Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
Few if any ministers whose highest post was in the foothills of the Cabinet have made such an impact on the British landscape and British life than Ernest Marples, although his name is barely known in modern politics and nobody has written a biography of this intriguing figure. If there is a vague recollection of him, it is for the huge white-painted graffito on a bridge over the M1 near Luton, boldly proclaiming MARPLES MUST GO – which lived on, long after Marples had gone to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no Transport Secretary returns. The graffiti writers of 1963 didn’t know the half of it.
Ernie Marples was first elected MP for Wallasey in 1945, one of very few Conservative gains in that election; the seat had been won by a wartime Independent, but at that time was generally a Tory stronghold. He was one of comparatively few Conservative MPs from a self-made, working class background as the son of a labourer. He worked as a bookies’ runner, trained as an accountant and then founded his own successful business as a builder with £20 of borrowed capital, as well as running an ever-expanding property empire.
Once in Parliament Marples enjoyed causing a bit of a stir, playing up his distinctiveness among the sober dark-suited public school ranks of Tory MPs by sporting a blue suit and orange-brown shoes. At Conservative conferences he was famous for his lavish hospitality extended to the representatives from Wallasey.
There was substance behind the flashy Marples image. His rise to prominence can probably be dated to a King’s Speech debate in 1950. Harold Macmillan noted in his diary that:
“The debate was opened for the Conservatives in a very able speech by a Mr Marples, a professional builder, with great knowledge and skill. This was one of the best speeches heard from a backbencher for a long time.” (6 November 1950)
The Conservatives were, as Andrew Gimson has recalled on this site, on the hook after their 1950 conference, having been bounced into promising to build more houses than Labour. When the Conservative government was formed after the 1951 election Macmillan was the man who had to make it happen, and Marples was one of the men he turned to for help. Macmillan was eternally grateful to Marples for contributing his enthusiasm, contacts and expertise (he helped devise a timber-free housing design called the Boneless Wonder) and making the housing pledge a reality.
The housing success made Macmillan’s career: ‘Marples made me PM’ he said later. While the political career of Ernie Marples went nowhere under Eden, Macmillan brought him back into government as soon as he could by making him Postmaster-General in January 1957.
As PMG, Marples gave his talents for modernisation, and self-publicity, free rein. He oversaw the introduction of Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) in 1958, enabling long-range phone calls to be made without going through an operator. He implemented Macmillan’s Premium Bond scheme, showing off a new computer to pick the numbers (‘electronic random number indicating equipment’ or, of course, ERNIE for short).
The flesh-and-blood Ernie’s big moment was after the 1959 election when he reached the Cabinet as Minister of Transport, a post he occupied until the 1964 election (nobody has had such a long term since – Wilson’s government had four transport secretaries in less than six years, and there were 11 between 1979 and 1997).
Britain’s transport system was reaching a turning point, as prosperity brought a rising tide of car ownership and the need to modernise the inter-urban road network and control the impact of cars on town centres. Among the Marples innovations in towns were parking meters, yellow parking control lines and summary penalties from traffic wardens. He also commissioned the Buchanan Report Traffic in Towns, and can therefore claim some ‘credit’ for pedestrianised shopping centres and concrete inner ring roads.
Shortly after taking office at Transport, Marples opened the first long stretch of motorway in the UK – the M1 from near Watford to near Rugby in November 1959. By 1964, the M6 linked the West Midlands and the North West, and the M4 and M5 had started their spidery progress in the Thames Valley and the West. Even by the rather lax standards of conflict of interest and disclosure that prevailed at the time, it was incongruous that the civil engineering firm that built many of the early motorways was none other than Marples Ridgway (a name that was also applied to the new Hammersmith Flyover). Marples was pressured to dispose of his shareholding, which he apparently did in 1960, some say by ‘selling’ the shares to his wife, others to an offshore trust under his disguised ownership; the record is not clear.
As well as building up the motorways and giving Marples Ridgway lots of opportunity to build bridges and mix concrete, Marples ran down the railways. There was an overwhelming case for cutting some of Britain’s rail network in the 1960s. The profusion of rural branch lines was charming but costly and inefficient, and modernising the main lines for diesel and electric trains needed to be funded somehow.
Beeching’s report noted that half of the 7000 railway stations generated only two per cent of the total rail traffic and that one-third of the track carried only one per cent of the traffic. But the Beeching review went too far, and cut some flesh as well as fat from the network. Beeching’s brief was to devise a profitable railway system, which decades of experience have shown to be impossible, and which ignores the social and environmental benefits of railways. It was also flawed in that much of its research on passenger numbers took place in the depths of the harsh winter of 1962/63, giving unusually low numbers for usage in rural areas in particular.
While the broad policies of building new roads for inter-urban transport, and making the railways more efficient, were sensible, there is still a cloud over Marples because of the suspicion – never fully proved, never dispelled either – that the long-term changes he oversaw reflected his personal interests and biases. If the Marples programme had been implemented in full, there would be many fewer railways, and Britain’s large cities would be scarred by massive highway projects like the London Ringways.
Ernie Marples was lucky to get away with it in another area of his life when the Profumo scandal struck the Macmillan government in 1963. Lord Denning was commissioned to inquire into the Profumo affair itself and all the other exotic rumours that were going around at the time. Some of these, predictably enough, concerned Marples because he was fairly well known among London’s prostitutes as a friend of the working girl. Marples kept an eye on the Denning inquiry, and duly popped by when one of his friends was called in. Marples knew that Denning had imposed a cut-off date, so he went up and greeted the lady: ‘Well, hello my dear! It must be, what, TEN YEARS,’ (nod, wink) ‘since I saw you!’
Denning was not entirely taken in. Although Marples went unmentioned in the prurient Report, apparently because Denning was convinced there were no security implications but probably because the Report was a cover-up, he was named in a confidential letter from Denning to Macmillan. Macmillan did his friend one last favour and concealed it, although another MP named in the letter as being involved in gay parties resigned quietly in 1964.
Marples continued at Transport even after Macmillan had resigned, but his career went into a downturn under Edward Heath, who was not an admirer (and may have known too much about him from his Chief Whip’s files). Ernie gave up his seat in February 1974 (Lynda Chalker was Conservative MP for Wallasey until 1992) and was appointed to the House of Lords. His retirement was not particularly dignified; he was under intensive investigation by the Inland Revenue, who had become interested in the highly irregular financial web he had spun between Britain, France and Liechtenstein.
Marples decamped suddenly from Belgravia to a chateau in France owned by a front company. Mirror journalist Richard Stott visited him there for an interview characterised by charm, aggression and a great deal of wine. But justice and the taxman never caught up with Ernie Marples, and he died in appropriately louche surroundings in Monte Carlo in 1978.
Ernie Marples was, no doubt about it, a rogue. But he was difficult to dislike; his energy, chutzpah and curiosity about life gave him a certain appeal. His showmanship and self-publicity were unusual in the grey 1950s, and his talent was to make things happen. His legacy is with us when we go for a drive (particularly if there isn’t a train nearby), try to park a car and for many of us when we go home. When you next drive out on the motorway for a pleasant Sunday afternoon walk along a disused railway line, you might spare a thought for Ernie Marples.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries by Anne Pimlott Baker (Beeching) and D.J. Dutton (Marples)
Joe Moran On Roads (Profile, 2010)
Richard Stott Dogs and Lampposts (Metro, 2002)
Andrew Gimson ‘How Macmillan Built 300,000 Houses a Year’ for Conservative Home 17 October 2013
Lewis Baston Marples Must Go! The highways and byways of a scandalous political career (forthcoming, eventually, if any publishers out there can find some money for it…)