Not our fault, guv . . . nothing to do with us

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The Independent Online
HERE is a landscape that seems uncannily like the early Eighties: mass unemployment and monetarism; the collapse of famous manufacturing companies; confrontation with Arthur Scargill. In a strange way, senior members of this drifting government think the parallel might help them. The Tories, long divided by Europe, will unite when confronted by the strikes and mass protests that are likely this winter.

Mere fantasy: John Major's administration is starting to smell of decay. It is losing authority, palpably, almost day by day. The early Thatcherite battles were nothing like this: like her or hate her, she was trying to do something big with the country. A lot of people were hurt as she did so, but no one could deny the seriousness of the job, nor the scale of her ambition. People are still being hurt, but no one can explain quite why.

Coal is a vivid symbol of this shift. The confrontation of 1984-5 between insurgent miners and Margaret Thatcher seemed inevitable and, to both sides, somehow right. Most of the country was on one side, quite a lot on the other. Thatcher led; ministers and managers followed. This week's announcement, by contrast, has been matched by a kind of vacant fatalism in Whitehall: 'Sad, sad, terribly sad - markets you see - not our business.' It is the difference between the fierce assertion of power and a shrugging- off of power.

Indeed, the latest coal closures have been marked by something that can only be called the privatisation of policy - almost the privatisation of responsibility. Asked about their national energy policy, ministers have been tongue-tied and bemused. Their what?

No sensible stategy for energy would put an end to all further pit closures. In the longer term, the environmental benefits of gas and the lower world coal price would probably have meant fewer pits come what may. But the scale and timing of a sensible contraction would have depended on variables that have been ignored - such as the medium-term price of gas; the security of coal supply from (for instance) South Africa; the future level of subsidies a German economy under strain can tolerate for its coal industry; and the price of sterling. A serious national energy policy would have been a cautious, watchful business.

Instead we had an industrial karate- chop just after the Tory conference and before Parliament returned. Because of the way the electricity industry was privatised, making the distributors scared of the duopoly of generators and encouraging the 'dash for gas', some such coup had been inevitable for months. Ministers had lost control, but willingly. These closures were not written on the script of time. They happened this way because of earlier ministerial decisions by people still in the Cabinet (such as Lord Wakeham and Mr Major). And presumably, the Government approves of what has happened.

There is no longer-term national energy strategy because, like the electricity industry itself, strategy has been handed over to the market. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, as long as politicians don't pretend the results were nothing to do with them.

The chairmen of the distribution companies, whose actions led most directly to the closure of 60 per cent of the remaining deep-mined coal industry, are not, however, paid to be responsible to anyone bar their shareholders, and the consumers over whom they enjoy a monopoly. That is clearly how they feel, too: not one of them had the guts to go on television to be interviewed about his role in the affair.

One senior minister can be congratulated for having the courage to defend what had happened, although he was not in government when the key decisions were taken. But even he tried to deny the obvious. Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, said: 'The market has dictated the demand for coal, so it's not about privatisation.' Not of coal, perhaps, but it is all about privatisation of the electricity industry. The political choice was made to go for market choice. If a man lets a dog off its leash and it bites your bottom, you can fairly blame the man as well as Fido.

But too often, this government has only a dangling lead and an apologetic shrug to offer. It is always somebody else's fault. It is the markets. Or the Germans. Or the Labour Party. Or the tabloid newspapers. Or the serious newspapers. Bizarrely, ministers are now blaming Bruce Millan, the European Commissioner for Regional Policy, for not producing European money to help the coalfields - and for 'discourtesy' (if you please) in not telling them there was no money earlier.

The privatisation of responsibility for what is happening marks an essential break with the early Eighties. Then there was a sense of momentum and direction that, for many people, excused those aspects of government policy they found alarming or silly. A lost job in a coalfield was a casualty in a war about what kind of country Britain would be.

Now it has no higher meaning. Not even the most enthusiastic minister can point to a convincing silver lining. Lower electricity prices? Is anyone prepared to stake his job on that? No: nor on anything else. This administration is failing to convey a central purposefulness. Nor will it take responsibility. Both failings are two sides of the same devalued coin. The less the Government asks to be judged, the less authority it commands - and the more harshly judged it will be.