Blog: Has much changed since Tony Benn’s stint in energy?

The time for mourning is also a time for reflection. Obituaries of Labour great Tony Benn have been filled with his political dreams and words of piercing wisdom, enough to […]

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By Vicky Ellis

The time for mourning is also a time for reflection.

Obituaries of Labour great Tony Benn have been filled with his political dreams and words of piercing wisdom, enough to make me wish I’d known more of him. So where else for me to turn – but to energy?

Energy issues may not have been Benn’s calling card – and his move to head up the power department from industry in Harold Wilson’s Government is described in a recent press report as to a less important department.

But it’s often gone hand in hand with some central issues he held close, from the coal miners’ strikes – which he backed – to his keenness for nationalisation.

Rifling back through the records of his statements in the House of Commons while Energy Secretary (electronically, I hasten to add) I’m struck by how much has changed since his early time in parliament.

Not least, the assumption that we could have enough energy to power the country within a few years.

Asked in June 1975 about this, Mr Benn replied: “Great Britain is expected to be largely self-sufficient in energy by 1980.”

In nuclear, too, the UK’s role is very different: we no longer export technology to others but are a key market for other nations like Japan and France, something which would have horrified the MP Renee Short in January 1967.

Did the honourable gentleman know of “considerable competition” from America, she enquired, or great concern that “our lead in this field is being whittled away”?

And of course there’s the ginormous leaps in renewable energy we’ve had which doesn’t even feature in a list he gave to parliament of the country’s power make up: coal (24–67%), oil (13–55%), nuclear, (18-28%), gas, (0–13%).

But as my scrolling goes on, I find it incredible – even wryly amusing – how much stays the same.

MPs clamouring for more caps on subsidies – could nuclear reactors “be charged against the operating costs of those stations instead of to the Exchequer”, asks one. How familiar is that?

And today’s energy efficiency push has a Seventies precursor: Tony Benn’s Conservation Campaign, Save It. Meant to “progressively change attitudes and habits” to using energy, it cost £3.2m.

That’s not to mention coal still stumping up to 40% of our energy in 2014.

As for the future, we can’t know what the British socialist icon would have made of Labour’s energy price freeze – if they win the next election.

I do suspect one thing would have pleased the man who said “ideas are more powerful than guns”.

He also reportedly said that “Change from below, demands from the populace to end unacceptable injustice, has played a far larger part in shaping British democracy than most lawyers, historians or statesmen have ever cared to admit.”

Whether that’s people taking energy back into their own hands in the community, or switching energy supplier, he’s probably right. Rest In Peace, Tony Benn.