This applies to energy policy quite as much as it does to Africa. On energy, the PM could have used his powers of persuasion to deal with a harmful prejudice: the widespread opposition to nuclear power. But why confront public opinion when it is so much easier to flatter it? Why employ the hard arguments - why take the risks? - of real leadership when the preening and posturing of pseudo-leadership have worked so well for so long?
They are still working. If asked who had done more to tackle the world's energy problems, Tony Blair or George Bush, the British people would vote at least 10 to 1 in the Prime Minister's favour. Yet that is a nonsensical misjudgement. The evidence is as overwhelmingly in the President's favour as the deluded British are agin him.
Mr Bush has two achievements to his credit, neither of which Mr Blair could equal. The first is his refusal to sign the Kyoto accords. As President Bush well knows, even if he is too tactful to say so, Kyoto is to a rational assessment of future energy policy what Live8 is to clear thinking on Africa. By refusing to sign, George Bush stood up for realism.
Our knowledge of the factors involved in climate change is still rudimentary. Over the millennia, there have been dramatic variations in the earth's climate, probably caused by the behaviour of the sun. But there is still no full explanation for the sun's behaviour. If scientists are unable to foresee the past, we are entitled to be sceptical about their attempts to explain the future.
The link between carbon emissions and global warming is still only a hypothesis. Yet it does not seem implausible to suppose that a vastly greater rate of carbon-fuel use would have climatic effects, and there is a further reason to reduce our dependence on oil. It tends to be located in the most inconvenient places. The oil market, and with it, much of the world economy, is permanently overshadowed by political volatility. If there are alternatives to oil, we should exploit them.
In all those respects, Kyoto is irrelevant. If there is a problem of global warming, the limits proposed by Kyoto would be far too generous, even if there were any prospect that they would be observed. There could not be, for two reasons. The United States would not, because it could only have met its Kyoto obligations by a severe reduction in economic activity: not a good idea. The US is such an important part of the global economy that if it stutters, the rest of us catch recession. Africa would suffer most of all, for there, recession turns malnutrition into starvation.
The US was not alone. China and India also refused to sign. They are both growing rapidly. Neither country sees any reason why it should not enjoy Western levels of prosperity. But that would mean Western levels of energy consumption, by well over two billion people. Kyoto, the pleasure city of imperial Japan, is a living antique. An agreement reached there tells us nothing about the future behaviour of the two new Asian super-tigers.
So there are a number of reasons for seeking alternatives to oil. Fortunately, two are available. The major car companies and some big oil companies were already spending a lot on developing the hydrogen-fuel cell, even before President Bush provided $6bn in additional research funding. That is his second major contribution to cleaner energy.
There are still a number of technical problems to be overcome before the fuel cell could replace the internal combustion engine. But none of them is insoluble. Fuel-cell vehicles are already on the roads; the fuel cell is in roughly the same position now as the motor car was in 1895, and Mr Bush's $6bn will help to accelerate the pace of change. We are now entering the last phase of the history of petrol-fuelled road vehicles - and, perhaps, of oil as a fuel.
Although his efforts greatly exceed Tony Blair's, George Bush should have done more in one area, and both men's contributions to energy policy have been surpassed by Jacques Chirac's. The French President has one advantage. France is not a democracy, but a dirige-ocracy. So its political élite has been able to invest in nuclear power without having to worry about public opinion. But Mr Bush could have done more to make the case.
Nuclear power is not only a source of clean energy. It is an abundant one. Indeed, it could help to solve Africa's economic problems. As a form of foreign aid, African nuclear-power stations would have several advantages. They could not be embezzled to Switzerland. They could provide a reliable source of cheap energy, which would be denied to corrupt or oppressive governments. Aid and sanctions in one package, with no requirement for Western self-flagellation; far too commonsensical for the Third World aid industry.
Nuclear power is also far too radical for Whitehall, at least in public. If you ask around among those involved in energy policy at government level, the discussion almost always reaches the same point. Your interlocutor will clear his throat and drop his voice. He will say "of course", with a meaningful expression on his face, and then pause. You will fill the silence: "You mean nuclear?" He will look around to ensure that he is not being overheard, before nodding vigorously.
Nuclear power is the idea that dare not speak its name. Forget wind-farms: highly subsidised, impractical for mass power generation and the greatest environmental threat in the history of the Scottish landscape. If Britain's future energy needs are to be met without higher levels of carbon emission, there is no alternative to nuclear.
There are problems: safety, and waste. But standards of nuclear safety have increased and are increasing. Three Mile Island: it was safer to work there than to hitch a lift with Senator Edward Kennedy. In the years since that emergency, lessons have been learned (though not by Ted Kennedy). Chernobyl: it would be absurd to compare the problems of failing plant in the Soviet Union with the nuclear power stations which would be built in the future. As for waste, the US government should offer a prize of $1bn to the first scientist who finds a way of dealing with highly toxic, long half-life nuclear waste by recycling it in order to create energy.
With the fuel cell and nuclear power, it would be possible to produce unlimited supplies of clean energy. All that is needed is political will. But Tony Blair is more interested in sucking up to pop singers than in using his rhetorical power to generate support for sensible solutions.Reuse content