Monday, November 28, 2005

Usual Service from Roy Hattersley

Roy Hattersley, a former Labour cabinet minister in the 1970s, writes in his usual column in The Guardian, 28 November, his usual controversial piece putting the world to rights, as he sees it. On this occasion too he manages to argue a case with his usual aplomb and total disregard for his contradictory notions, but with his usual total conviction.

The subject is the price of gas – not the kind that goes into US SUVs; the kind that fires power stations. Mrs Thatcher’s governments that followed the ones that Roy Hattersely served, de-nationalised the gas industry and called it privatisation. Continental governments did not follow suit. Theirs remain under state control.

Now that gas prices and supplies are under pressure – there are fears of a cold winter ahead – the privatised British gas industry is under siege. British gas supplies come from both its North Sea gas fields and from the Continent through the UK-Belgium ‘interconnector’. Hattersely observes:

The British gas market is so "liberalised" that we have to compete for the limited supplies that are available - expensive liquid imports complimenting diminishing North Sea reserves and whatever share of European production comes our way along the UK-Belgium Interconnector.”

He inserts his first hook:

At the other end of the Interconnector, other governments are doing their best to protect domestic and industrial consumers - whatever Adam Smith may say on the subject

And how are the nationalized gas suppliers on the Continent ‘protecting’ their consumers?

Why, acting as monopolists and selfishly (there is not other word to use around the likes of Roy Hattersley, who usually doles out the word with no consideration for repetition) refusing to supply gas to their British partners. This behaviour is hardly an exhibition of fraternally solidarity with a fellow member of the European Union. Does Roy Hattersely criticize the behaviours of the state monopolies (he would certainly be trumpeting his criticism if private monopolies did the same)? Not a peep, not a word, not even an iota of reproach.

Worse, Hattersely turns the world and the problem on its head:

But the problem that British gas consumers face is not the result of a surfeit of state control.”

Excuse me, Roy, but the source of the problem is on the Continent where there is a surfeit of state control and where that state control is depriving Britain of access to gas supplies. Unless, of course, silly me, Roy is blaming the victim not the perpetrator, a stance he usually would condemn when the same ‘method’ is used to blame the poor for being poor, the illiterate for being uneducated, and the victim of rape for being ‘provocative’. Indeed, he confirms his prejudices with the remarkable admission:

There was a time when the Labour party would have regarded their behaviour as no more than common sense.”

There you have it. State monopolies acting as rampant monopolists against the fraternal relations of other friendly countries are acting with “no more than common sense” when they do so. In the heart of every socialist a nationalist socialist slumbers until stirred to disclose itself, not an internationalist.

His second hook is another go at the victim. Gas prices are:

“…the product of a doctrinal devotion to private enterprise. When fuel bills go up next year, we will all be paying the price of privatisation.”

So it’s the public’s fault for voting to end Roy’s Cabinet career by electing Mrs Thatcher. Defeated politicians nurse for decades their dreams of quiet vengeance for their grievances from loss of office. How Roy’s sense of vindication for those long years in the political wilderness must have risen in his bosom, even a tear in the eye may have blurred his vision, as he wrote those words.

He does not mention his ‘doctrinal devotion’ to state control; no regret that his Continental pals (Roy was foremost among others in the British campaign to join the EEC/EU) are acting in a selfish manner; only a jibe at the lady who defeated him.

He concludes with a reinforcement of his ideological flanks:

Nobody in their right mind thinks that it is possible to renationalise gas or any of the other public utilities. But the argument in favour of bending the rules of the market towards a regard for the national interest is irrefutable. Our colleagues in the European Union do it. So it is clearly possible. Only ideological prejudice stands in the way.”

Nationalisation is the discredited panacea of the governments Roy Hattersely voted for and served in; it is the socialist remedy that dare not mention its name. So he goes for the second-best socialist remedy: “bending the rules of the market” and claims this ‘argument’ is ‘irrefutable’. Strong stuff indeed. His ‘argument’ relies solely on the evidence that others do it (the alibi of everybody caught speeding, or cheating on their taxes, or their spouse). And note how the people acting against British interests are now our ‘colleagues’ – some colleagues! Not the kind you can really trust, are they Roy.

Still, he does not tell us how the Labour government is supposed to ‘bend the rules’. Yet he opened his piece with a mocking criticism of the Tory leader, Michael Howard, for doing exactly the same:

Last Wednesday in the House of Commons, Michael Howard - barricaded in the last refuge of opposition leaders who have nothing much to say - called on Tony Blair to do something about rising gas prices and threats to supply without explaining what that something might be. Apparently he had forgotten why ministers are powerless to act.”

Roy clearly misses the knock-about exchanges of his House of Commons days. It’s all a jolly good jape, lads, smirking while we knock the PM (ours too) or the Opposition leader, loud guffaws all round. But what about policy? What exactly is Roy suggesting? Has he anything constructive to say, or is it just more of his opinionated nostalgia?

Adam Smith did not resolve the problem of public or private management of state industries, but he did know what he was against in monopoly, whether of the state or private kind. He was against them, and favoured competition in conditions of Natural Liberty and justice.

Monopolies, plus so-called ’national interests’, usually lead to strife and war. I would have though Roy would have agreed with Smith at least on this. Europe has seen plenty of evidence of the alternative.


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