‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

HS2 – a platform for Ukip?

As Lord Andrew Adonis observed about the proposed HS2 high speed rail system, everyone wants the stations and nobody wants the track. This is almost true.

HS2 is where politics and geography collide. Most of the proposed track will run through rural Conservative-held seats to stations in mainly Labour-held urban areas. Ukip is running its local election campaign on the basis of opposition to the whole idea of HS2 – track and stations. How should the Conservatives respond?

The 1867 Second Reform Act and the 1928 Equal Franchise Act actually offer an answer. These were two examples where the Conservatives made an enlightened decision, suffered briefly in the short run, but eventually reaped a lasting electoral reward.

Conservatives had unsuccessfully opposed the First Reform Act of 1832. Once the door to a wider franchise was open, the process was unstoppable. Rather than resist the Liberals’ attempt at the second major act, the Conservatives seized the initiative and introduced their own version of reform, particularly enfranchising working men in urban areas. Thanks to Disraeli’s dynamism, the Conservatives held many urban seats for a century after this reform, but the party is now virtually extinct in most major cities.

In 1928 the Conservatives took the initiative and introduced the Equal Franchise Act, giving men and women the vote on equal terms. Thanks to Baldwin’s reform, for decades after this the Conservatives enjoyed higher support among women than men. This advantage has only recently been lost.

The Conservative Party now has to choose whether wholeheartedly to embrace HS2 to rebuild support in urban areas, or to resist (probably futilely) and be seen to delay the construction to appease potential defectors to Ukip.

History suggests that the best way to remove Ukip’s platform and to regain support in urban areas is for the Conservatives to put the HS into HS2 and speed up the delivery of the project – creating jobs and being seen to be dynamic. Once it is built, HS2 will soon cease to be controversial.

Today no-one would think of campaigning against the NHS, the M40, HS1 or the Channel Tunnel (all controversial in their time), any more than anyone would mount a campaign on a platform of taking votes away from women.


  1. Interesting thoughts, but I think your first and final paragraphs face in opposite directions. One of HS2's many problems is indeed the 'all pain. no gain' for areas along the route but inaccessible to it. The NHS, M40 etc. may well have been controversial in the planning stage but they are anything but inaccessible. The absence of opposition to projects once realised is not proof that the project was right all along. HS1 continues to be a money pit as does the M6 Toll road.
    UKIP in my view are chancers, but they have had the wit to see that HS2 is as popular as anthrax and the question is which of the major parties will see this and act. Expect a one way ticket for HS2 to the sidings for the next Govt. to deal with.

  2. I agree with the comments above. I don't see how the construction of HS2 could even begin to rebuild Tory support in the major cities of Northern England, given that the beneficiaries of the completed project wouldn't be those on modest incomes in Leeds or Manchester, who could ill afford the inflated fares on the completed line. The beneficiaries would be those travelling on expense accounts in the FIRE industries (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate), based in the already affluent 'golden triangle' north of Leeds, the Cheshire stockbroker belt, and the South East of England. I think we see in this project why Mrs. Thatcher's first and second administrations were so successful at garnering the support of the skilled working class: concentrating on projects which directly benefited those on modest incomes. Mrs. Thatcher had little or no interest in railways, and the lesson of the 1930s is that it was house building and the construction of 'arterial' roads which got the economy back to near full employment under Neville Chamberlain as Chancellor of the Exchequer.