Proud Scots who are proud to be British as well
"The Queen was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Nelson Mandela last night. He worked tirelessly for the good of his country, and his legacy is the peaceful South Africa we see today.Her Majesty remembers with great warmth her meetings with Mr. Mandela and sends her sincere condolences to his family and the people of South Africa at this very sad time."
"The Queen was deeply saddened to learn of the death of George H.W. Bush last night. He worked tirelessly for the good of his country, and his legacy is the peaceful United States we see today.Her Majesty remembers with great warmth her meetings with Mr. Bush and sends her sincere condolences to his family and the people of America at this very sad time."
"The Queen is deeply saddened at the death of Nelson Mandela. Mr Mandela suffered at the hands of those who abused him and his people - but in his battle he ultimately triumphed to live to create the democratic and proud South Africa we see today.
Her Majesty sends her condolences to Mr Mandela’s family and to the people of South Africa who can remember with pride a truly great man.”
The charge is made all the time by our opponents that those of us who are against an EU referendum are being anti-democratic. The reverse is the case!
We live in a "Parliamentary Democracy" - indeed arguably we invented this idea. The underlying premise of this system is that we entrust our leaders with decision-making powers. Governments govern, subject to the will of Parliament. Parliament is elected by we the people. The present government has a majority in the House of Commons and does things. Some of those things it said it would do in a manifesto, some not. They are no different from their predecessors in that! That's how it works. And in 2015 we'll have another Election and the sequence will start again. That's our democracy for you.
The noisy (an often noisome) Europhobics understand all the above, at least the more thoughtful do. And they know, what is self-evidently the case, that no British Government is going to try and legislate us out of the EU with a vote in Parliament. And no sane political party is going to put withdrawal in a manifesto. So if our proper Democratic processes are followed we are in the EU to stay. So the Europhobics have to find a way around this.Thus the call for a referendum.
A referendum is a thoroughly unBritish idea and one that has never been part of our Governance system. "Yes it is," The Europhobics will cry, where constitutional matters are concerned. Well actually no. The vast majority of our (unwritten) constitutional changes over the last two hundred years have come from democratic processes as described here above. As far as the EU is concerned the same applies, with the exception of that one referendum in 1975. There was a manifesto commitment for that from the party that held it and the House of Commons approved it. And it was about the principle of membership not of course the detail. It was a good debate (I took part in it) and there was never the slightest doubt at the time that the vote was final and exceptional.
The EU has changed since 1975 - of course it has. And democratically elected British governments have been party to these changes and have approved them. Further democratically elected British Members of the European Parliament take part in debates and vote. Is it fully democratic ? No. Is it "getting there"? I believe so.
We decided back in 1975 that we would be a full member of a European union. Since then our leaders have managed that membership. Opt-outs included. Where we haven't opted out-we've acquiesced. And we've played a full part, democratically, in creating the EU we now have and our part in it. Including, as it happens, a decision not to join the single currency. No absence of democracy in THAT key decision. And no referendum either!
So the cry that those of us should oppose a referendum are in some way undemocratic is nonsense. The reverse is the case. It is not us but those who argue for a referendum who seek to undermine our democracy by trying to bypass Parliament and appeal to the people over its head. You can't change the democratic rules just because you don't like the outcomes I'm afraid!
I was born in 1946 a year or so into the only and last Socialist administration that the United Kingdom has ever had. During the course of those extraordinary six post-war years the British economy and society was shifted significantly to the Left. A National Health Service (NHS) was set up. Free secondary education became a right. The Bank of England, civil aviation, coal mining, the railways, road haulage, canals, electricity and gas and the steel industry was nationalised in. By 1951 about 20% of the British economy had been taken into public ownership.
The Attlee government was unashamedly ideology driven and that ideology was Socialist. The driver was Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution which said the goal was:
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
Over the past sixty years successive Governments have gradually unravelled the public ownership legacy of Attlee. This has partly been a result of a general ideological shift in the public at large and one that was to become common to all major political parties. Labour codified this by abandoning Clause IV in 1994 a move without which (arguably) they would not have come to power in 1997.
But whilst there has been an irreversible ideological shift away from Clause IV type socialism that does not mean that the debate has ceased, nor indeed that privatisation activity has stopped. Previously sacrosanct areas like the NHS are, to some extent, “up for grabs” – i.e. some of its service provision is and will continue to be provided by the private sector, where the profit motive by definition is dominant. In these cases we have common ownership (the physical assets of the NHS are mostly still publicly owned) without conventionally “equitable” distribution of the returns from them. The justification for this is that the private sector contractor will provide a more efficient and cost-effective service than if that activity was managed by Government employees. We will return to this later!
Given that the Public v Private battle has long since been won by the privatisers it is appropriate to take stock and see what’s next, or what in this writer’s view, should be. This is not about ideology at all. There is no presumption that Private enterprise is good and public ownership bad (or vice versa) – this is because this is self-evidently true. The very basis of a mixed economy is that there will be a public/private mix. The judgment calls relate to where the line is drawn, and why. Let’s start with the “Why” first and the most contentious area, and not just in Britain – Healthcare.
The original premise was that the public provision of health services would be at no cost to the patient. However prescription charges were introduced within a few years and charges began also to be levied for dental treatment. Today many areas of the NHS are chargeable though there are many who are exempt from these charges – not least those over 60 years of age and those on income support. The substantive point, though, is that though the premise that there would be free healthcare has long since been breached it is all still undeniably a public service. The premise is that the Public “ownership” of Healthcare is non-negotiable and this is reinforced by a commitment that the quality of service received will not be influenced by the ability to pay. Which then brings us to the subject of who provides the service. It is not black and white by any means! Let’s take a couple of examples. A hospital needs heat and power and the former is generally provided by a boiler house on site. The operation of this boiler house and all its connected facilities throughout the Hospital is of course crucial to the welfare of patients and staff. Does this mean that because it is important therefore it has to be provided by employees of the hospital on whose property it is located? I would argue not. There is no inherent reason why this service should not be contracted out to third party providers in the private sector who contract to provide a service against standards agreed as part of the tender against which they bid and were appointed.
Crossing the bridge from a dogmatic assertion that if it’s a public asset therefore everyone who works there should be a public employee to one where it is accepted that there will be a mix is crucial and reasonably uncontroversial! Where you draw the line is another matter. In the NHS case if we accept that a hospital (etc.) is a public/private partnership (which it is) which areas should never be contracted out and which always? Lets take the making up and issuing of prescriptions. These have to be right don't they? Our Doctor prescribes medication for us and gives us a prescription. The next step is vital. We must get from the dispensary exactly what the doctor has prescribed there is zero room for error. Vitally important you might say and therefore an area which should be under tight public service control. But of course it isn't and never has been. If we go to Boots, Britain’s largest dispenser of prescriptions, we are dealing with a Private sector business and indeed one that is presently owned by an investor – the Private Equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. In addition to their pharmacies Boots sells wide range of products which means economies of scale for their pharmacy operation. This work is carried out on behalf of the NHS against standards laid down by the NHS. Boots must meet these standards and their performance is monitored to see that they do. The same, of course, applies to all the other pharmacies that make up prescriptions, small and large. Whilst it would be going too far to say that it is immaterial who ultimately owns Boots - clearly a business of such importance to British healthcare has to be well run and robust – in essence if they meet standards in a cost-effective, costumer-focused and efficient way that is all that is required. That they make a return and a profit on this activity ought not to to be of know direct concern to those who give them the contract to trade – although it needs to be monitored of course in the public interest.
If we edge away from ideology – whether it is that of the free-market ideologue of the Right or that of the neo-Marxist of the Left – that takes us towards the consumer who is unlikely to be bothered by ideology one way or the other. That consumer just wants goods and services at reasonable prices and reliably and wherever possible to be able to make a choice between real competing offers. The word “real” is crucial here. If the competition is non-existent for logistical reasons or artificial then that adds nothing to the consumer’s benefit.
Having established the ground rules – no ideology, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, competition where possible and so on – we can then consider the appropriate public/private split across the economy. It comes up with some perhaps surprising conclusions, not least that there are some area where in the public interest activities should be taken (or taken back) into public ownership !
I wrote here about the Energy sector (especially gas although to an extent the same argument applies to electricity). I demonstrated that because no Gas supplier has any infrastructural advantages over any other, nor product acquisition cost benefits either, then their cost bases will be broadly the same. This means that over time competition is purely tactical and largely artificial.The profits made go in dividends, high executive salaries and so on. There is little doubt that a well-run publicly owned monopoly would be in the public interest producing lower prices and less wasteful pseudo-competition. This entity could be a Public/Private Partnership or it could, even, be a wholly private entity given a mandate to run the operation for a contract period against performance criteria and in return for agreed remuneration. It doesn't really matter who does it as long as it is, as I say, “well-run”. There is no bias in favour of public management – the only crucial decision is that the assets are publicly owned and that the whole operation is run in the public interest, which it self-evidently is not at present.
If Gas is an obvious area for public ownership railways are another. There are some similarities. Both Gas and the Railways rely on a single infrastructure supply system. Gas pipelines in one case and rail tracks in the other. Whilst there are some route based alternatives for some journeys in essence virtually ever rail route is a private sector monopoly with one or at most two operators on it. For the hugely busy London commuter routes there is only one choice – lump it or walk. Britain is unique in the modern world in having such a broken-up and confusing number of railway companies. There is no integrated system and fares, rolling stock, consumer offers, etc. vary between companies and across the country. While the individual companies are notionally private in fact most of them receive extensive public subsidy - £2.2 Billion in the last year. The very fact of the subsidies confirms what in any case is self-evident and that is that our Railway system is a public utility. This is acknowledged for the track (etc.) owned and operated by Network Rail – the “Private company limited by guarantee” which took over when Railtrack, the shambolic private company set up on the privatisation of British Rail in 1994, went bust. Network Rail is to all intents and purposes a publicly owned company.
There is a strong case for Britain's railways to be operated in the public interest rather than the interests of private sector companies. The failure of privatisation is not in serious dispute – but taking the railways (services as well a track and stations) back into public ownership does not necessarily mean a return to the old centralised and bureaucratic “British Rail”. Many other options exist as has been described here.
If we eschew ideology and look only at public interest then the argument as to who owns our national assets becomes more informed. It seems to me that any truly strategic asset – absolutely vital to the State – is a candidate for public ownership. The Railways. Energy infrastructure. Water. Hospitals and the Health Service. The docks and airports. And so on. Then if we agree that the decisions as to who runs these assets is also non-ideological we can accept the reality that at a macro level it will always be a public/private partnership. A hospital boiler house may be contracted out to a private provider. But what about a maternity unit? If a private provider can guarantee to achieve agreed service standards at an acceptable price why not? Well the answer to that question might be an objection to profit – again not an ideological objection to profit per se but a recognition that if the publicly owned NHS on its own and without private sector help ran the maternity unit to the same standards and at the same cost this would be preferable. Preferable because the “profits” would not go to a third party (shareholders) but be retained by the NHS.
The point about all of this is that there is nothing new or indeed inherently controversial about it. We have seen that Boots Pharmacy offers a good public service in part because it can spread some of its retailing fixed and variable costs over other things that have little directly to do with the prescription dispensary. A publicly-owned pharmacy would struggle to do this!
The problem many have with the principle of public ownership is that there is a history of low performance levels, high costs and failure in much of it in the past. But new management models and corporate structures can change that without in any way damaging the principle of public service. Public/Private partnerships don't have a very good name either but this ignores the reality that much of our society relies upon them. We use them every day whether we realise it or not!
I think that it is wrong that the domestic Gas retailing sector is such a source of high profits, high salaries and pensions all driven by phoney competition. This can and should change. Precisely what is put in its place is open to debate but the principle that this activity should be run solely in the public and national interest seems irrefutable. Apply the same logic in a non-ideological way to all of our key national assets and you might move forward.
The problem is this. It was true that Tony Blair disguised lack of political depth with outstanding communications skills. He was shallow, he had, if you analysed, it no beliefs to speak of at all. After 13 years in the wilderness he wanted power. Everything else was subordinate to this. Cameron also wanted power. Everything was going for him. Brown was by a country mile more discredited in 2010 than Major had been in 1997. (Unfairly in my view, but that's another story). And yet Cameron goofed in 2010. Nick Clegg had a good campaign and the combination of his Media-driven appeal and Cameron's campaigning failure (allied with the natural predisposition of sufficient electors still to favour Labour) gave us a hung Parliament. This was not voted for. Anymore than the Coalition was.
A few years ago I went to County Mayo in Ireland to study and report upon the Corrib Gas project. The report I wrote detailed the culpable mismanagement of the project by the Oil companies involved – primarily my old employer Shell – and by successive Irish governments. It did not criticise the project itself nor, except in a few small particulars, did I support the protestors' view that the project was potentially damaging to the environment of the area or to the rights of the local community to enjoy a life unchanged by the fact of having a major hydrocarbon project on their doorstep. My criticisms were mostly directed at the oil industry (and Government) failure properly to engage with the residents of the area from the start.
Failed community engagement is a charge that can be laid at the door of the Oil/Gas industry in Ireland but we should be wary of trusting the industry unequivocally for other reasons as well. In Nigeria Shell has still frankly not got its act together and the stories of community victims and health, safety and security dysfunctionality are well known. And the scandal of BP’s disastrous Deepwater Horizon project should make us wary of believing anything a multinational oil company ever says!
So how should we regard the plans for the exploitation of Britain’s Shale Gas reserves and in particular the project at Balcombe which has led to such strong protests? This is what the company, Cuadrilla, says they are doing:
“Cuadrilla plans to drill and take samples of the underground rock in a vertical well drilled to approximately 3,000 feet. A possible horizontal leg of 2,500 feet may also be drilled from the vertical well, dependent on the results of sampling in the vertical. Neither the vertical nor the horizontal well will be hydraulically fractured.”
So there is no production and certainly no fracking at Balcombe. The process underway is common practice in virtually all oil/gas exploration sites around the world b(including dozens in the UK). It is part of the information and data gathering that takes place before any commitment to operational drilling takes place. Cuadrilla has permission to do what they are planning to do – it would be absurd if they did not. It poses no threat to anybody. Cuadrilla does not have permission (nor have they asked for it) to move beyond the exploratory well phase. If there is an economic case to do this then the company will have to satisfy the regulators and the planners that it is the right thing to do. Such a possibility is years away.
So the protestors, at least those who have bothered to inform themselves about the project, are being disingenuous – and those who haven't bothered are being ignorant. A dangerous combination! What they are doing is using the fact that a company is drilling a test well in a location that may just be commercially viable for Gas production as an opportunity to protest about Shale Gas in general and fracking in particular. In a democracy that is their right so long as they stay within the law of course but what is underway, with its “Celeb” protestors and its violence and abuse adds rather more heat than light!
For me, and I am hardly a spokesman for “Big Oil” (!) , what is wearisome is that as in County Mayo and elsewhere the Shale Gas debate is being utterly polarised. I believe that there will be Shale Gas projects that are utterly uncontroversial in every way (there are already dozens of them) and projects which should not be allowed to go ahead for environmental, community, safety or other reasons. In other words the Orwellian “All Shale is Bad” or “All Fracking is bad” is nonsense – as is its opposite. I am also prepared to accept what (for example) Shell says about Shale Gas and fracking:
“A recent study conducted by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering on behalf of the UK government concluded that fracking is safe “as long as operational best practices are implemented and robustly enforced through regulation”.
Other research, such as the European Parliament report on the environmental impacts of shale gas and shale oil extraction activities and a study conducted by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering on behalf of the UK government, support these findings.
The technology has been developed and refined over 60 years, and is today used in drilling thousands of wells each year.”
When I say “accept” I do not mean “believe”. I do not think that Shell would say this if they did not sincerely believe it to be true. The key point is in the first paragraph. “Best practice” and “regulation” – as the Royal Society puts it. So my position and what I would recommend to others is to campaign vigorously not against Shale Gas and Fracking but for its regulation. The Prime Minister has said
“The regulatory system in this country is one of the most stringent in the world. If any shale gas well were to pose a risk of pollution then we have all the powers we need to close it down.”
This statement should be challenged and the media, the environmental movement and Parliament itself needs to make sure that what Cameron says actually happens. Indeed the campaign should not be to ensure that we “close down” such wells but to make sure that they are never approved at the planning stage. That would be better use of all of our time than the rent-a-crowd protests in Balcombe.