Thursday, February 11, 2010

The unfunny joke of energy policy, Joyce Grenfell and selling off Dover


This column of mine appears in the Morning Star.

Writing in the Observer in 2004, Anthony Barnett told of a little game that the fanatically free-market minister Nigel Lawson used to play when he was energy secretary in the early 1980s.

Lawson would turn up at energy conferences to give speeches entitled "UK Energy Policy" and then proudly announce that the government didn't have an energy policy.

How very droll. What a great wit that Lawson was. Except that now nobody is laughing.

Britain faces a very real energy crisis - and it's a crisis which has been caused by adherence to free-market dogma.

In its recent report, the energy regulator Ofgem - previously so enthusiastic about the "liberalisation" of the energy market - warned that the free-market approach to energy which successive British governments have followed since the 1980s will leave us short of energy supplies by 2015.

Ofgem said that only increased state intervention - in the shape of a new state-controlled energy buyer to sell gas and electricity to consumers - would be able to keep the lights on.

But as welcome as Ofgem's report is, it doesn't go anywhere near far enough. Ofgem still envisages a future for our privatised energy companies.

But as long as energy companies remain privately owned, they will continue to profiteer at our expense and put their short-term profits ahead of Britain's longer-term energy concerns.

This winter, the coldest in Scotland since 1914 and the coldest in many other parts of Britain since 1981, the energy companies once again have shown their true colours.

The wholesale price of gas fell by around 60 per cent between 2008 and 2009. But suppliers chose not to cut customer tariffs before the winter - meaning a profit bonanza of £846 million a month.

Public ownership of the entire energy sector would not only mean lower bills, as there would be no shareholders' noses in the trough, but it would enable Britain to make sensible long-term plans regarding its energy policy for the future. Either that or we'd better make sure we're well stocked up on logs and candles.

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This week marks the centenary of the comedian and singer Joyce Grenfell, one of Britain's best-loved entertainers.

Grenfell (above), whose aunt was Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to sit in the House of Commons, had a privileged upper-class upbringing, but like so many, her political outlook changed in World War II.

"The more I see people brought up the easy way," she wrote, "the more I incline to socialism. Things will never - can never - be the same as they were before the war."

And things were not the same as they were before the war. A Labour government with public ownership high up on its agenda launched the greatest programme of nationalisation in this country's history.

There are legitimate criticisms to make of the way it went about things, not least the overgenerous compensation that was paid to the railway owners.

But by the end of its period in office the fact remains that around 20 per cent of the British economy was in public ownership.

That remained the case for almost 30 years, until the Thatcher government began its work of overturning the post-war settlement.

Ironically Thatcher came to power in 1979 - the year that Grenfell died.

I'm sure that if Grenfell returned to life today she would be horrified and saddened at how all the achievements of the post-war era have been destroyed.

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They've sold off our energy, our transport, our airports and our natural resources.
Now it's time to flog off the few remaining ports that remain in public ownership.

The historic port of Dover is being earmarked for sale, with the Nord de Palais District Council in France reported as being the main bidder.

The News of the World revealed that the government is being advised by merchant bank NM Rothschild. A source at the investment bank said: "This is an exciting sale. Selling Dover to Calais is a very logical move as that is where most of the business is directed."

Well, selling Dover to Calais for £350m may be an "exciting sale" and "logical move" for merchant banks like NM Rothschild, which has made enormous fortunes from privatisation down the years, but for the rest of us it is a sign of how financial concerns trump all other considerations in modern Britain.

Dover is a port which has played a key role in British history. Its white cliffs are a symbol of our defiance against the nazis in World War II, but all that counts for nothing as far as the money men are concerned.

The big scandal is not that Dover is being sold to the French - as the prospective Tory candidate for the town Charles Elphicke seems to think - but that it is being sold at all. Ports are national strategic assets and should be nationally owned.

"The port should absolutely stay in British hands. It always has been and it should always be. It means so much to the boys who have sailed away from it and come back," said Dame Vera Lynn, forces sweetheart and singer of the classic The White Cliffs of Dover. Dame Vera is understandably incensed by news of the sale. "How could they even think about selling it off? It is not right. Dover is part of England. It simply can't be part of anywhere else."

But for the global money men the whole idea of "national" ownership is anathema. All that matters to them is whether they can make a quick profit.

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