Let’s take three questions, three politically-sensitive decisions subject to much overheated public debate and scientific scrutiny.
Question 1: Should there be a minimum price per unit of alcohol? Would this do anything to avert potential crises in liver disease and associated conditions, ease the strain on the NHS, reduce alcohol-fuelled crime?
Question 2: Should cigarettes be sold in plain packaging? Will this do anything to reduce smoking?
Question 3: Should the UK follow the US example and plunge whole-heartedly into shale gas extraction? Is enough known about the risks (water contamination, land blight, seismic interference)?
Question 1 was answered a couple of weeks back by the Government with a “no”. It was decided some time ago (around the time I wrote this) that the evidence to go ahead wasn’t conclusive, not yet; after the briefest of delays, during which no earth-shattering new evidence has arrived, the whole project has been abandoned.
Question 2 was answered with a “maybe” – or, more precisely, with a “let’s wait and see”. In Australia, the project is already underway – the plan now is to wait and see whether this actually works.
Question 3, thought, is different. The evidence isn’t there, at least, it’s not there yet. A definitive conclusion on the risks is some years away. But never mind. Go ahead, say the Government. Drill and explore and extract and, just in case the prospect of several trillion cubic metres of gas isn’t incentive enough, have a whopping great tax break on top. Of course, you’ll have to hand over a tiny proportion of the proceeds to the communities you completely destroy, but since that’s offset something like twenty times over by the tax break, it shouldn’t be too much of a deterrent.
Let’s get this clear. Where doing nothing might pose a serious threat to public health – or might not, I’m prepared to accept that – then doing nothing is the way to go. But where doing something poses the potential threat, then it’s go ahead, all guns blazing. Apparently if we don’t do this now we’ll be “left behind”. Which is ridiculous, of course. The gas isn’t going anywhere. If we wait five years, even ten years, study the evidence, get a better idea of the impact, then one of two things will happen.
Either we’ll find that fracking was dangerous after all, and be mighty glad we delayed. Or we’ll find it wasn’t, and be mighty glad the gas is still there, and delighted to find that a decade’s advance in technology means it’s now both safer and cheaper to get out the ground. Worried about the lights going out in the meantime? Don’t be. Industry scare tactics, and if there were such a risk, there are other ways to deal with it in the short-term. And the short-term is all that’s needed, because I’m not talking about abandoning the idea of fracking completely, or waiting a hundred years. Five or ten years. If we can’t keep the lights on for an extra five or ten years then we really are in trouble, because as the industry itself admits, there’s no certainty that the shale gas down there in the Bowland Basin is going to be extractable, or viable, and because our politicians must have been quite extraordinarily short-sighted to let things get to this stage.
I don’t really need to join the dots, but I’m going to. Taken together, these three examples show pretty definitively that Government is run by Industry. That’s not always such a bad thing – economic concerns should be relevant to every major decision. But not the economic benefit of the few, to the cost of the many. I could add a fourth – why are fizzy drinks and sweets and chocolates not subject to the same kind of punitive tax regime as cigarettes? I’m sure you can come up with plenty more. I’m not talking about banning things, just a more equitable application of the financial incentives and penalties that Government already applies for both social and economic reasons. And as it happens, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to delay the cigarette branding project when pretty soon there will be evidence out there to show whether it works or not.
But if you’re going to apply that logic in one sector, then apply it in the others, too.