Some people must wonder what party John Hutton thinks he’s a member of, after his saying that we should celebrate and enhance wealth and inequality. Now he’s off on another fantasy that takes him even beyond Thatcher’s nuclear pretensions.
Yesterday he proclaimed that a UK nuclear revival would produce a £20bn economic bonanza, create 100,000 new jobs, and benefit the economy as much as North Sea oil. This is worse than delusional; it’s just plain silly.
The nuclear record so far is that it’s costing the taxpayer £72bn – that is £1,200 for every many, woman and child in the UK – to decommission worn-out nuclear plants. It’s costing a further £20bn to deal with the nuclear waste left behind, which will remain toxic and hazardous for 100,000 years or more. In addition, British Energy, the holding company for Britain’s nuclear reactors, went bankrupt and had to be bailed by the taxpayer at a cost of £5.3bn. Some bonanza!
The Government gives four reasons for supporting nuclear. None of them stands up.
First, they say it’s needed to keep the lights on. It takes at least 13-15 years to build a nuclear power station, but by 2020 – and no new nuclear power station will be ready by then – there will already be a huge energy gap of 20GW. So nuclear will be far too late to keep the lights on.
Second, the Government says nuclear is necessary to help meet our climate change requirements. But because half our energy demand is for heat (mainly gas-based) and the next biggest energy demand is for transport (oil-based), and because electricity generation, for which nuclear provides less than one-fifth, is the smallest part of energy demand, nuclear actually provides only 3 ½ % of total energy demand, and falling. So overall nuclear’s contribution to cutting carbon emissions is vanishingly small.
Third, Hutton says no public subsidies will be necessary. This is another bit of spin since his own DBERR White Paper says (para. 3.73) that the Government intends to put a cap on the costs of decommissioning for nuclear operators and then make taxpayers pick up the bill. There is also the obligation on the Government, aka the taxpayer, that if a nuclear company goes bust, as the British Energy nuclear company went belly-up in 2003, it has to be bailed out by the public sector. And there are always in the background the incalculable costs of a nuclear accident, which the Government White Paper itself is not negligible and cannot be dismissed.
Fourth, the nuclear waste problem is unsolved and nowhere near solution. Already there 10,000 tonnes of long-life highly toxic intermediate and high-level waste in the UK, including much radioactive material with a half-life in excess of 100,000 years, and according to the Government’s own figures this will rise to half a million tonnes by the end of this century, even with no new nuclear build. The only place in the country where the local population will probably accept a nuclear dump near them is Sellafield, and in 1997 that failed to pass the nuclear inspectors’ safety case. So how can it be justified to generate a whole lot more extremely dangerous nuclear waste when after 50 years of nuclear we still have no idea where to put the existing huge stockpiles which in any case are due to expand 50-fold during this century?
What Hutton fails to recognise is that nuclear is not the solution to the problem, but part of the problem. The nuclear industry may not be very good at producing low-cost sustainable energy, but they certainly know how to manipulate weak, disingenuous and badly-advised ministers.
There will be no settlement in Iraq without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and without talking to Syria and Iran, so there needs to be a whole Middle East peace settlement. It is perfectly possible to see the key outlines of such a grand bargain.
One aim should be the establishment of a federal Iraq, not imposed by the West, but facilitating efforts by the Iraqis themselves to find it. Though federation has been scouted as a Western idea, it is in fact a development of the originally separate Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra which prevailed for centuries before the Baathist dictatorship of Saddam was forced on the country in the 1960s.
The Israeli-Patestinian conflict has to be ended by establishing a fully independent Palestinian state within approximately the 1967 borders, together with a guarantee of Israel’s frontiers and an internationally patrolled demilitarised zone along its borders with Palestine and Lebanon for a lengthy period (maybe 15-20 years).
All Western forces have to be withdrawn from the Middle East over a 5-10 year period, in return for a guarantee by the oil-producing states of an uninterrupted supply of oil. At present, the US-UK occupation is actually fuelling the insurgency and driving the suicide bombing, which was unknown in Iraq before the occupation. It will require both a political turnaround by a new US Democratic President in 2009 and a major switch in the West away from fossil fuels.
The most difficult part of an overall settlement is the negotiation of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. This would require the nuclear disarmament of Israel in return for Iran (and other Middle East countries in its wake) giving up its nuclear weapons programmes. This would require close supervision by the International Atomic Energy Authority, armed with intrusive powers of inspection and back ed by sanctions. If Israel categorically rejects such a bargain, it is difficult for the international community to deny Iran the right to develop its own nuclear weapons, and nuclear proliferation cannot be prevented. The Middle East is the test case for the deal at the heart of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, that in return for pledges (enforced by open inspections) by the non-nuclear powers not to develop nuclear weapons, the existing nuclear powers would dismantle theirs.
The suspended customs union between Israel and Palestine should be re-activated and extended to Jordan and Lebanon, in order to establish a Middle Eastern common market. Part of a grand political bargain would be the provision of extensive reconstruction funding.
These may seem giant, unreachable steps, but at this point 5 years on from the invasion the impasse in Iraq plus the real negotiation of a multilaterally owned settlement for the whole Middle East make these steps not only realistic, but the only practicable way forward.
There is something really surreal about the current political scene. As the position of the two main parties becomes increasingly intertwined and the differences between the Blairite and Brownite variations of neo-liberalism become increasingly difficult to detect, the debate about the political fundamentals has dwindled almost to invisibility. Never was ideology more needed, and never was it more lacking.
It isn’t as though there’s little to debate. The free-market Washington consensus, which has governed the global economy for the past quarter century, is in crisis as a result of the sub-prime market fiasco and other excesses of two or more decades of deregulated markets. Yet neither in Parliament nor in the media is there any serious debate of long-term reform. The power structure in Britain has dramatically altered over the same period with the growing centralisation of power around No.10 balanced by the downgrading of Parliament, and linked to the dominance (till now) of the City, big business and increasingly the media. But nowhere is the loss of democratic accountability even discussed, let alone remedied. And since the Iraq war ended nearly five years ago, there has still not been a Parliamentary debate with a vote on the causes, handling and aftermath of the war.
In the absence of discussion about the real big issues, politics has become a matter of narrow positioning, re-positioning and counter-positioning between political elites round daily issues as they arise. Of course these issues have to be addressed, but addressed in terms of an overarching philosophy with which people can identify. The Progress think-tank talk of “a future agenda which is post-Blair, but not anti-Blair; building on the achievements of the past decade, not running away from them” is simply not fit for purpose.
Labour will only make a major and sustained recovery when it stands up for its natural supporters – potentially more than half the population – against the forces of the market which always favour the wealthy over the powerless. The new ultra-wealthy, epitomised by the £27m (£519,230 a week) paid to Bob Diamond of Barclays Capital, are seen by many as greed incorporated when living in the same society as those on a minimum wage of £200 a week. A ratio between top and bottom incomes, which was less than 50:1 only thirty years ago, has now risen to 2,600:1. Labour voters expect their Government to fight inequality, not side with it.
What Labour needs to do, to inspire its potential supporters that they have a Government on their side, is to change the power structure in the manifold different ways that will strengthen the hand of those at present with little or no power. It means implementing the Charter of Fundamental Rights which the other 26 EU States have all accepted without demur. It means restoring the same employment protection rights as are enjoyed elsewhere throughout Europe, particularly for temporary and agency workers. And it must involve protecting individual freedoms from being eroded by cutbacks in legal aid, restrictions on jury trials, limits on the right to protest, and undue detention without charge.
Money is power too, so raising the minimum wage, currently just £5.52 an hour, to at least £7 in the first instance, would empower many with little opportunities. Equally, ensuring through greater transparency in wage and salary determination that representatives of all the main grades in an organisation share a much bigger say in the allocation of annual pay increases would radically change perceptions about rights and power. And it means taking redistribution out of its taboo seclusion – reclaiming a good chunk of the £25bn a year identified by the Institute of Fiscal Studies as tax avoided or evaded by large corporations or very rich individuals (including the hyper-rich non-doms who pay no tax at all) and using it par excellence to provide decent social care for the most vulnerable elderly.
Labour is expected too to ensure that the market is kept in its proper place and not allowed to subvert the public values which give protection and rights and meaning to citizenship. The concept of ‘choice’ in the health services and education has been largely a pretext to open them up to the private sector, without any firm evidence of better outcomes and leading bizarrely to the Tories being poll-rated on health as better than Labour. This aberration should now be stopped if Labour’s reputation as the party of the universality, equity and accountability of public service is to be retrieved. There are other reasons too for a major change of direction here. PFI has proved enormously wasteful, over-extended IT projects have cost billions and still failed, and consultants have enriched themselves at taxpayers’ expense out of all proportion to public benefit. Yet preventive health services, where both better health and much greater cost-effectiveness could be secured, remain hugely under-subscribed. A change here could bring enormous dividends.
Above all, electors want a Labour Government dealing effectively with market failures and excesses. They would prefer temporary public ownership for Northern Rock if that avoids £56bn of loans and guarantees at their expense. Where privatisation has led to hospital infection and overcrowded trains, which they feel strongly about, they look to the State to reverse it if that is necessary. They want a changed relationship with the market which allows the private company brought in to upgrade the London Underground, Metronet, to walk away leaving the public to pick up their £2bn debts. And they expect a Labour Government to tackle Big Business on their behalf where that is necessary – the food industry over unhealthy food and obesity, the gaming industry over casinos, the drinks industry over alcohol-fuelled violence and anti-social behaviour, and the airlines over climate change.
It will not be easy for any Government to begin to move away from the privatisation, deregulation, unfettered market tenets of neo-liberalism which have governed Western political economy for the last three decades and to establish again a much more healthy relationship between the market and society. But the gathering international crisis where money and power have so clearly over-reached themselves offers a real chance. And re-inspiring the Labour project in the run-up to the next election may leave little choice.
Darling’s problem is that he has inherited an economy facing perhaps the worst downturn for decades, but given the Government’s neo-liberal monetarist agenda can do little about it when public borrowing is already at £40bn. The Budget is therefore a deflection of attention to other more innocuous areas.
There are small, but welcome, measures to reduce child poverty. But the reduction in the number of children living in households with incomes below 60% of the median (the conventional definition of poverty) is only from 2.2 million to 2.1 million. Pensioners will get a higher winter fuel allowance, but nowhere near enough to compensate for the 50% rise in energy prices for the poorest households over this last year.
Over climate change the Chancellor is full of good intentions, but there is no smack of firm action. He is ‘examining proposals’ for an 80% carbon reduction target, yet the evidence is overwhelming that this is necessary – so why doesn’t he say he’ll do it, especially since it would win him billions in extra revenues which at this moment he desperately needs? And plastic bags are going to come under the cosh if the retail industry doesn’t deliver reductions in use within a year. But why pussycat around when we already use a staggering 13 billion a year and when voluntary action will never deliver the 90% cut needed?
And high-polluting cars (Whitehallese for gas-guzzlers) will be dealt with – but only with higher rates of road tax unspecified and not until 2010. Why not in 2008, and why not £1,000 for the SUVs if he really intends to discourage their use, not merely make a gesture?
At least Darling has kept to his annual £30,000 fee for non-doms, but again not till they’ve been staying in Britain for 7 years. Why wait 7 years rather than, say, 3 years, and why not a 2-tier rate with a higher rate of perhaps £100,000 per year for the really big boys, the multi-millionaires and billionaires? That’s still a snip for the ex-pats in Monaco.
One of the biggest indictments of Britain today is that inequality has grown hugely under New Labour and we are now the most unequal society in the Western world apart from the US. Not much change then in this budget.
- Published on The Independent’s Open House forum 12 March 2008
I made the following comments in the House of Commons on 5 February 2008:
It is shameful that we are not proud to welcome the charter of fundamental rights into our own legislation, which every other nation in Europe has taken in its stride as the foundation of a civilised society. I cannot see what the problem is. We have continual discussions about whether it will make a difference, and I am not sure that it would, but I cannot see why we object to implementing it.
It will presumably be left for the European Court of Justice to decide for itself whether the UK has attempted to provide for such rights in its national law and to decide whether the attempt to provide such rights is adequate in the light of the charter. Indeed, it is very difficult to see how this discrete carve-out, so methodically prepared, can work in practice. Firms operating in one member state will be affected, but if they operate in more than one member state, the charter will clearly apply. Migrants coming from another member state to the UK would presumably still be covered. Anyone who travelled to another member state from this country—for health services, for example—would presumably be able to use the charter. Moreover, there are 30 years of EU jurisprudence to say that there can be no two-tier system of European rights.
What I find most sad and perverse about this whole sorry saga is that, over time, this claimed uniqueness for the UK will almost certainly increasingly unravel. It will be eroded by ECJ judgments, which are quite likely to happen, and also by the interactive knock-on effects between title IV and the other parts of the protocol. It seems to me tragic that the Government are investing such enormous legal and logistical resources in resisting something on which they are all too likely to lose in the end, yet which every other country in Europe has decided is practical and desirable.
I simply do not understand why the Government have got themselves into that position unless it is fear of the Eurosceptic press. That is the only other consideration that I can think of, but I hope that that is not the case.
For any Labour Government, enforcing a justiciable charter of fundamental rights should be integral to securing a social Europe to counter the neo-liberal orientations of the EU treaties.
That is starkly illustrated by the Viking and Vaxholm cases, which were mentioned earlier. Two months ago, the Swedish and Finnish unions sought to prevent companies from massively undercutting pay rates by paying foreign workers up to 60 per cent. lower wage rates. However, the ruling was—this makes it so interesting and important—that although there was a fundamental right to take collective industrial action, such action represents a restriction on the employer’s right of freedom of establishment. Of course, industrial action by its very nature will be an obstacle on the activities and freedom of the company. In other words, an employer’s right to freedom of establishment trumps the union’s right to strike.
That is worryingly reminiscent, if I may say so, of the infamous judgment in the Taff Vale case of 1901. The Taff Vale railway took the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants to court for having the audacity to go on strike. The crime was known then as being “in restraint of trade”. Perhaps all that has changed is the terminology, because we are now talking about exactly the same point but it is now called freedom of establishment.
Nor is that an isolated example of the neo-liberal propensities within the EU treaties. The Lisbon treaty adopted the curious word—I had never heard it before—“flexicurity” – to give the wholly false impression that if workers embrace flexibility, job security will automatically follow. Some of us might regard that as a contradiction in terms.
I conclude that this abundant evidence of the neo-liberal underpinning of the EU treaties is the overwhelming reason why we need a balance to secure a social Europe, not just a market Europe, and why a charter for fundamental human rights is crucial to achieve that balance.