The chorus from business is now deafening: "give us certainty on energy policy and low carbon investment"

Businesses need to know what will happen in the future, writes RenewablesUK's Maf Smith. A government in turmoil can't provide that.

Government traditionally likes to avoid picking winners. Individual businesses are rightly in competition with each other. This creative tension is what drives our economic success. Such disagreements are why government traditionally goes to great lengths to avoid second guessing the market. 

However, there are some areas of the economy, like our energy infrastructure, where government has to stay at the table. Today, most politicians will agree that there are market failures in our energy system, and government needs to play a role to solve our so called “energy trilemma”: making sure that the lights stay on, ensuring we have secure sources of energy available, while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions. 

But even though government accepts it has a role, it cannot seem to agree on what needs to be done. It’s said that if you ask four different economists about the economy you will get at least five opinions. Right now the same seems to apply when asking UK Government Ministers their view on energy policy. The "Quad" of ministers is still debating the issue in the final run-up to the much anticipated Energy Bill. Meanwhile, the industry is reeling from a public disagreement between the Energy Minister John Hayes and Energy Secretary Edward Davey on the future of onshore wind in the UK. This was followed by the revelation that the Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris supported an anti-wind campaigner in the Corby by-election when he was supposed to be running the campaign for the official Tory candidate instead. To those of us getting used to the vagaries of political point-scoring in the Coalition, these spats may look like just part and parcel of day to day coalition Government. However, to the investment community (and especially the increasing number of foreign companies looking to invest for the long term in the UK’s supply chain) they can be unsettling.  

That is because, outside of Whitehall, in business, something interesting is happening. As government goes through the final negotiations before publishing the Bill, business opinion is settling on a shared viewpoint. 

Last week, the British Chambers of Commerce published a survey of 3,500 member companies. 90 per cent of them want the Government to ensure that the UK has a diverse energy mix, capable of avoiding future supply problems, and that the UK “must not find itself in a situation where it becomes more dependent on fossil fuels from overseas or on one technology at home”. 

In the same week as the BCC’s intervention, business leaders from prestigious organisations including Unilever, Kingfisher, EDF Energy, Doosan Power Systems, Heathrow Airport, Philips, Anglian Water and Johnson Matthey jointly wrote to the Prime Minister, expressing their concern that "the on-going divergence of views at the heart of government on the future of this sector…is paralysing investment and undermining the UK’s growth prospects". There have been similar letters and statements from companies as diverse as PepsiCo, Aviva, BT and Marks & Spencer. And recently seven of the world’s top energy companies – who employ 17,500 people in the UK alone – wrote to the Chancellor warning of political risk in current energy policy. 

Added to all this is RenewableUK’s own recent membership survey, in which almost two thirds of companies from the wind and marine renewables sector stated that policy was less favourable to the sector than 18 months ago. Despite this, 90 per cent of those organisations still expect to see growth over the next 18 months, showing the immense opportunity that clearer direction from government could unlock, as well as the furthering of the commitment that over 130 wind energy companies made to Britain via the Wind Energy Charter in May this year. 

For example, investment in offshore wind alone rose by 60 per cent last year. By 2020, the wind, wave and tidal energy industries alone are set to employ more than 88,000 people, from apprentices to highly-skilled engineers. That’s the scale of the prize on offer – as long as the all-important policy framework is right. 

The case being put forward by businesses, who are ready to make once in a generation investments into our economy, is based upon evidence and global trends. But we run the risk that these investments could be delayed. 

They hinge on the agreement of the UK Government’s Ministerial "Quad" – Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander – who are apparently set to meet to discuss energy policy. Over the autumn, business opinion has got firmly behind the view that our electricity sector needs to decarbonise. Such a shift will protect us against future price rises, open up investment in new technology and manufacturing, and support a new cornerstone of our economy – the green economy – which alone has delivered a third of the UK’s total growth in the last year. Sometimes business opinion settles on a realisation that future prosperity lies in a particular direction. Sometimes it is important that Government can agree that too, that’s why this Energy Bill is crucial for the sector.

Workers build an onshore wind turbine. Photograph: RenewableUK

Maf Smith is the Deputy Chief Executive of RenewableUK, the professional body for the UK’s wind and marine sectors, with 675 member businesses.

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