Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Ernest Maples and Grand Scale Corruption

If you have taken any interest at all in British transport policy in recent years then there's a good chance you will know of Dr Beeching, and his infamous cuts which amputated thousands of miles of track and over 2,000 stations from Britain's railway system. Even today the name is synonymous with the decline and destruction of our railway network. However if you haven't studied it closely, or are not old enough to remember it, then there's a good chance you have not heard Ernest Maples, the Minister of Transport at the time.

Beeching was a physicist by training with a PhD, appointed as an advisor to the British Transport Commission. A worthy technocrat to improve a failing system but not the man to make judgements about the social and wider economic impacts of his proposals. That should have been the role of the Minister of Transport. Beeching however was an ideal scapegoat.

Marples was an altogether different animal. An ambitious, not to say ruthless man he rose very quickly in both his political and business careers. The son of a Manchester Labour campaigner and himself already active in the Labour movement by the age of 14 he had numerous jobs before joining the army in 1941. He became a Conservative MP immediately after the war and was also a Director of Kirk & Kirk, a major construction company. Here he met Reginald Ridgeway and the two went into partnership, taking over one of their former employers contracts. The company continued to do well largely out of government contracts for power stations, roads and other infrastructure projects.
He cut a dash in the stuffy Conservative party of the 1950s with his blue suits and orange shoes, and a flamboyant showmanship that was out of character for the time.

Despite this he became a junior minister in Harold MacMillan's Department of Housing & Local Government in 1951 and was instrumental in helping that government meet it's ambitious housing targets. MacMillan would later credit this as instrumental in making him Prime Minister following the departure of Anthony Eden.

MacMillan repaid this in 1957 by making Marples Postmaster General. Marples busily set about introducing postcodes, STD dialing codes and Premium Bonds. He was then Minister of Transport from 1959 until the Conservative party lost the 1964 general election and was even more active with such wonderful innovations as parking meters and traffic wardens, and of course an extensive road building programme from which the company he now owned 80% of profited handsomely.

This didn't go unnoticed and as early as 1951 he resigned as Managing Director of Marples Ridgeway but retained an 80% shareholding. In 1959 when he took over the transport role he undertook to sell the shares, but constructed the deal in such a way as to be able to buy them back later at preferential rates. This was blocked by the Attorney General, but somehow he managed to sell them to his wife.
At the same time he skirted the edge of the Profumo affair in a rather brazen fashion - knowing that Lord Denning had set a cut off dat, when called to the enquiry and introduced to one of the working girls, he greeted her as an old friend and remarked "Why it must he ten years since I've seen you!" While it's hard to imagine anyone was truly fooled by this it served to keep him out of the final report and in the government.

Throughout this time he built a strong property portfolio and amassed considerable wealth in a web of holding companies in Britain, France and Liechtenstein.

He remained an MP until 1974 when he became Baron Marples. In early 1975 he fled the UK, leaving a huge tax bill, alleged law suits with former employees and tenants and a mess of his home in Belgravia. Following this he split his time between Monaco and a chateau in the Beaujolais region of France, owned by a holding company of his.

Richard Stott tracked him down here shortly before his death in 1975 for a fractious interview which Stott would later describe as being characterised by "charm, aggression and a great deal of wine" and during which Marples told Stott he was the worst journalist and the most aggressive person he had ever met.

There's no doubt that Marples was an energetic and productive individual but reading the bald facts 50 years later it's hard to see that his actions were anything other than the sort of blatant corruption you'd normally associate with Africa or Latin America than with Britain in the 1950s and 60s.
And while his behaviour is probably less shocking now the relative ease with which he was able to behave in this way shows something innocent and indeed na├»ve about the time in which he did it. Blinded by it's love of big government,  post war Britain forgot to ask the basic questions which should always be asked of those in positions of power, and especially the power to spend huge sums of our money - what's in it for them?