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Modernising the monarchy? Hardly, says Laurie Penny

The way the royals are reported is like a Disney film.

In our storybook world, royalty open hospitals with their shiny-haired brides, rather than stomping in muddy wellingtons over democracy.

The true purpose of the British monarchy, as the late Douglas Adams might have put it, is not to wield power, but to distract attention away from it. We can be curiously coy about the way privilege works in this country: consider, if you will, the horrified reaction to the news that Prince Charles has been allowed to dabble in the affairs of government.

Parliamentary loopholes have meant that the unelected heir to the throne has been granted power of veto over matters that affect the private interests of the Duchy of Cornwall, including road safety, planning and environmental policy. We are shocked by the reminder that the royal family is more than a tinselly relic to bring in the tourists: it actually has political influence and some of its members are uncouth enough to use it.

While all of this has been going on, there has barely been a day when the young Duke and Duchess of Cornwall have been absent from the front pages. It's as if the loveliness of the Duchess, wafting in designer gowns around various official engagements with her subtly balding beau and the international media in tow, were enough to distract the world from a nation creaking with corruption and civic breakdown.

In Britain, we are comfortable with the trappings of power as long as they are phrased in the manner of a fairy tale. At the end of last month, changes to the royal succession were made, to much fanfare, to ensure that female firstborn will be able to inherit the throne. "Put simply, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen," said David Cameron, with all the political gravitas of an episode of Jackanory. This "modernisation", which, like most recently hailed feminist triumphs, makes cosmetic alterations to the existing system while ensuring that nothing of relevance changes, is as clear a message as any that the House of Windsor intends to squat in its position of privilege for many generations to come.

Giving it welly

The real story of power and privilege in Britain is far murkier than the Disney-princess version peddled by the tabloids. In this storybook world, royalty open hospitals with their shiny-haired brides, rather than stomping in muddy, expensive wellingtons over the democratic process.

It is worth noting, in these circumstances, that the word "privilege" actually means "private law". It means that wealthy or aristocratic influences are allowed to bend the rules to suit their own interests - and this goes on all the time behind the closed doors of Whitehall, not just with the Windsors. Documents leaked to Private Eye showed that the permanent secretary to HM Revenue and Customs personally shook hands on a deal that let off the investment bank Goldman Sachs £10m in unpaid interest on a failed tax-avoidance scheme.

The Ministry of Defence is only just staggering away from a scandal in which it emerged, among other things, that a lobbyist who had paid a reported £20,000 in expenses to Liam Fox's aide was granted face-time with the arms sales minister. Time and again, private law trumps the public interest, yet we allow ourselves to be distracted by a fairy tale of functioning democracy.

This is no time for sugarplum politics. Behind every modern fairy tale is an ancient fable of thuggery, hierarchy and blood, and the story of modern Britain is no different.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Ruling the waves: should the UK own its offshore wind?

A new report from Labour Energy Forum makes the case for greater public ownership in the offshore sector.

Rule, Britainnia! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves to EU policy again. So goes the thinking of the Brexiteers. But little mention is made of the foreign companies ruling our waves – via offshore wind.

According to a new report by the Labour Energy Forum, over 90 per cent of the UK’s offshore wind is owned by non-UK entities. Plus, over 50 per cent of is controlled by public, often state-owned entities, like the Danish wind company DONG.

In contrast, UK public entities own less than 1 per cent of the total wind farms already built or under construction. That translates to just one single wind turbine: a lonely creature, barely off the beach at Levenmouth in Scotland.

At a time when UK already generates more energy from offshore wind than any other nation and the costs are tumbling, does this ownership model put Britain at a disadvantage?

The government's Department for Business, Energy and industrial Strategy avoids answering this question head-on. Instead it focuses on how overseas investment can benefit service businesses: “Over £11bn of investment in new UK offshore wind farms is due to take place over the next four years with around half of the expenditure in planning, building and running offshore projects going to British companies,” a spokesperson told the New Statesman.

But what about future profit? If offshore wind is eventually able to power domestic demand six times over, as the Offshore Valuation Group predicts, how can the UK public reap the rewards of potential sale abroad?

“The UK has such enormous resources we should be leading, not lagging,” says the Labour Energy Forum’s report author, Mika Minio-Paluello of Transition Economics. Theresa May’s sale of the UK’s Green Investment Bank in April ended the coalition’s experiment in public sector ownership of the green economy, and since then their ambitions have been “limited”.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Minio-Paluello has spent a lot of time in Germany and seen the benefits of the public ownership route. The city of Munich never privatised its local energy supply system, she says. They are now working towards a 2025 target of 100 percent clean energy by building offshore wind farms, including around the UK. “They hadn’t farmed the staff out to the private sector or made as many cutbacks, which meant they could engage with [the renewable transition] as a society as a whole.”

The potential gains for the UK are substantial: from more control over where money is spent and who is employed, to greater tax revenues. “Offshore wind is already breathing life back into ports like Grimsby,” the report says, “but more stimulus and direction is needed. Especially as the fossil-fuel sector gives way to the clean energy economy.”

Yet is the UK already too far behind to catch up and compete with Europe's energy giants? Creating a fully independent public offshore wind company that builds its own wind farms is not a realistic short-term goal, Minio-Paluello says. But you have to start somewhere; the important thing is to be an active partner in the process.

Some UK local authority pension funds have already put money into the Green Investment Bank’s offshore wind fund – yet the hands-off approach means they have no direct influence on how the projects are carried out, staffed and supplied. A more involved option could see UK public bodies operating within the sector in partnership with more established companies. Even as non-operating partners, such bodies could still set requirements on local content and job creation – something that is especially important considering the low union density within the sector at present, the report notes.

A joint enterprise between the non-profit company Energy for Londoners and the Danish energy giant DONG, for example, could build a new windfarm with part UK public ownership. This is not fundamentally different from the councils who already invest in onshore wind and solar farms, Minio- Paluello suggests, “it’s just bigger”.

Such a scheme would allow the UK entities to build up their experience and staffing in the sector, opening the door to grander ambitions in the future. Plus it could bring down energy costs: public companies like DONG and Vattenfall have already led the way towards building subsidy-free sites, while access to cheaper capital can be passed on as savings to the consumer.

Without such interventions, some fear a return to the ill-winds of the Thatcher era, when the revenues from the North Sea Oil boom were squandered and government stakes sold off. “I think it’s quite possible that in 30 years we will look back and ask why did we privatise all our offshore wind sector?” Minio-Paluello says. 

The Labour Party is starting to explore the options, and campaigns like Switched On London and Manchester’s Energy Democracy are also doing their part. But a wind of change must blow from Westminster too – and soon.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.