Ernest Marples (1907-78) was a significant British politician who radically changed three government departments. At the Ministry of Transport, he controversially employed Dr Richard Beeching to analyse the railways and propose their transformation into a modern profitable business. His findings of 27 March 1963 (officially ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ but usually just ‘The Beeching Report’) caused an immediate row, provoking argument even now.
Many viewed Beeching as the butcher of Britain’s railways and his name lives on in opprobrium. But the politician who gave him the job and set his parameters has been curiously neglected. In Ernest Marples: the shadow behind Beeching, Marples’s life, public and private, is told, drawing on archives only recently available. The development of rail and road transport from the early twentieth century to around 1968 is also depicted. Weak transport policies of successive governments had caused a serious inland transport system crisis by 1959. Before then, the nationalised railways had made huge financial losses leaving roads woefully overstretched, unable to meet increased demand. This crisis required radical action.
The Marples measures should be viewed in context. By now there had been a major growth in influence of the pro-road lobby. Road haulage had demonstrated its greater convenience over rail. Growing numbers felt it a right – not just a privilege – to enjoy the personal freedom and flexibility of private motoring. Many, however sentimentally attached to the railways, did not use them. A dated public transport image contrasted with the modishness of the private car.
Rail had been nationalised after World War II, (along with other industries). Rail was run down but necessary for a largely free enterprise economy requiring the bulk transport of producer goods. State ownership seemed anomalous: many wished it to fail. Marples himself had a financial interest in building roads. How could he be an honest broker as Minister of Transport when employing Beeching to sweep away so much of Britain’s railways?
This silence about Marples is surprising given his prominence in the Fifties and Sixties when he helped shape post-war Conservative history. From a humble background, he had by 1939 amassed considerable property wealth. He then enlisted and served in the Army until 1944. First elected in 1945, he became the key figure shaping Opposition housing policy. He also co-founded Marples-Ridgway, the thriving civil engineering contractor. As junior housing minister to Harold Macmillan from 1951 to 1954 he ensured delivery of the incoming Conservative government’s manifesto pledge, then thought rash, to build 300,000 houses a year. After an unhappy spell at the Ministry of National Insurance, he was forced out of the Anthony Eden government, only returning to office as Postmaster-General once Macmillan had succeeded Eden: there, he revolutionised Post Office accounts, launched postcodes and the Subscriber Trunk Dialling system usually known as ‘STD’.
After his electoral success in 1959, Macmillan brought Marples into Cabinet as Minister of Transport. The railways had lost certain types of traffic and their deficits were serious. Roads clearly were the transport medium of choice for commerce and industry. As the cost of private motoring declined, growing numbers shifted to the car. Marples’s brief was to tackle this shift. He quickly made his mark. The British Transport Commission was dismantled. The loss-making railways were identified for early remedial action which would necessitate the closure of unprofitable services. Marples meanwhile inaugurated Britain’s motorway system and introduced new (often controversial) regulations for motorists. He masterminded Beeching’s appointment as first chairman of a new British Railways Board and championed his plans before a restive Conservative Party.
1963, the year Beeching was published, proved unexpectedly turbulent for the Macmillan Government: as if the Report itself had not aroused enough acrimony, the Profumo scandal precipitated Lord Denning’s famous Inquiry into scandalous and profligate behaviour among Britain’s social and political elite. Marples was fortunate not to be implicated though for a time it was a close call. In Autumn 1963 ill-health forced Macmillan to give up his premiership: a vulgar Conservative leadership contest ensued. Marples continued as Minister of Transport under Macmillan’s successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, but his party was clearly losing momentum.
The October 1964 General Election swept the Conservatives away and Marples never held office again. Beeching, increasingly uncomfortable under Harold Wilson’s Labour government, left without completing his term of office. Labour was not noticeably friendlier to the railways than the Conservatives though it had hinted at ending the closure programme, Wilson eventually made Barbara Castle Minister of Transport. She inaugurated the concept of the ‘Social Railway’, whereby identified lines would be kept open with public subsidy if it was evident that their withdrawal would cause severe hardship. This approach was a marked contrast to the Conservatives’ narrower focus on railway finances. Some viewed her years at Transport as those when perceptions of the railways started to become more positive.
Marples meanwhile was estranged from Edward Heath, Home’s successor. Dismissed from the Shadow cabinet, he left politics. Meanwhile his business affairs grew increasingly tangled: when he fled to Monaco in 1975, the Inland Revenue was in close pursuit. It was an anti-climax for a man of undoubted drive and energy who once looked destined for very high political office, but Conservative snobbery barred his path.