Parallels with the crippling electricity shortages of the sombre Seventies seem premature. There is no prospect of a return to the three-day working week that an exhausted Edward Heath foisted on the nation in the weeks leading up to Christmas in 1973, when he warned of “serious difficulty for every factory, for every farm and for every family in this country”.
Post-Covid Britain isn’t at that point yet. But ministers underestimate the fallout from spiralling energy costs at their peril. There are unavoidable echoes of a period that the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Anthony Barber described as “the gravest economic crisis since the end of the war” and went on to dramatically alter the political landscape.
De facto rationing cannot be ruled out, nor widespread union-led strike action if spiralling inflation begins to drag down living standards for households struggling to recover from the pandemic.
Ofgem’s decision to raise the energy price cap again has left 15m people facing bill increases of the sort that haven’t been paid in a decade. Another spike could be ruinous for the poorest. As charities and consumer interest groups have queued up to point out, any bill surge such as this inevitably hits low income households hardest, but the timing, as winter hits and energy usage spirals, furlough ends, and universal credit is slashed, is wretched.
Worse, there is seemingly no plan to tackle the crunch. Whitehall’s ability to influence the situation is limited at best. As President Macron’s threat to cut off electricity supplies to Jersey underlined, the UK has become far too reliant on foreign imports for its energy supplies.
Alternatives are scarce. Coal has been virtually driven out of the energy system, as the Government has piled into renewables but clean power is notoriously intermittent.
Attempts to establish a modern nuclear power capability have floundered amid spiralling costs, opposition from green campaigners and the geopolitical nightmare that comes with financing construction with Chinese money and Beijing’s untested technology.
And instead of investing heavily in storage capabilities to help smooth demand spikes, the UK finds itself increasingly dependent on Russia, which has wasted no time in weaponising shortages by restricting supplies through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Britain’s energy system needs a comprehensive rethink. In the meantime, the Prime Minister should take talk of a winter of discontent seriously.
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