The Cabinet Papers website is a resource where researchers can investigate digitised Cabinet documents, whether they are conclusions from meetings, memoranda, or precedent books, to better understand the decision-making process in government, and the concept of Cabinet collective responsibility. Covering the period from 1916, when the Cabinet Office was established, to when the most recent files released following 30 year closure are added (currently 1982), the Cabinet Papers site allows us to trace high level decisions from Lloyd George’s government during the Great War, Churchill’s War Cabinet, Attlee’s post-war social reforms, through to Thatcher’s ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ dichotomy in the early 1980s.
Another interesting set of documents which can be found on the Cabinet Papers site – which take slightly longer to reach us – is the Cabinet Secretary’s Notebook. This set of documents, which constitutes the series CAB 195, is one of those ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-tin’ series, consisting of hand-written notes of cabinet meetings taken by the Cabinet Secretary. The notebooks offer a very useful – not to mention interesting – addition to studying the conclusions of cabinet meetings. Since 1919 only conclusions from cabinet meetings were collected (as opposed to minutes) reflecting a desire to project collective responsibility and simply record agreement, but the Cabinet Secretary’s notebook provides an extra level of detail. The notebooks unveil the content of cabinet discussions somewhat.
Previously subjected to extended closure these files are now being released in batches on the Cabinet Papers site, with CAB 195/24 (April 1964 to February 1965) and CAB 195/25 (February to November 1965) as the latest additions. 1 However, I have taken a look in an earlier notebook – CAB 195/22 – as it covers events from exactly 50 years ago, running from January to July 1963.
One thing that caught my eye was the reference to the Beeching Report into reorganising Britain’s rail system, subject of a documentary repeated on the BBC last week. The plan, surmised in the report entitled ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ by Dr Richard Beeching (available as a Cabinet memorandum in CAB 129/113/3) saw many of Britain’s branch lines closed and large swathes of the country’s access to rail travel removed. Whole areas of Britain – much of Wales, the Highlands in Scotland, the North-East of England and the north Cornwall coast – lost railways. (I now know who to blame for my own personal experience of a two-hour bus journey from Exeter to the Cornish seaside town of Bude last summer).
From the conclusions of the cabinet meeting on Thursday 14 March, 1963 (CAB 128/37/16) we can learn that the following points were made: the proposed closure of stations and lines would lead to ‘much public protest’ but that an efficient railway system would ‘make an invaluable contribution to the economic well-being of the country’; that the Government’s concern should not be with making ‘the railways pay’, rather with adapting rail to modern needs; and that the map showing the extensive network of bus services should be given special publicity.
Sir Burke Trend’s notebook (Cabinet Secretary from 1963 to 1973) from that meeting provides extra detail (starts at page 68 in CAB 195/22). For example, we learn that Rab Butler (First Secretary of State) described the plan as ‘very drastic’ but that it must be accepted as part of the modernisation strategy, including the proposed redundancies of around 90,000 over three years. Health Minister Enoch Powell claimed that the modernisation programme would soon lose its appeal, so the time span should be concentrated, while the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan argued that a longer time span would ease the problem of redundancies. The final word went to the Minister without Portfolio, William Deedes, suggesting that support must be enlisted from ‘industry, commerce, taxpayers.’
The Lord Privy Seal and Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food then ‘exit’. If anyone wanted to write a programme or play about a cabinet meeting, the Cabinet Secretary’s Notebook might be a good place to start. ‘Oh, Dr Beeching’ might be a good title.