The ‘Big Four’ railway companies had all been under state control during the Second World War, and largely expected to return to private ownership and pre-war operation and management from 1945. However, the political landscape changed radically with a Labour Government in office, and the cultural and social impact of the war had dramatically affected the mood of everyone.
Although it had been something of a struggle, from Herbert Morrison’s early speeches in late 1945 to Parliament to outline how the process would bring all inland transport within public ownership.
An interesting comment made by him in November 1945 is worth recalling:
“It is the intention of the Government to introduce, during the life of the present Parliament, Measures designed to bring transport services, essential to the economic well-being of the nation, under public ownership and control.”
Unsurprisingly, the Government’s official opposition were obviously against the idea, and supported the ‘Big Four’ railway companies campaign against nationalisation. In parliament they were accused of obstructing and delaying tactics to try and prevent its passage. One commentator suggesting that if the Government did not use parliamentary procedures to limit the time for debate, it would be years and not months before any progress could be made.
Given the economic state of Britain in the late 1940s, this would be very damaging to post-war recovery.
The LMS and the other companies were actively campaigning against nationalisation, and in March 1946, amongst many other questions in Parliament, there were questions about how the then subsidies paid to the LMS would be prevented from campaigning against state ownership.
HC Deb 12 March 1946 vol 420 c202W
H. Hynd asked the Minister of War Transport whether he is taking steps to ensure that the L.M.S. Railway Company’s campaign against the Government’s nationalisation policy will not be financed from profits that would otherwise accrue to the State under the Railway Control Agreement.
Barnes Expenditure incurred by the railway companies for the purpose in question would be charged to their own funds and would not fall upon the Control Account.
The companies had all contributed to a document – which might be called both a publicity booklet – and, the start of that campaign. This is what it said in its introduction:
In their conclusion at the end of the booklet describing how well they’ve achieved efficiencies and continued to operate services during wartime they stated:
Clearly, the ‘Big Four’ believed they would be best placed to take the business forward, despite the massively damaged economy, ongoing rationing, general economic stagnation, and shortage of all kinds of materials, products and most importantly, shortage of people.
In December 1946, as the Transport Bill was being given its second reading, the government position was exemplified in an interesting comment made by Mr Strauss the Transport Minister’s right hand man:
“…. suggest that we are, in this Measure, adopting the only solution that is capable of resolving the deep economic conflict within this industry.”
The Transport Act 1947 received the “Royal Assent” on 6th August 1947, and on 30th December 1947, the Manchester Guardian’s carried this interesting reflection from its “Special Correspondent”: State Ownership of Railways
The aim was clearly for an integrated transport system, a view reinforced by a prominent “railway MP” and former railwayman – Walter Monslow – the MP for Barrow-in-Furness. Writing in the ASLE&F magazine “Locomotive Journal” in February 1947 he quoted the English philosopher John Stuart Mill:
“Countries which, at a given moment are not masters of their own transport, will be condemned to ruin in the economic struggles of the future.”
Since 1948, the development of Britain’s rail network has undergone many changes, many technological, and quite a few operational and economic, but the goal of an integrated system has never been achieved. If anything since 1991, the country has seen ‘disintegration’ of transport, and with a private operator having to balance its public service, with responsibilities to shareholders, had the ‘Big Four’ taken over again in 1948, it is doubtful if progress would have been made easily.
Now that we have seen the impact of a return to private operations, and the lack of integration across transport, both within and beyond rail operations, I wonder what John Stuart Mill – once described as “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century” would have to say about that in the 21st Century.