British Day? Let's have lots of them

A British Day would mean an extra day off work, so why should we stop at just one?

There’s been a lot of discussion this week about the possibility of having a ‘British Day’. Ruth Kelly and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne, in a Fabian Society pamphlet, are proposing this as a new public holiday, and have stimulated a wide debate and many headlines along the lines of ‘What is Britishness anyway?’.

The Daily Mail was on fine, frightening form, ridiculing the emphasis on better community relations in the ministers’ statement, and wondering how a government that banned fox hunting could lay claim to any kind of national pride. Hmmm.

More reflectively, Derek Wall, my counterpart as Principal Speaker of the Green Party suggested 1 May as a candidate for a British Day. May Day is at least an ancient festival, and its modern-day connotations of progressive protest are also appealing, but I reckon we have got enough holidays in the spring already.

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the proposal has hardly been mentioned. We are being offered a new bank holiday, and not before time. Workers in the UK get a raw deal on public holidays compared with almost everywhere else. With eight a year, we’re on average three days behind Europe, and even America trounces us with eleven federal holidays plus a range of state holidays on top (Texas has six!).

We also work longer hours than anywhere else in Europe, and our mental and physical health suffers as a result. One in three British employees thinks they are less healthy thanks to their working patterns and a 2006 survey showed that the average lunch break had declined to under 20 minutes, with most people eating lunch at their ‘workstations’.

And the bosses are as badly off as the rest of us, at least in their work-life balance: one in five managers in the UK works the equivalent of a seven-day week.

We are badly in need of more time off. So, if we can’t agree on what to celebrate with one new bank holiday, why not create three or four?

There are plenty of ideas already out there, with various campaigns taking advantage of this week’s debate to make the case for a public celebration of their cause. Alex Salmond called for St. Andrew’s day in November to herald the start of a winter festival, and campaigners for a St. George’s Day holiday in England also seized the chance to speak up, citing the fact that "in Ireland they go berserk on St Patrick’s Day". Apart from everything else, 23 April is also part of the spring glut, so this one doesn’t get my vote either.

From a practical point of view, July has to be the prime candidate for an extra day off. It's the month that usually has the best weather and – frustratingly – is a bank holiday-free zone at present. If it was given to me to decide I think I’d pick my birthday, name it ‘Lido Day’ and then put plenty of Lottery funding into making sure everyone had the chance to lounge around at a nearby pool.

There’s a lot about local communities in the ministers’ proposals. So, another suggestion of mine, for the similarly blighted run up to Christmas, is ‘Buy Local Day’ where shops selling plastic and electronic goods from the far east are closed and we visit independent shops to buy locally made, seasonal presents.

The day would of course be finished off with a huge feast of local food and a pint of local beer.

So that’s two sorted out. How about a national vote on the other two, pitting the nationalist campaigners against those in favour of commemorating Sylvia Pankhurst’s birthday, the Magna Carta, Waterloo or the day we invented Blu Tack? That would keep us occupied for a while, and might result in some interesting choices.

I don't think it really matters what we go for. Finding things to actually ‘celebrate’ is a bit of a minefield, as Ruth Kelly has found out; and whatever you choose is likely to raise someone’s hackles.

Perhaps instead we should have holidays to promote things that are still works in progress, such as peace, justice, democracy, or indeed protecting the environment. Or, given our chronic need for rest, why not just pick a few dates at random and call them ‘days off’.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.