What’s going wrong with politics and energy – and how to fix it

Change is always tricky, but it's far from impossible, writes Green Alliance's Alastair Harper.

Uncertainty over the government’s position on our energy future is costing us. One senior Conservative figure, deeply frustrated by the situation, confided that interest rates on energy projects have increased by 15 per cent over the last few weeks, entirely because of Westminster’s energyshambles. That kind of financing leap adds up – and features later on our bills.

Changing our infrastructure is hard. It means changing things not just for those who provide it, but for the people who use it. It is a big challenge that costs and can confuse. Look at what happened recently in broadcasting – we moved from an analogue format to a digital one. A relatively minor shift in the mode of transmission, but what an effort it took.

It wasn’t just about changing our televisions. It meant changing everything from the cables in the ground to the satellites in space. Because of this, it meant changing things not just in the UK, but around the world. But it worked. How?

First, a global agreement was reached as to when the switchover should happen. Six years ago, a deadline of 17 June 2015 was registered with the United Nations. 

Each nation then agreed its domestic target for achieving the switchover – Netherlands was first in 2006, while the UK finished a few weeks ago on 24 October 2012. 

The government spent a considerable amount of money helping people with this change, overseen by an independent body of experts in the form of Digital UK. But such was the rigour and certainty with which the government went about the process (empowered by cross-party support) that it ended up costing less than expected.

You would think that a demonstrable improvement shouldn’t need government interference: the market should take care of itself. But manufacturers need coordinated targets to tell them when a product becomes redundant and new ones are needed. Retailers need to know what they should be stocking when. During the digital switchover, a clear line of direction helped the public and business to bring about a complex change together on time and under budget.

This was a huge programme of change – from making sure a regional care home had a functional communal telly, to sending new satellites into space. And this was all done not for anything as dramatic as saving the planet - just to offer a better product. 

So why is it so much more difficult for something much more important like the switch to low carbon energy? Why the newspaper headlines? Why the controversy? Why the mess?

Much of the structure is already in place. We have, as we did with the digital switchover, a nonbinding UN agreement on decarbonisation. It’s not enough, of course, but as China reduces its emissions by 15 per cent in five years, we can’t pretend not to be part of a global process.

We have a firm domestic target – an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 as set out in the Climate Change Act.

We have the independent experts to achieve that goal in the form of the Committee on Climate Change. 

Everything should be in place to achieve the change we need, so why does it feel like something’s going wrong? It’s the politics. 

We had a target, but the politicians argued about how to meet it. We had advisers, but the politicians argued about what they advised. 

As no one knows what the direction of travel is, the costs are going up. They go up as government whips secretly support rival parties. They go up as one department calls for a gas-led future and another says it will have a limited role. When one minister says an energy technology is done, and his boss says he is wrong. This is all despite huge public support for renewables – in fact, a recent analysis showed Conservative voters want more wind, not less.

That is why business is so cross. That is why everyone from Siemens to Alstom to Virgin to Marks and Spencers to National Grid to Microsoft to Edf to Unilever  and many, many more have said we need more certainty. As Mike Barry of M&S recently said: “the certainty of the Climate Change Act has been replaced.”

At the moment, under the Climate Change Act, we only have a target for greenhouse gas emissions across the economy– everything from agriculture to refrigeration. These are all pillars, holding up the structure of our decarbonisation plan. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need a target for any one particular pillar, but a crucial one is currently looking very wobbly indeed – our electricity generation. If we don’t succeed in decarbonising electricity, everything else will have to meet much higher targets, making everything much more expensive.

As with digital switchover, as with the rail revolution, as with decimalisation, our country has prepared itself for a big change to the status quo. We should be busy achieving the change. We shouldn’t need extra frameworks  – but our politicians have let us down. We now need our politicians to show they are capable of giving businesses the structure they need to deliver without them, by listening to what those companies have told them and putting in place a clear figure on how much carbon can be in our electricity mix by 2030. 

A solar thermal generator in California's Mojave desert. Photograph: Getty Images

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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