Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The politics of railway preservation

BBC4 is currently repeating its series The Golden Age of Railways. You can find two episodes – Small is Beautiful and Branching Out – on iPlayer at the moment.

I don’t know how long they will stay there, but there are plenty of other railway programmes archived on the BBC website. And some of the footage of the Talyllyn Railway I posted yesterday was used in Small is Beautiful.

One thing that has struck me about the programmes is the interesting politics behind the railway preservation movement.

Take this extract from Small is Beautiful, which begins at 10:40:
NARRATOR: Tom Rolt’s view of the Talyllyn was shaped by what was happening in post-war Britain. In 1948 the Labour government had nationalised the railways and Rolt saw the Talyllyn as an alternative to what he believed to be increasing state control. 
JOSEPH BOUGHEY: There was this idea in a way that this was a small enclave from which to perhaps build and defend and take on the grey, uniform, state-driven world outside. 
Most of the people involved came from very ... middle class professional backgrounds. I think one could call them highly Conservative people in many ways. They were very much people who disapproved of the nationalisation of railways. They saw this as producing a sort of grey uniformity.
And this one, beginning at 33:15, from Branching Out:
ANN CRYER: What he wanted more than anything was that those people who did the work made the decisions. In essence it was a sort of Socialist, democratic experiment and it works to this day.
So a Conservative view and a Socialist view. Yet these views have an important thing in common: a rejection of managerialism. In the first extract the enemy is bureaucratic state management: in the second it is a rejection of profit-driven management. But managerialism is their common enemy.

This is brought out by what Joseph Boughey goes on to say:
Although later on the Talyllyn was described as a 'workers co-operative', these were extremely conservative workers, to put it mildly.
But workers' co-operatives can be conservative and even Conservative - which leads us on to Hobbit socialism.


Joseph Boughey said...

I was very pleased to discover that you had drawn out the political implications of the Talyllyn, and indeed other preservation activities, and had troubled to post about these. I was interviewed at length about the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society and its founders, especially Tom Rolt, and inevitably only excerpts survived into the film.

I do need to stress one (understandable) error in your transcription. In commenting on politics, I was referring to the founders rather than the present TRPS members. I would call the founders “highly conservative people in many ways”; but not necessarily Conservative. I am not aware that any of the founders had any formal background in the Conservative Party, or would see that something like the Talyllyn experiment would demonstrate Conservative principles.

The one person with identifiable party affiliations was William Trinder (in many ways the founder), and he was a Liberal, who had been a Liberal Party agent in the past. While this didn’t appear in the film, Bill Trinder was personally crucial to the project, since he had been able to gain the Trust of Sir Henry Haydn Jones MP, who owned the line; both were Liberals and Methodists.

I think that the TRPS founders were conservative in that some, at least, wanted to retain a vestige of an earlier world unaffected by large bureaucratic organisations, whether or not in public ownership. Ironically, the Great Western Railway Company was cited, as if it did not feature a substantial bureaucracy!! There would be differences between “small is beautiful” supporters like Rolt, and those, mostly Birmingham businessmen, who wanted to see a railway and steam locomotives at work, and could not envisage this enthusiasm being expressed or welcome within a state corproatuion that aimed to modernise railways.

I take your point about the idea of a workers co-operative – actually, this was the form that the preservation society took, primarily because Rolt, ousted from the Inland Waterways Association, was determined to secure a democratic structure that made it very hard for anyone to take the Society (and railway) over so as to run it for its own ends. Many other preserved railways were run on less democratic principles. Like some co-operatives, there remained dominant figures in the TRPS, but at least they could be voted out.

Not sure what I can say about “hobbit socialism” or small-scale operations like the TRPS, or whether these represent viable alternatives to a world dominated by large-scale capital and the “demands” of global markets. I do recognise that some Liberals and Greens are genuinely seeking such alternatives. I could comment further if you wish!

Jonathan Calder said...

Please do! Maybe in a guest post?