Hideous Murder on the Moderate Express

Frank Johson: 1943 - 2006 (THE TIMES, 16/12/06):

Frank Johnson, the distinguished columnist and former associate editor of The Times, died yesterday. Times readers will remember many columns for their wit and insight. This is how he covered the first conference of the SDP in October 1981 — a meeting that rolled from one meeting place to another by train.

We are writing from Perth shortly before boarding the now legendary train that is carrying the Social Democratic Party conference from city to city: the Flying Moderate.

The intention is that we should put in for two days at Bradford. Probably no train has ever before travelled directly between Perth and Bradford. What possible reason would it have had for doing so? British Rail could, therefore, be about to pull off the most spectacular feat in even its disgraceful history: the loss of an entire political party. Can our railwaymen do it? Previously BR has confined itself to losing such relatively unobtrusive or unimportant items as Nato tanks, giraffes and envelopes containing the life savings of little old ladies. We shall see what happens.

The Gang of Four will be on board. One of them, William Rodgers, has all the authority of a former Minister of Transport. That should be enough to end us up in Torquay. Either that or you will never hear from any of us again. We shall become a ghostly political party wandering, for the rest of eternity, the railway system of Britain: whiling away the endless ages with our own splits, leadership struggles, and quite uncalled-for personal attacks. Perhaps like Wagner’s Flying Dutchman we will be allowed, under the terms of the original British Rail curse, to step on to land every seven years — returning to our endless voyaging unless we find a majority of voters faithful to us unto a general election.

But no, with the journey about to start, one is simply getting nervous. After two days locked up here with all these moderates, one’s old brain is going. It will be all right. We will get to Bradford. Whereupon, further fears and fantasies take over the mind. Perhaps this impending journey is not Wagner at all, but Agatha Christie, filmed by Hitchcock. Four important and ambitious politicians, a dozen unimportant, ambitious politicians and hundreds of strange grassroots are all thrown together by circumstances on a long train journey.

It is Murder on the Moderate Express or, in deference to Shirley Williams, The Lady Vanishes. There is a poisoned bottle of claret. Any bottle of BR claret will do for that. Suddenly the train is cut off by a dense fog caused by the fact that Mr Rodgers is repeating the somewhat detailed economic speech he made in Perth yesterday. One of the four disappears. Or perhaps all four. Each of us has a motive. So does each of them.

No, all will be well. It is often forgotten each time we lose a few in the occasional disaster, that British Rail transports without mishap thousands of politicians a year. The time for departure is drawing close. Out of the window of the Station Hotel one can see that the fatal train has drawn into Perth’s southbound platform. An inner voice is saying: don’t set foot on that train. You have the evidence of the sinister goings-on in Perth; you’ll be bored to death. But one must recount the final hours.

They debated industrial policy. Mr Rodgers was the main speaker. Introducing him, Mike Thomas, MP, said: “All of us are proud to be a colleague of his in the SDP.” Mr Rodgers replied: “Mike, thank you for those undeserved remarks.” If we lose Mr Rodgers on the train, Mr Thomas will come under immediate suspicion.

Mr Rodger’s policy was a veritable compendium of clichés. He called for a “genuine partnership between government and industry”. Why did no one think of that before, we all mused. He had a four-point plan, or possibly four plans — with various sub-points inside the original one — the Rodgers Cube. He included a gas-gathering pipeline for Scotland, coming presumably from the North Sea, though possibly Bradford.

He urged the electrification of railways, though one thought he said the electrification of people on railways, for even then one was obsessed by the tone of that train. Any minute now and we will get the Channel tunnel, one suspected. Sure enough. In a passage about Europe, we got “the Channel tunnel could encapsulate what we as a party want”.

“Anonymous bureaucratic nationalised industries as such must go,” he said. One has never understood what that means, since they never say that nationalised industries as such must go — just anonymous ones. Does it mean that we would get nationalised industries with comfortable, reassuring names like Phyllis and Beryl?

The party seemed content enough with all this. Various figures describing themselves as managers came to the rostrum and urged still more partnership. A man with a beard suggested that industry should study social science more. He was an “industrial psychologist” — one of the managerial class’s ju-ju men.

It is time to set out. Some of us may never see Bradford alive, which raises the whole question of whether Bradford is ever alive. You shall be kept informed.