Energy price catastrophe: Tories cannot wash their hands of government's duty to act – Brian Wilson

Sometimes in politics it is essential to start with the conclusion and work backwards. We now have a case in point – energy bills.

Months ago, I suggested a response of Covid proportions would be necessary. Since then matters have got much worse. There is no indication the probable next Prime Minister has a clue about the scale of response required, so let me try to help.

The starting point is that millions will be unable to pay impending bills, or will do so at massive cost to health and well-being. There is no point sending bills to people who cannot pay, other than to drive them deeper into despair.

Then swallow hard and accept the next conclusion. The only body which can stop this is government and in this case that means the government of the United Kingdom since the problem is the same from Unst to Exeter.

Liz Truss needs to realise that helping people cope with soaring energy prices cannot be accurately describing as giving them 'hand-outs' (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

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Thereafter, the debate must be about means rather than an assumed end. That end, Ms Truss, must be to cap bills at no more than a few per cent above last year and allow people to get on with their lives free, at least temporarily, of that desperate worry. There are plenty others.

A distinguishing feature of this crisis is that it does not just affect those at the margins – the “underclass” as they were patronisingly referred to in Thatcher’s time. When this tsunami hits, these “margins” will become exceedingly wide, dragging many who have lived in modest comfort into poverty and debt. “Can’t pay” is a far more potent political threat than “won’t pay”.

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There was a letter to the Scotsman earlier this week by a near-80-year-old who clearly did not regard himself as impoverished but whose bill is going up from £1,333 to £6,696 a year. “I won’t starve”, he wrote. “I am not going to spend. If I come unstuck, I will end up in hospital… the health service can hardly cope now. How will starving nurses work even harder?”

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Apart from such sheer human necessity, there is another reason for government to take the hit. This catastrophe is largely the creation of government and every political party shares in that responsibility for one overwhelming reason – we have knowingly walked into gross over-dependence on gas, now by far the most expensive fuel of all.

If you want confirmation, go to that ever reliable guide to reality – the National Grid Live Status. As I write, 60 per cent of our electricity is coming from gas while 2.37 per cent is generated by wind. Let me put that into words in case anyone thinks the dot has been misplaced. Two point three seven per cent.

That is the answer to energy illiterates and political cynics who boast about Scotland being “self-sufficient”. I guess the Scottish Government is equally divided between the two with a good deal of overlap. So let me spell it out.

It is the careless destruction of baseload capacity without replacement which have left us stupidly dependent on gas. That is not an argument against renewables – far from it – but in favour of a balanced energy policy which is what Scotland and the UK have surrendered.

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We are living with consequences of a folly which all parties and governments signed up to. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed that folly but did not create it. We did that ourselves. If we had been less zealous in running down nuclear and coal, we would be in a far better place by every measurement, including the environment. Energy politics failed the people and government must now protect them.

The immediate priority is to buy time to put in place some coherent strategy for ensuring security of supply at affordable cost. That does not mean “hand-outs”, Ms Truss, but serious, short-term fiscal measures including a windfall tax on excess energy industry profits – their Ukraine dividend – topped up with government borrowing.

No government (I think) can walk away from the evolving social consequences of this crisis. Better to work backwards from that conclusion now, for soon there really will be no alternative.

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