Gordon Bagier: Politician who championed railways in thebattle against road transport


One of the reasons for the decline in the authority and public esteem of the House of Commons is that so many of the new entrants have done little in their lives other than politics, or activities closely allied to it. In 1964, when he beat Paul Williams in the marginal seat of Sunderland South, a victory that won him the epithet "The Hero of Sunderland" in the local press, Gordon Bagier brought a wealth of experience, first as a wartime Royal Marine, then two decades of promotion to ever-more responsible jobs on the railways.

Gordon Bagier was a proud Geordie, though in footballing terms he was a fan of Sunderland FC. Peter Snape, who shared an office for many years with his fellow railwayman, recalled that in 1973, when they reached the FA Cup final and famously beat Leeds United, he, George Grant and Bernard Conlon bedecked the Strangers Bar at the Commons with Sunderland scarves.

Bagier had followed his father and joined the railways as an apprentice. In 1941 he volunteered for the Royal Marines; assigned to HMS Belfast, he arrived in the Far East shortly after the fall of Singapore. He told me he became interested in politics when he witnessed the poverty and inequalities in India and Ceylon, as Sri Lanka then was.

On one of the visits, in which I participated, to a UK Defence Establishment, as a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party Defence Group, one of my colleagues laughed, "Gordon, you are always so immaculately turned out!" to which he replied, "Once a Royal Marine, always a Royal Marine." His military service imbued him with the self-discipline and sense of self-organisation common to army MPs; his office was never a mess, and, whereas most MPs become casual about punctuality, if ever Bagier was not on time, there were excellent reasons.

On his return to the railways his abilities saw him fast-tracked to Signals Inspector. Service on the councils of Keighley and Sowerby Bridge, and the presidency of the Yorkshire area of the National Union of Railwaymen, brought him to the attention of Sid Greene and Sid Weighell, NUR branch secretaries who fixed union support for his nomination for Sunderland South. His narrow victory was one of the Labour gains which sent Harold Wilson to Downing Street with a majority of five in 1964.

An early campaign was for better co-ordination between different forms of transport. He wanted the government to encourage local authorities to develop land next to railway stations for bus stations or car parks. Linking car parks to public transport now seems like ancient wisdom; it was not so obvious in 1965. It helped that a newcomer to Parliament, but familiar to many MPs as Yorkshire president of the NUR, so obviously knew what he was talking about.

Bagier's technical expertise was put to constructive use. In March 1965 he asked Tom Fraser, the Minister of Transport, if he would give a general direction to the railways to provide adequate numbers of high-capacity wagons to transport large steel plates from steel mills, in order to conform with the production requirements of shipyards in the North-East. Fraser answered, "No". It was characteristic of Bagier's seriousness of purpose that the following day he should say in the House, "In view of Mr Fraser's not very helpful reply, would the Minister at the Board of Trade, Roy Mason, take an interest in the matter?"

Mason replied that Lloyd's List and Shipping Gazette reported that there had been an improvement in steel supplies, particularly to the Wear. "This is no doubt," he added, "due to my friend's energy and activity." Mason was right – Bagier was a most energetic and active operator in any cause.

It looked as if he was destined for the Front Bench in 1967 when Roy Jenkins chose him as his PPS at the Home Office, but when Jenkins became Chancellor Bagier accepted James Callaghan's invitation to remain at the Home Office. I asked the great Permanent Secretary there, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, why Bagier subsequently left. He replied, "Because Mr Callaghan expected his PPS to devote his entire parliamentary life to the tasks he needed done as a senior cabinet minister." Bagier was not prepared to sacrifice his personal and political life to the demands of the Home Secretary, but he thus sacrificed the ministerial career which Callaghan always delivered for his protégés.

In the mid-1970s, Bagier campaigned with success for grant aid for the Tyne and Wear Metro. I know at first hand the amount of hard grind – he was a shrewd behind-the- scenes MP – which Bagier invested in getting agreement. Peter Snape recalled that Bagier led a crucial delegation to Tony Crosland as Environment Secretary at a time when the government was proposing to cut railway subsidies on the basis that they only helped relatively prosperous middle-class commuters in the south of England. "Come and tell that to the crowds milling around Tyneside stations at rush hour," Bagier replied. The cutting of subsidies did not take place.

He thought highly of the British Rail chairman Peter Parker, who regarded him as a valuable ally in the battle of rail versus road. In particular, he wanted the major movers of freight in Britain to utilise the rail system more fully.

Bagier's later years were mainly devoted to the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. However, he unwisely accepted hospitality from the Greek Colonels, which damaged his standing in the Party. When I asked him gently, as my friend who had arranged for me to be an NUR-sponsored MP, about his Greek associations, he was unrepentant. "I was a marine, and I understand the military psyche," he said. "The Colonels were not all bad for Greece."

An increasingly uneasy relationship with his constituency Party, but not with his constituents, who rightly perceived him to be a caring and effective MP, persuaded him to make way for Chris Mullin at the 1987 election. In retirement he supported a number of worthwhile causes. His daughter Jill Fletcher was elected as a Labour councillor for Washington North in 2006.

Tam Dalyell

Gordon Alexander Thomas Bagier, railwayman and politician: born Newcastle upon Tyne 7 July 1924; MP for Sunderland South 1964–87; PPS to Home Secretary 1968–69; Chairman, Select Committee on Transport 1985–87; married 1949 Violet Sinclair (two sons, two daughters); died 8 April 2012.