Why a single politician is responsible for Brexit

No British government report has had such a disastrous impact on this country as the one produced by transport minister Richard Beeching in 1963, recommending drastically reducing the rail network.  On the basis of its fatally flawed premise – that “the car was the future and rail the past” – hundreds of stations and thousands of miles of track were axed, isolating many of the most economically challenged parts of the country.

By favouring north-south trunk routes and links between the capital and other big towns and cities, the report unquestionably “contributed to the London-centric nature of the economy”. The Beeching report assumed that buses would fill the gaps in areas hardest hit by the cuts, but that didn’t happen. Instead, those areas suffered a “double whammy” as new road-building schemes went on to favour cities that still had rail connections. Beeching’s rail cuts established a “geographical divide” that has polarised our politics ever since. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that without Beeching, Brexit might never have happened.  (Larry Elliott, The Guardian. 19 Oct)

My comment:  this was a huge lifestyle upheaval for tens of thousands, a political decision that was totally unnecessary, driven by the unremitting desire to cut costs, and taxes, without caring too much about actual people. I remember the event very well – the closing of so many rail lines caused outrage, up-turning the lives of tens of thousands of people nationwide who depended on train travel, and who now had to buy cars and drive along roads not designed for the purpose.  The only upside is that the rail lines were ripped up and the routes were converted into hiking paths, spurring a minor boom in walking gear.

I mention this because governments are regularly doing things with unintended consequences, failing to think things through (or not being capable of thinking things through).  Epicurus must have spotted this in ancient Greece, which is one reason he didn’t like party politics.

One Comment

  1. The only unintentional upside from Beeching was the creation of new cycle paths. It’s become very popular to convert disused rail tracks into cycle lanes, and these routes are well used. In Sussex where I live, I’ve cycled on two disused tracks- the track from Three Bridges to East Grinstead, and the track from Horsham to Cranleigh. They are a wonderful way of getting exercise, fresh air and exploring the countryside.

    In the Sixties, there was a genuine need to get rid of some rail routes which were barely used and costing the taxpayer a lot of money. The problem with Beeching is that he wanted to get rid of far too much of the rail network, including areas which had great potential, even if they were underperforming at the time. If he had had his way, major towns like Canterbury or Inverness wouldn’t have a train station. The most egregious example of Beeching’s overzealous rail axing was the closing of the Oxford-Cambridge railway, which the government now plans to spend billions re-opening.

    Having said that, I’m slightly sceptical of Elliot’s argument that without Beeching, Brexit wouldn’t have happened. Birmingham, Crewe, Doncaster and Milton Keynes all have great rail connections, yet voted Leave anyway. The quintessential London commuter town of Sevenoaks voted Leave, despite a wonderfully frequent train line. Meanwhile, some very isolated parts of the UK, like the Cotswolds or South Lakeland in Cumbria, voted Remain. Of course, in a very narrow result, its possible to say that almost anything tipped the balance in favour of Leave. I’m just yet to find much evidence that Leave-voting areas were significantly less well-served by trains than Remain areas.

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