|Balcombe Blame Rests Here|
Oh yes, it's been dead awhile, stone dead. But by my reckoning, his screw-up on shale is almost up there with the fatal boundary-change abortion.
In both cases, Master George the master-strategist seems to have identified clearly enough the paramount significance of a particular issue. But instead of following through, of giving it the undivided attention and planning and execution it merits (being An Issue Of Paramount Significance, yeah ?), he farts in its general direction and assumes that plaudits are in order for his spotting, and farting at, the obvious. But a real strategist understands that strategic insight is empty without genuine, unremitting, practical application to the task of figuring out everything that follows, in grinding, boring detail - and actual implementation of the needful. Whatever it takes. With no loose ends. Because, hey, it's of Paramount Significance.
We know how the boundary changes ended: so what happened with shale ? When the initial Cuadrilla discovery was announced, we wrote here: This Is The Big One. Others (e.g. Mr Worstall) followed our lead, and soon it was recognised by all and sundry. See, George, it is really obvious (& let me quickly add that C@W was by no means alone in trumpeting the matter). George duly cottoned on too and started running his own energy policy - hatching tax breaks (unnecessary) and a streamlined permitting regime (stupid, at least in the way it's been done), with a bit of gratuitous green-baiting (Juvenile George's stock-in-trade).
But what else obviously follows from the obvious significance of shale ? Why yes: every Green and Red and general unwashed malcontent and transgressionist across Europe would realise that shale gas (if actually found here) could be the death-knell of their various stone-age / statist dreams. Accordingly, they would be out in force to try to prevent drilling, with a lot more chance of drawing the crowds than (say) the rather recondite NoDashForGas sit-in at West Burton. Oh yes, this too was entirely obvious - we predicted it here last year - and is a major vulnerability of the whole UK shale gas prospect.
With the Battle of Balcombe rumbling on, there is no need to rehearse just how far short of a strategy we are: and I unhesitatingly blame Osborne. There is nothing good to be had from going abut the job clumsily and pissing off conservative Middle England in the process.
Is all lost ? Well, if this were Germany we'd be in really big trouble, because their greens (and the old superannuated Atomkraft-Nein-Danke brigade, now in well-heeled retirement with time on their hands and misty recollections of their glory-days to perpetuate) have serious stamina, as witness the very long-running Battle of Stuttgart Station.
But our homegrown greens are a little less committed. I maintain that the UK shale programme is vulnerable to the antis, but there is certainly an optimistic scenario. Those with long memories will recall the massive pro-coal-mining demonstrations in the early 1990's, when Michael Heseltine (sic) was at the DTI and allowing large-scale pit closures to take place. A short moratorium, a general return to the sofa to watch whatever was the compelling soap of the day; and after a couple of months all was forgotten and the pits closed as planned. Likewise in the first year of the NuLab government, some more pit closures were announced: cue massive popular hostility to the Dash For Gas (yes, even then - and that was technically the second D-F-G; the current one is the third). And what did young Peter Mandelson do then ? (yep, he was at the DTI in 1997). Why - another moratorium ! - this time on new gas-fired power plant permits. And after the usual short interval ... well, you know the rest.
So there's at least a chance the great unwashed just pack up and go home**. Therefore, if there is a decent strategist somewhere in Whitehall (and I very much think there is) there is at least the possibility of getting this show back on the road. There is, after all, no great rush.
If a real strategist takes charge, there is one final optimistic precedent worth noting. In the first Thatcher government a truly strategic attack on the NUM was being hatched under a properly thought-out, comprehensive plan (which embraced such details as building coal stocks to unprecedented levels, uprating Felixstowe for coal imports, building the A14 to get them to the Midlands by road, and installing an infrastructure for coordinating the Police nationally. See, George, that's what a real strategy looks like.) In 1981, before all this was complete the NUM went on strike for a pay rise. So Thatcher ordered a tactical retreat - looked like a horrible climb-down at the time - reculer pour mieux sauter, until things were good and ready. Well, you know the rest.
So all is not lost. But Osborne ... his failings are inexcusable. Is there really not a better candidate for Chancellor on the coalition benches ? That's another job where strategy is at a premium, n'est-ce pas ?
** having a few spare hours last week, I monitored the tweeting on events at Balcombe. Somewhat to my surprise, having been at frenetic and very high-volume levels all week, it fell off dramatically after lunchtime on Friday. Does this mean all these tossers are tweeting from work ? Watching the cricket ?
This post first appeared on the Capitalists@Work blog
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