Who runs Britain’s energy policy?

A smaller cut in wind power funding comes at the cost of a commitment to decades more of dirty and expensive gas.

Who runs Britain’s energy policy? We have a Department of Energy and Climate Change – you might think from their name that they do. Or perhaps it’s Chancellor George Osborne’s Treasury that calls the shots? Now you’re getting warmer.

This week's announcement by the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, that he had secured only a 10 per cent cut in wind power funding, was heavily spun as a victory for the Lib Dem-run department. Given that the Treasury had been demanding 25 per cent cuts, this seemed a victory indeed – but one with a huge hidden cost. Because, as payment for this victory, Davey has been forced to quietly concede to another of the Treasury’s demands: a commitment to decades more of dirty and expensive gas.

We know this to be the Chancellor’s wishes, because on Monday someone leaked a letter – effectively a ransom note – that he had sent to Davey outlining his position. In it, Osborne demanded that the Energy Secretary issue “a statement which gives a clear, strong signal that we regard unabated gas as able to play a core part of our electricity generation to at least 2030 – not just providing back-up for wind plant”.

Acceding to this outrageous demand would mean seriously jeopardising the UK’s fight against climate change. As the Government’s independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, stated in response: "This would all lead to a second dash for gas. This would be incompatible with the government's climate change goals."

But on Wednesday, DECC dutifully trotted out a press release stating that “the Government… is today confirming that it sees gas continuing to play an important part in the energy mix well into and beyond 2030”. Some victory.

The exchange has also highlighted the hypocrisy of the Treasury in its assessment of what merits public subsidy, and what must go without.

Osborne stated in his letter to Davey: “While your proposals [on renewables funding] achieve some savings we will still be paying more than £500m more to support renewable generation in 2013-14 than we collectively agreed was affordable”. No-one disputes that as technology costs come down, public funding for renewables should decline; the renewables industry itself was offering up 10 per cent cuts.

But wait; what’s this? On Wednesday, as DECC announced its cuts to renewables funding, the Treasury simultaneously unveiled £500m of tax breaks for offshore gas drilling. What’s unaffordable to spend on clean energy suddenly becomes eminently affordable to spend on drilling up the dirty stuff.

Enough is enough. The Chancellor must be prevented from undermining the UK’s green economy – as the CBI recently stated, it’s one of the few parts of the economy still growing. A high-carbon energy system will lock the UK in to a high-cost as well as high-polluting future. So in whose interests is the Chancellor acting?

It’s now up to David Cameron and Nick Clegg to back their Energy Minister over the Chancellor. They should insist that the Energy Bill includes a target to decarbonise the UK’s electricity system by 2030 and unlocks support for clean British energy. The alternative energy strategy that George Osborne would have us follow is a dirty and dangerous dead end.

Guy Shrubsole is an Energy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth. For more information on Friends of the Earth’s Clean British Energy campaign: www.cleanbritishenergy.co.uk

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder