by Giles Fraser
Friday, 15
November 2019

Reversing Beeching is just the beginning

The economic isolation of large parts of the north and rural areas began in the 1960s, with a misguided sense of the future
by Giles Fraser
Harold Wilson addresses the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough, 1963

Back in the 60’s the future was all the rage. There was to be “no room for Luddites in the Socialist Party” said Harold Wilson in a celebrated speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1963. A “new Britain” must be forged in the “white heat” of this new “scientific revolution”. Out with the old and in with the new.

And amongst the things counted as old were trains, the engines of nineteenth century expansion. Cars were the future. The Beeching Report was published in 1963 and large parts of the Railway network were closed.

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Now Boris Johnson says he is going to reverse these cuts. And cheers will be heard all round the country.

Last month, the always thoughtful Larry Elliot argued that without Beeching there might not have been Brexit. Beeching was largely responsible for the economic isolation of large parts of the north and rural areas.

“… one byproduct of Beeching was that it became harder to make cross-country journeys without travelling into London. Generally, Beeching favoured lines running north-south over those running east-west, especially in the Midlands and the north of England. No question, his report contributed to the London-centric nature of the economy. And as the capital has got bigger so it has tended to grab a bigger share of what has been available for transport infrastructure spending. The them-and-us process has become self-reinforcing.”
- Larry Elliott

Here, suggests Elliot, the seeds of resentment were born. Places that felt connected began to feel abandoned. Elliot tells the story of Andy Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England, journeying up to Ashington, Northumberland to give a speech. Being in the evening, Haldane had to get a taxi for the last section of his journey. As he later explained “I had narrowly missed the last train from Newcastle by around 55 years.”

Beeching began as a Tory project under Harold MacMillan. But Wilson did nothing to stop it when he came to power in 1964. Dr Beeching (his PhD in Physics — a subject that always over-impresses politicians) was regarded as a symbol of the future — like Twiggy and the Beatles.

Half a century later, undoing the wrong that they did back then may well prove to be the great vote winner of the present election.

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