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When Lobbying Nearly Worked

Last year, the cabinetroom blog published a nice piece about the long lost and much lamented Euston Arch, which was back in the news at the time because the Euston Arch Trust was staging an exhibition of some of the recovered masonry in its bid to reinstate the Arch. It’s a fascinating example of an occasion when, contrary to received wisdom, lobbying the Prime Minister almost worked.

The destruction of the original Arch as part of the rebuild of Euston railway station by the British Transport Commission drew great protest at the time, not least from the likes of John Betjeman as a rehearsal for his later, successful campaign to save St Pancras station. Alongside the poet, several influential voices in the architecture profession came out against the proposal, and a deputation that included J.M. Richards, the editor of the Architectural Review, met with Harold Macmillan to lobby for the Arch’s preservation. Famously, Richards recorded that Macmillan “sat without moving with his eyes apparently closed” and “said nothing” throughout their pleas - leading to the popular supposition that he fell asleep and had no interest in the matter, the government’s mind already being decided.

But as cabinetroom shows, Macmillan was sufficiently stirred to take the matter back to Cabinet for reconsideration. Notably, the Victorian Society had found a contractor prepared to move the Arch closer to Euston Road on rollers, which seems like a fantastical idea (although it has subsequently been done with that lighthouse, of course…). But the government was generally against saving the Arch owing to the cost, some of which they expected would fall on the public purse, and the additional delay to construction. It’s likely that the further discussion focused on nothing more than the potential political fallout of ignoring the protesters - and a bunch of middle-class aesthetes are always easier to ignore than most in politics. The decision was re-affirmed and the demolition went ahead. (Apparently, the contractor even offered to dismantle and rebuild the Arch at their own expense, but the government allegedly dismissed any potential new site out of hand. Most of the stonework was acquired by British Waterways to fill a chasm in the bed of the River Lea, until it was rediscovered by Dan Cruickshank in 1994 and later recovered in 2009 during work related to the Olympic Park.)

The relevant bodies were stirred to arms again by the proposed rebuilding of St Pancras and Kings Cross stations shortly later, and this time their entreaties prevailed - possibly because station buildings already demonstrably serving their purpose were harder to condemn than a grand but largely ornamental edifice of no current practical value. Ironically, the recent proposed reconstruction of a similar arch in a more prominent location, between the existing historic lodges on Euston Road now in use as pubs, has been decried on the grounds that it would obstruct the entrances to the latter and force them to reconfigure the doorways.

Ten years before the Arch debate, an earlier Conservative government was also involved in the demolition of a much-loved national landmark, albeit one of briefer duration. Winston Churchill is typically fingered as the villain in the destruction and clearance of the 1951 Festival of Britain site on the South Bank, including the iconic Dome of Discovery and Skylon, the suspended steel and aluminium needle point tower; most writers note that he saw the Festival as “three-dimensional socialist propaganda”, and signed the clearance order as his first act on returning to office. But I wondered if this was not a dewy-eyed revision of history, similar to the tales of Macmillan snoozing oblivious to the desecration of Euston. Most of the South Bank Festival, with the exception of the Royal Festival Hall, was designed to be ephemeral and temporary, and probably would not have withstood prolonged use without further attention. The process of dissolving the organisation had begun almost as soon as the Festival itself started, with the dismissal of chief architect Hugh Casson, and continued immediately after its close with further redundancies. Physical demolition may have simply been outstanding business for the government of the day, postponed by the exigencies of a general election, and therefore increasingly urgent and requiring no further debate by the time the Tories took office a month later (it’s not immediately clear to me what pressure was on the site at the time, so it’s difficult to judge whether this haste was unseemly, although given that much of it reverted to wasteland and car parking in the aftermath, this seems probable).

When General Lord Ismay, as chairman of the Festival Committee, had previously met his former chief seeking his help in taming the Beaverbrook press campaign against the event in the run-up, Churchill had conceded, “All right Pug, you old fool, you can have your damned festival.” Perhaps at that stage he did not realise what form it would take. There again, Churchill later wrote, in a letter to former deputy PM Herbert Morrison to notify that they would be keeping the Battersea Pleasure Gardens open for the interim, “out of our love for you we are going to do what you wish - also to try to get a little of the money back that was wasted.” [quoted in Harriet Atkinson’s The Festival Of Britain: A Land and its People]. (In the event, the gardens would linger on for a further twenty-five years, although in increasing disrepair due to minimal funding. They can be seen in an episode of The Prisoner entitled “The Girl Who Was Death”.) This may have been Churchill having a wicked little joke at the expense of Morrison (the government considered the Festival a prime example of Labour’s ‘squandermania’), but it reads more like the sour grunt of a resentful curmudgeon.

Five months later, the contractors were on site at the South Bank. In a twist for posterity, one mythical resting place of Skylon’s remains became conflated with that of the Euston Arch, in the River Lea. (Others believed that Skylon was toppled into the Thames and lies there still. In a 1994 television programme, Dan Cruickshank found no remnants of Skylon beyond a brass ring originally located underneath it, which is now on display at the Museum of London.) No, it does rather seem that the Tory government actively wanted rid of it as quickly as possible, and Churchill’s personal antipathy, as churlish and dogmatic as it may seem, certainly appears to have played a part in that.

BB will not be the first to point out how little Conservation is inherent in Conservatism.

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