Cabinet's U-turn on election pledge to halt rail cuts

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"I am very worried about this. Our election pledge was clear - to halt major closures," Harold Wilson wrote on his copy of the minutes of a Cabinet sub- committee on 15 February 1965 which discussed proposed rail closures, writes John Rentoul.

The Conservative government had started closing large parts of the rail network after the publication of the Beeching Report in 1963, provoking angry denunciations from the Labour Party. Wilson himself personally condemned the closure programme in the 1964 election campaign, but within a week of coming to office the Labour Cabinet started to retreat, noting on 22 October 1964 that its manifesto pledge "appeared likely to be misconstrued" as including the reversal of closures already approved by the Tories but not put into effect.

Tom Fraser, the Minister of Transport, clarified the pledge, saying that Labour could not reverse closures already agreed. But in February 1965, Wilson noted: "Now we seem to be going much further - the Aylesbury line really is a major closure and we do not appear to be halting it . . . Has the time not come to review the whole policy at Cabinet?"

By the time the Cabinet discussed the issue on 11 March, the U-turn was well under way. Under pressure from backbench Labour MPs to stop all further closures, Tom Fraser wanted Cabinet backing to continue. He suggested: "It would help to put the Government's policy in better perspective" if the Railways Board could be persuaded to propose a few closures just so that he could reject them.

The Government's policy of resisting "clearly unacceptable" closures, he said, "could be shown to be really effective by arranging for a small number of such proposals to be brought forward in the near future for rejection".

The trouble was that the Railways Board "had preferred to withdraw one case of this kind rather than to allow it to be rejected". The Cabinet agreed that the chance to reject a major passenger-line closure would be "advantageous". Later in the year, Fraser covered himself in glory by rejecting the closure of the Fort William to Mallaig line.

However, after the Labour MPs' hate-figure, Dr Beeching, retired as chairman of the Railways Board in June, the cuts gathered pace, in the cause of "modernisation".

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