Energy policy: what can we learn from history?

In the 1970s, fear of an ‘energy gap’ sparked a debate on nuclear power and alternative resources. Chris Bowlby asks Campbell Wilson why so little has changed

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If there has been a sphere in which successive British governments, Labour and Tory, have found it especially difficult to finalise policy, it has been in energy. The Government’s new Energy Bill, which became law in November, is the latest chapter in an exceptionally long policy and political debate.

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Although today’s discussions on climate change and energy security may have a modern ring, in essence the country is still struggling with questions first raised publicly several decades ago. How far can we insulate ourselves from international ‘energy shocks’? How significant a role can renewable energy sources play as an alternative to fossil fuels? And is nuclear power an essential part of the energy mix?

I have been discussing the roots of Britain’s profound energy indecision with Campbell Wilson, a specialist on the history of postwar energy policy at Glasgow University.

How far have the fundamentals of debate changed since the 1970s?
Campbell Wilson: There are similarities between now and then. Both periods are characterised by a surge in awareness about energy. A growing acceptance of the dire consequences of global warming has inspired the most recent debates, but in the 1970s it was the first global oil price shock in October 1973, precipitated by conflict in the Middle East, which shifted public attention to energy.

Heavy reliance on imported oil in Britain by this time and a quadrupling of the oil price in the space of a few months created the energy crisis. Industrial unrest in the period, unrelated to the oil shock, resulted in a prolonged series of power cuts which also brought home the importance, and vulnerability, of energy supply in the UK. Recognition of the full potential of North Sea oil was slow to emerge during the period and much of the debate focused on nuclear energy – then as now.

Interestingly, one element of the public debate during this time was a critique of capitalism. The sudden end of the ‘Golden Age’ of postwar growth and the economic turbulence of the 1970s suggested to some that more radical solutions were needed to Britain’s energy problems. This is a theme that has perhaps gained renewed attention in recent times as economic conditions worsen.

Why has Britain found it so difficult to find a settled policy?
CW: The wave of postwar nationalisation saw all of Britain’s energy providers taken into public ownership. Responsibility for policy was hived off to the separate industries and this limited overall coordination of energy policy.

Other than an abiding fascination with the potential of nuclear energy – and a largely unsuccessful and haphazard nuclear programme – this situation remained until the 1970s. Immediately reacting to the oil crisis, the first Department of Energy was established in January 1974. The thrust of policy in the period, devised largely by Lord Rothschild’s Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS), was summed up as ‘CoCoNuke’ – Coal, Conservation, and Nuclear – as the impending rich bounty of North Sea oil was as yet unclear.

This in effect returned policy-making to the (still) nationalised industries and stalled any attempt at achieving a more coordinated policy for energy in Britain. This continued through the non-interventionist Thatcher era, after which Tim Eggar, energy minister at the DTI, asked in a 1993 paper, “Who Needs An Energy Policy?” After this the reality of climate change began to hit home and the need for a policy was recognised.

Has the nuclear issue always been the most unstable element?
CW: Britain opened the world’s first commercial nuclear energy plant at Calder Hall in 1956. This early success – beating the USA by a year – encouraged a determination in the UK to remain at the forefront of nuclear energy. Postwar faith in technology, and the Suez Crisis, which exposed Britain’s reliance on imported oil, resulted in a hugely expensive nuclear programme.

This promised unlimited energy for all, which would be “too cheap to meter”. In the end, ongoing problems with construction and endless debates over reactor choice characterised Britain’s nuclear effort for nearly 30 years.

The emergence of a counter-culture and the attendant environmental movement in the late 1960s led to more questioning of nuclear energy. Issues that are at the forefront of today’s debate – safety and waste disposal – gained attention as a new generation reconsidered the old reliance on technology as saviour. And in the 1970s energy shifted from the private sphere to the public arena. The Ecologist magazine and the newly established Friends of the Earth campaigned and lobbied against nuclear energy.

Tony Benn, who was secretary of state for energy during this time, also began to express publicly his uncertainty about the nuclear programme. This is the period that saw the emergence of the nuclear debate – a dialogue that has recently resurfaced during the climate change debate. Nuclear has been rebranded as an energy source with minimal carbon emissions while its opponents revive old anxieties about safety and hazardous waste.

Pundit from the past: Victor Rothschild

What would the first director of the CPRS make of today’s ongoing energy debate?

A figure who brought exceptionally imaginative and committed thinking to the energy issue was Victor NM Rothschild (1910–90), third baron Rothschild. He was the first director of the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS), created by the Heath government in 1970 to provide an overall strategy for government, rising above the increasingly complex and technical nature of issues faced by individual ministerial departments.

Rothschild, who had been everything from brilliant research biologist to first-class cricketer, used his considerable personality and connections to ensure the effectiveness of the new advisory body. He steered it, says Campbell Wilson, “towards an immediate interest in energy”. Accordingly, one of the CPRS’s first major reports for government in May 1973 was An Energy Policy for Britain.

In particular, two areas concerned him: reserves and energy security. Although he advocated nuclear energy as one solution to address Britain’s looming energy gap, Wilson says that “he was soon to reconsider his blanket support for such an option”. The publication of the Flowers Commission report on Nuclear Power and the Environment in 1976 caused Rothschild to question “the accumulation of cancer-producing substances which maintain that capability for many thousands of years, in circumstances where there is no established method of safely disposing of them”.

Doubts about nuclear may have boosted his strong support from 1974 onwards of research into alternative energy. The first CPRS report had judged these new sources of energy as “highly economically unattractive”, but by early 1974 they were advocating an urgent research programme into the potential of wave power. Rothschild had also maintained a keen interest in the development of electric cars, recognising that the public would have to “give up exhibiting their virility (or lack of it) in petrol cars”.

So, concludes Campbell Wilson, “he would be dismayed that, 34 years later, we find ourselves with an unfocussed renewable energy policy and a return to the debate over nuclear energy which is largely on the same terms as in the 1970s”. In 1977 Rothschild wrote: “May God preserve us from a wide-ranging debate on energy”, because the solutions to him were obvious. They consisted of conservation, a sensible policy on existing fossil fuels, and a well-funded programme to develop alternative energy. 

Campbell Wilson is an expert on postwar energy policy at Glasgow University. He is researching the origins of renewable energy policy, 1973–88

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This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.