Notes on October 2013

The savage rise in household energy prices must be a worry for almost everyone in Britain, apart from the super-rich.  Ed Miliband has clearly scored a popular bull’s-eye with his promise to freeze them (the prices, not the Britons, although…) if and when Labour comes back into office, and to use the moratorium to reform the dysfunctional market in gas and electricity. But I don’t understand why he hasn’t also promised to end the indefensible system whereby the cost of developing green, renewable energy sources to replace carbons is funded by a flat-rate addition to all energy bills, which is part of the reason for energy being so expensive.  I know there’s supposed to be a vital principle that “the polluter pays”, but since ordinary users of gas and electricity have almost no choice of energy source, the imposition of what is effectively a tax on fuel bills which falls most heavily on the poorest seems iniquitous.  Transferring to renewables is clearly a social good which should be funded out of progressive general taxation, with the richest paying the most and the poorest nothing.  That would bring down energy bills quickly, as well as being much fairer.  Labour should promise to end this impost before the Tories (or their junior partners) think of it.

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Talking of rising energy prices, I was amused to hear the energy minister (whose name escapes me) claiming to “wear a jumper in the house” to reduce his central heating bill.  Not only did this seem a wonderful example of the “let them eat cake” school of public relations:  it also jarred on those of us who refer to the garment in question, when worn by a man, as a sweater, not a jumper.  Perhaps the minister was brought up in a home full of women.

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Fresh developments in the “Plebgate” saga continue to  unfold before our wondering eyes.  Andrew Mitchell, accused by the cops more than a year ago  of repeatedly swearing at the policepersons (f. as well as m.) on duty in Downing Street and calling them ‘plebs’ when they wouldn’t let him cycle through the main gates, much later had a meeting in his constituency office with three senior policemen which had been billed as ‘private’.  As soon as the meeting ended, the three coppers came out and told the press that Mitchell had refused to give them his own account of what had happened and what, according to him, he had really said. For this alleged failure they said he should resign from his government post (as he was subsequently forced to do). Fortunately Mitchell had had the foresight clandestinely to record the whole meeting, the transcript of which showed that the coppers’ accusation was completely false.

We should add to this the discovery by Channel Four News that the email to another Tory MP from someone purporting to be an ordinary member of the public who claimed to have heard Mitchell utter the fatal p-word and several f-words from outside the gates, turned out to be from a serving policeman who had been nowhere near Downing Street on the day in question:  and the evidence of the CCTV cameras that Mitchell’s verbal exchange with the police had lasted only a few seconds, almost certainly too short a time for delivery of the extended tirade reported by the police. There’s more: the police report had alleged that Mitchell’s outburst had visibly shocked several passers-by in Whitehall who had overheard it, whereas the same CCTV cameras showed clearly that Whitehall had been completely deserted at the time, apart from one pedestrian who didn’t even pause or look round as he walked past. Questions began to be asked about the doubtful propriety of giving the Sun newspaper the police’s account of what had happened, and shortly afterwards actually copying the confidential official police log of the episode to the Daily Telegraph. The whole police case begins to look distinctly moth-eaten.  No wonder the investigation into what really took place in Downing Street on that night of 19 September 2012, more than a year ago, is still not ready to report while the Director of Public Prosecutions scrutinises the evidence to see whether there’s a case for anyone to be prosecuted.

No-one wins friends by saying “I told you so.”  But on 24 September, 2012, just five days after the altercation in Downing Street, and several weeks before the police case began to unravel, I wrote a post on this blog expressing scepticism about the proposition that a man with Mitchell’s background and education would ever use the kind of language attributed to him by the Downing Street police.  “Indeed,” I wrote then,

the whole script given (or sold?) to the Sun newspaper (presumably by the police or someone acting for them) reads very strangely, looking much more like a police approximation in imagined toff-ese than what a toff is actually likely to have said.  Clearly he swore, doesn’t deny it, and has apologised for it; and anyway ‘pleb’ is hardly the most insulting word in the language, especially as it so obviously says more about the speaker than the person spoken to.

Luckily my apparent prescience is on the record at  Not many people were questioning the police account at that early stage.  Now not many believe a word of it – least of all the p-word.

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Another (this time minor) mystery about ‘Plebgate’:  why does the commentariat continue to talk about Andrew Mitchell having lost his “Cabinet post” as a result of the dispute?  Mitchell had been a member of the Cabinet earlier, as International Development Secretary;  but at the time of his tiff with the Downing Street police, as Government Chief Whip, he wasn’t.  It seems that not many people know that.

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My main excuse for neglecting this blog for so long is that I’ve been busy writing a book – my first, and pretty certainly my last. It’s a funny time to be writing one’s first book in one’s 80th year and I am finding that the actual writing of the book is the least arduous part of the exercise:  managing relations with the publisher and the editor in charge of getting the thing published, persuading experts in the field to read your manuscript and warn you of errors – and with luck to provide you with a glowing comment for use as blurb and for marketing purposes, wrestling with the unintelligible forms devised by the US tax authorities to be filled in (or out) to enable them to tax any royalties arising from American book sales, getting advice on which expenses can be set against UK tax on UK royalties, preparing to write the Acknowledgements and compile an index when the page proofs arrive, negotiating the contract with the publishers and trying to persuade them to let you have a few more free copies for distribution to family and friends – all this takes up more time, and sets more booby-traps, than writing the book in the first place.

Fortunately my publishers’ editor is a delightful, patient and unerringly helpful lady, and comments from experts who have read the manuscript (if 15 Word files can be called a manuscript) have been uniformly constructive and positive.  In case you’re interested, the book is definitely not a memoir or autobiography, diplomatic or otherwise, nor is it a novel or other work of fiction, although it has superficial elements of both.  I shall be reporting progress from time to time on this blog and I may put extracts from it on my website in due course: watch this space!  In the meantime, there’s already a lot of information about it on my publishers’ website, at (click all four tabs there, “Description”, “Author[s]”, “Table of Contents” and especially “Reviews“).  That web page still shows the publication date as next July, but in fact the scheduled publication date has been brought forward to the spring of next year, since I transmitted the finished product to the publishers earlier than they had expected. Start saving up for a copy now!  End of commercial.




3 Responses

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    I was expecting that the immediate response to Ed Miliband’s promise to freeze energy bills for 20 months would be the obvious one – that if I go down to the market saying I will not pay higher prices for fruit and vegetables I may find that I come back without any. To my surprise I have not seen any commentator say that. Instead we have sophisticated and no doubt correct, but to my mind secondary, stuff about old labour, the cost of living crisis, imperfect competition, the need for investment, the cost of environmental and social levies etc. Maybe it’s just that I have been watching world energy markets too long, and have got it into my head that that is what they are – markets.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Oliver. I think there’s a material difference between the house-wife (or you) visiting the market determined not to pay the prices offered there, and unable to do anything to bring them down (unless it’s a market that’s open to bargaining, of course) on the one hand, and the government in its relations with the energy companies on the other. Unlike the housewife, the government possesses significant power to affect the retail prices of gas and electricity, both through the regulator, who has extensive but largely unused statutory powers to prevent unwarranted price increases, and by reducing or removing the element in retail energy prices that the government itself loads onto energy bills to pay for the development of green alternative energy sources. As argued in my post, I think it totally unreasonable to compel involuntary domestic or even commercial consumers of energy to bear the cost of developing green alternative energy sources, which should be financed from progressive general taxation and by government borrowing on the market.

    Two additional points: several comparable western democratic countries do cap energy prices to domestic consumers, without the catastrophic consequences threatened by the energy companies and their Tory public relations officers; and it’s generally agreed, I think, that in Britain the energy market is deeply dysfunctional, since there is effectively no price competition between the big six suppliers, the retail suppliers buy their energy from their own commercial producer partners on secret terms, and consumers are denied the knowledge of the facts about costs, prices and their own consumption records that would enable them to make informed choices between genuinely competing suppliers. Miliband’s proposal is to cap prices for a period during which a Labour government would reform the market to make it both more transparent and more competitive, e.g. perhaps by separating producers from retailers, as ought to be happening with the banks (but isn’t).

  2. john miles says:

    One or two questions I don’t know the answers to.
    Roughly what percentage of our bills goes to developing green sources?
    0.5%? 5%? 50%%
    Are the energy companies really making excessive profits, as John Major seems to think?
    How do the prices of comparable Western democracies compare with ours?
    What would happen if a government were, in its search for votes, to cap prices to the consumer at a rate lower than that available to the energy companies?
    How can we be sure there’s no price competition between the big six?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, John. Some of your questions could no doubt be answered by anyone, including you, willing and able to spend time doing the research required. Others seem to me matters of subjective opinion, or else answered by the evidence of universal experience, not really requiring (or susceptible to the provision of) chapter and verse.

  3. Gavin says:

    I think I must have commented a year ago that I agreed with what you said about the Mitchell affair.  I never understood why the use of the word ‘pleb’ (which apparently was not used anyway) was so insulting. Why has it taken so long for us to be told that Andrew Mitchell had a recording of his meeting with the Police which showed that they had lied? I remember very little from Latin A levels, much less than you who took a degree in it, but I do not think the Romans would have been insulted by the use of the word pleb.  I can think of much worse. Certainly it was a very odd reason for being forced to resign.

    As to the row about energy costs:  I would take the green tax element out and make the taxpayer pay it.  I would also reduce VAT and put the cost of that reduction onto income tax, particularly the higher rates.  It would be good if one could get VAT down to 15 per cent but I have not worked out how much of an increase that would impose on income tax.  Increasingly we hear of people who cannot afford to feed, heat and clothe their families and who rely on food banks, even some of those who have jobs.  At the same time there are large numbers of people, some very near here in Scotland, who spend huge amounts doing unnecessary and repeated alterations to their houses or flying off to distant lands on ever more exotic holidays without regard for cost or the effect on carbon emissions and the climate. Taxing those who are able to save part of their income rather than those who have to spend it all would in any case do much more for the recovery (as I tried to argue in my book). Increasingly I am coming to the view that there would be a good reforming agenda for an incoming Labour Government if only they had the courage to adopt it.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Gavin. I lack your economics expertise, but I agree with everything you say.