describe as a ‘hollow core’: an institutional setting with no dominant interest, resulting in long periods of inertia and indecision(40). The authors borrow from the work of Heinz et al. (41) to refer to cases where networks of policymakers lack central actors who stand in the middle of the system and have the ability to shape winning coalitions. One of the consequences of this may have been that there was no one really intent on following up the many leads that suggested that Marples had a hidden agenda, or indeed that both he and Macmillan were treating the Stedeford Committee as a kind of political proxy; and of course, no one appears to have developed serious counterproposals. By contrast, Marples proved to be a supremely effective, albeit behind-the-scenes mover.

Admittedly, Marples had taken steps to pre-empt this kind of opposition by disbanding the BTC; but the question that still has to be asked is, where were the powerful railway unions throughout this entire process? And why did the Labour opposition not adopt a much more strident role?

The last element involved the media. As noted by Richard Lamb, Marples and Macmillan had a ‘quiet word’ with at least two national newspaper editors (42), whose opinions might have further inflamed national railway passions. As a later post in this series will note, perhaps the clearest difference between financial/power scandal in the 1960s and today is that there was a great deal more political control over mass communication; amongst other factors, there was no internet with which to leak out information, and thereby to generate additional ‘mediated’ scandals.

* * *

By way of a postscript: this post would be incomplete without an account of the fate of Ernest Marples. Marples’ extraordinarily cunning political game meant that his skulduggery only caught up with him relatively late in life. Even then, he managed to elude the worst consequences of scandal. Thanks to the work of Richard Stott, former editor of the Daily Mirror (and no less than four other tabloids), we know that, towards the end of his period in the Macmillan government, Marples narrowly avoided getting caught up in the Profumo Scandal. He did so thanks to his inside knowledge of technicalities of Lord Denning’s inquiry into the affair. Marples apparently knew that Denning had set a date limit for his investigations, and so he was able to wriggle out of a potentially fatal interrogation when Denning confronted him with a prostitute with whom he reportedly consorted. By his own account, when he entered the room, he said ‘Well, Maisie, fancy seeing you here. How wonderful, it must be nearly ten years since we last met’(43).

It was also Stott who discovered that Marples suddenly had to leave the UK in 1975 because he had been evading taxes. According to Stott, in addition to his activities as a road builder, Marples came ‘perilously close to the slum landlord bracket’(44). In the early 70s he attempted to fight off a costly revaluation of his assets. When it began to be clear that he would not be able to stop the revaluation, and that it would cost him a fortune, he decided he had to leave Britain. He hatched a plot to remove £2 million from Britain through a Lichtenstein company. As the Treasury began to close in, ‘there was nothing for it but to cut and run, which Marples did just before the tax year of 1975. He left by the night ferry with his belongings crammed into tea chests, leaving the floors of his home in Belgravia littered with discarded clothes and possessions’(45).

Marples claimed he had been asked to pay nearly 30 years’ overdue tax, and the Treasury froze his assets in Britain for the next ten years. However, by then most of the assets were safely in Monaco and Lichtenstein. Marples was never able to return to Britain, and so lived his last years—he died in 1978—in his French Chateau.


1) David Henshaw (1994) The Great Railway Conspiracy, 2nd edition, Burterset, North Yorkshire: Leading Edge.
2) Figures put forward by Richard Lamb (1995) The Macmillan Years 1957-1963. London: John Murray, p. 431.
3) Great Railway Conspiracy, op cit p. 48.
4) Mick Hamer (1987) Wheels within Wheels: A study of the road lobby. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p. 49.
5) Wheels within Wheels, op cit pp. 40-43.
6) Wheels within Wheels, op cit, p. 44.
7) Wheels within Wheels, op cit, p. 37.
8)Wheels within Wheels, op cit, p. 50
9) John B. Thompson (2000) Political Scandal. Cambridge: Polity Press, p.
10) Wheels within Wheels, op cit, p. 50.
11) Wheels within Wheels, op cit, p. 50.
12) Personal Statement, Hansard, 28 January 1960., accessed 15 February 2010.
13) The Macmillan Years, op cit, p. 434.
14) Macmillan quoted in Richard Stott (2007) Dogs and Lampposts. London: Metro, p. 167
15) Macmillan quoted in Dogs and Lampposts, op cit, p. 167
16) in (2000) Why Does Policy Change? Lessons from British Transport Policy 1945-99. London: Routledge
17) Why Does Policy Change? op cit, p. 49.
18) Why Does Policy Change? op cit, p. 49.
19) quoted in Why Does Policy Change? op cit, p. 46
20) Why Does Policy Change? op cit, p. 50
21) Why Does Policy Change? op cit, p. 50
22) Great Railway Conspiracy, op cit p. 128
23) Great Railway Conspiracy, op cit p. 128
24) A copy may be obtained at
25) The Macmillan Years, op cit, p. 433.
26) Why Does Policy Change? op cit, p. 54
27) (1963) The Reshaping of British Railways. London: HMSO, p. 2.
28) D. L. Munby (1963) The Reshaping of British Railways. Vol. 11, No. 3 (July), pp. 161-182.
29) Why Does Policy Change? op cit, p. 59
30) The following quote from Munby provides an example of the kind of dodgy premises of Beeching’s accounting: ‘As is known to common sense, the covering of train movement costs entirely depends on the number of people who travel in a train. It does not depend at all on the number of people who travel on a line. (It is assumed that it does not cost more per train to run two trains a day than it does to run 32. The Plan assumes this, and gives no hint that it might cost more to run fewer trains because, for example, labour and stock were less efficiently utilized. In fact, the cases of particular branch lines quoted in the Appendix (see below) show low density services and costs frequently below those assumed.) The following table gives the equivalent number of passengers per week for the break-even loadings of 27 persons per train, where services of different densities are run.

Trains per week Trains per day Passengers per week
224 32 6000
112 16 3000
84 12 2300
56 8 1500
28 4 750
14 2 380

But movement costs alone are not enough. It is assumed that, if a passenger service is to be run, it will require about £1750 extra per mile per year for track and stations on the specified single track branch line, over and above what is required for freight services. This is equivalent to the revenue gained from 4200 passengers per week’. In Munby’s ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’, op cit, p. 174.
31) See for example Henshaw’s analysis of the fate of Britain’s Canal system in The Great Railway Conspiracy, op cit pp. 107-109.
32) Why Does Policy Change? pp cit p. 64
33) Political Scandal, op cit p. 196.
34) Great Railway Conspiracy, op cit
35) The Macmillan Years, op cit p 440.
36) Great Railway Conspiracy, op cit
37) Great Railway Conspiracy, op cit, p. 9
38) Great Railway Conspiracy, op cit, p. 136
39) Munby, ‘The Reshaping of the British Railways’, op cit, p. 162.
40) Why Does Policy Change?, op. cit
41) Heinz, J.P,, Laumann, E.O., Nelson, R.L. and Salisbury, R.H. (1993) The Hollow Core: Private Interests in National Policy-making. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press).
42) The Macmillan Years, op cit
43) Dogs and Lampposts, op cit, p. 171
44) Dogs and Lampposts, op cit, p. 167
45) Dogs and Lampposts, op cit, p. 167