Shareholders, ignite!

British Gas can expect a lively AGM today, says Alex Salmond

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The Annual General Meeting of British Gas at the Docklands' London Arena today will see the first public actions of a new movement - the movement for sovereignty by shareholders over the companies they are meant to own. And despite the almost inevitable defeat - today at least - at the hands of large institutions, what takes place will mark the beginning of the end for insensitive and acquisitive directors of the former public utilities.

At the AGM today, I shall be representing 1,400 small shareholders and former staff, with about 700,000 shares to speak for. Professor Joe Lamb of the "Gas Greed" campaign will carry another 500,000 votes. This is a drop in the ocean compared to the millions of shares in the hands of pension funds and other large investors, but it represents unprecedented revulsion at the decline of a once great company.

At the heart of this revulsion lies a disagreement about what British Gas should be. The small shareholders and the staff believe it is, and always should be, a utility - privately owned and profitable, but still with public service as its first duty. Richard Giordano and his board seem to believe they are running just another energy company: a big one, trying to get bigger, but free for ever of its roots and previous social obligations.

Since Mr Giordano became chairman of British Gas in January 1994, he has ruthlessly sought that goal. As a result, the only thing that has risen faster than the executive salaries has been the level of complaints from customers. Jobs have been cut and offices closed in the drive for more and more profit with less and less service. Public anger at the level of pay for those who run the company has been ignored. John Major may talk up the rights of individual shareholders, but the largest shareholders can wield their block votes with as little sensitivity as the worst of the trade union barons at the Labour Party Conference. The time is coming when there will have to be procedures to allow small shareholders to influence decision-making in the companies and institutions they own, and procedures to let their disapproval be noted and acted upon. The City of London appears to be the last bastion of those who have power without responsibility. It cannot last for ever.

That is why today the small shareholders will try to sack the British Gas board. And why they will not be mollified by nods and winks from the institutions that "a quiet word behind the scenes" will make the difference.

No doubt this afternoon Mr Giordano and his colleagues will breathe a sigh of relief and return to their agenda for the future of a company that they don't understand. But the small shareholders and staff will go back home, determined to continue to protest at the way privatisation has gone sour.

The Tories opened a Pandora's box when they privatised the utilities. They thought that mass private shareholding with small instant returns would provide a smokescreen behind which the big players could simply make bigger profits. Out of the box - fuelled by the shameless insensitivity of the privatised companies - has come a movement for true democratic control of public services, and a determination to achieve that by moulding the institutions of City power to the rights of those who pay the piper.

Time is running out for the fat cats. The gravy train is about to be derailed by those who are fed up paying for it.

The author is MP for Banff and Buchan and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party.

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