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Beeching Rides Again (May 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

The Treasury's teenagers are preparing to slash rail links - and with them Labour's provincial support.

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New Labour's troubles owe more to political geography than to personality clashes. Discuss - but first, let's get Scotland's contribution to the present discontents out of the way.

The exchanges between those backing Scottish independence and unionists are predictable. The latter allege that the Scots, under the 1998 settlement, still have too much power down south and too much subsidy.

To the first, yes; as to the second, the Barnett formula on Scottish public expenditure (1978) was really a replacement for the oil fund that every party in the 1974 elections could agree on. The recently outed McCrone report of that year, in which the Scottish Office's economic adviser said the black stuff would bring the country wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, bears the point out.

The SNP's oil policy would not then, or now, disadvantage England: the best means of tethering the petro-pound Scots was, and is, to invest in England. What happened in 1979-81 was that Mrs Thatcher tacked her monetarism - cutting the money supply by raising interest rates - on to a pound sterling boosted by oil and the first gulf war. This forced its upward revaluation to a point where 20% of manufacturing industry was killed off. In the words of the late Sir Alastair Morton, chief of the British National Oil Corporation: "She blew it on the dole."

II Morton went on to become first chief of the Strategic Rail Authority, John Prescott's mechanism for remedying the post-privatisation railways. It was his ill fortune to encounter the eternal nay, in the shape of Gordon Brown.

Transport should have been a New Labour priority: the party wanted to curb Britain's automania, and this ambition was sharpened by catastrophic rail privatisation and the need to organise several huge projects. After Granita, however, transport was Gordon's, and since then he has given us seven ministers: Gavin Strang, John Reid, Helen Liddell, Gus MacDonald, Stephen Byers, Alistair Darling and now Douglas Alexander: nearly one a year, and all but Byers Scots.

Far from distancing transport from government interference, rail privatisation under the 1993 act demanded continual ministerial supervision. But the ministry of transport was not known as the ministry of roads for nothing: it had traditionally offloaded the details of rail policy to the railways themselves, private and then state. Brown saw no reason to change this.

It is worth recapping the ministry's past. It has depended, crucially, on the quality of the minister, and there have been few stars. The founder, Sir Eric Geddes was a professional. He had started out by modernising the North-Eastern Railway on "American" lines, then ran war transport for Lloyd George, who made him first an admiral and then a general. He set the ministry up in 1920 and rationalised the 120 British railway companies into the "big four" in 1923, but they were hit by the slump and the decline of the coal industry. Still, between 1929 and 1931, Labour's Herbert Morrison created state-owned London Transport, the first example of "Morrisonian nationalisation" and a Good Thing.

This could hardly be said of Ernest Marples, Sid James to Harold Macmillan's Tony Hancock, dynamic enough to produce the Beeching and Buchanan reports. The city and countryside still show the wounds. Barbara Castle then got some sort of integrated policy going, though she had to pull the railways through a crisis of disinvestment.

But why stasis since 1997 and an unrelenting succession of unremarkable north Britons? This Scottish slant is strange. In unionist days, there was a "strong" convention that a Scots MP could not be a minister for any subject administratively devolved to Edinburgh. John Major was the first to break this in 1994, when he moved Michael Forsyth to the Home Office, but since 1999 nearly every aspect of Scottish transport has been the responsibility of the Holyrood parliament.

So what's up? First, all Scots are within scowling distance of the chancellor at Inverkeithing. Second, Brown doesn't do public transport.

Certainly, he had been pro-rail in 1989, and his quondam ally Peter Mandelson was Morrison's grandson. Who knows, Mandy might have redeemed himself by showing the energy of the old man. But by the time Morton tackled Brown, something had happened.

An immediate cause was the fuel protests of autumn 2000, with Mondeo Man turning ugly and the chancellor responding as the Sun desired. "Fat blokes, I feel your pain," as a Steve Bell cartoon put it.

Behind this was the economic junk food Brown had been fed, presumably by Harvard's Larry Summers on his Cape Cod holidays. The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, whisked over to Scotland by, among others, Wendy Alexander, sister of the current transport munchkin, Douglas, told the Glasgow folk that public transport was for losers; cars and "sprawl" were the future.

The motor lobby applauded. What went for greater Chicago or greater Phoenix in the dear, dead days of the $1 gallon is, however, irrelevant in high-density Europe. But Gordon doesn't do Europe either.

But transport is for anoraks, even though a worrying number of them are likely to be provincial Labour anoraks. Any lay person, however, can detect the truly bizarre: for instance Network Rail taking track maintenance back from private companies while the chancellor forces London Transport to hand it over to them; or trams going, in six months in 2003, from being workers of wonders to being "too expensive" for the English, according to Alistair Darling (though not too expensive for the Scots: several ambitious rail projects and an Edinburgh tramway system are steaming ahead); or the Eurostars ready to run triumphantly into St Pancras while Eurotunnel goes down the financial tubes.

New Labour must understand that, beyond fear and loathing in Downing Street, life goes on - and is even more dangerous. The government's transport record is awful, and could become politically explosive when the likes of Alexander (now an 85% minister, what with his Scottish duties) try to square it with devolution.

Brown knows his next election will be won in the London commuter area - hence ministerial rhetoric about "value for money" and "concentrating resources". Up to now, the Scottish/Welsh bias in transport appointments may have kicked the issue into long Celtic grass. But what happens when the Cameron Tories play the green card with pro-public transport policies?

A bunch of Treasury teenagers oblivious to European trends is said to be preparing for sweeping provincial rail closures in northern England and the replacement of ageing rail cars with cheap 'n' cheerful buses offering comfortable seats in traffic jams.

Such moves would decimate the Labour anoraks and provoke increasing tensions with the Scots and Welsh, envious of Ireland's ambitious rail schemes.

Douglas Alexander was not born when the impact of the Beeching report in Scotland sent the Tories from holding more than half of the country's seats in 1955 to fewer than a third in 1964. They have now all but vanished. Provincial Labour may be about to follow them.

 
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