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Words: Paul Waugh
Pictures: Paul Heartfield
“It’s very exciting, I’m really enjoying it. There’s a lot of noise, but in politics you want to be where the noise is, don’t you? You don’t want to go where it’s all quiet.”
Ed Davey is up for a fight. And with the raucous row over fuel bills dominating the Westminster narrative, it seems that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change needn’t worry about avoiding a quiet life.
From green energy to fracking, from nuclear power to climate change controversies, not a day seems to go past without a loud slanging match on his turf. Yet as he endures noises off from Tory backbench sceptics, Labour attack dogs and concerned environmentalists, Davey clearly relishes the hubbub.
Nearly two years since he took up his Cabinet role (on the back of the cacophonous demise of Chris Huhne), the Liberal Democrat minister knows that energy is a key component of the cost-of-living battleground of the next election.
Seen by many Conservative minsters as a man they could do business with more easily than his predecessor, Davey is a pragmatist who nevertheless has some firm red lines on green policy. Having seen off John Hayes as his climate-sceptic Minister of State, he insists the Lib Dems are putting their environmental stamp on the Government.
And with the Autumn Statement set to unveil the details of how the Coalition will reform green levies on bills, he makes clear progress has been made behind the scenes in Whitehall. While being careful not to pre-empt the Chancellor, Davey says: “I wouldn’t say it’s a done deal, but we are getting much closer.”
Although some in DECC were taken by surprise at the Prime Minister’s announcement in PMQs that he wanted a review of the levies, the Secretary of State is now sanguine.
“I’m completely open to the idea of looking at the levies on the bills, which is what we are doing at the moment. Because it’s one part, it’s a small part and we need to be seen and we need to achieve those measures [on bills].”
“I’m really about outcomes, I’m not attached to a particular way of doing it. What I want to make sure is we are tackling fuel poverty, we are investing in green energy and we are tackling climate change. That’s what I’m interested in. If we can make the policies I’ve inherited better, well I’m up for it.”
He insists however that the purely environmental measures will be unchanged. “In terms of the review, I would simply say that on an average dual fuel bill, about 9% comes from Government policy. That divides into ‘strict green levies’ and what I call ‘social green levies’. And the strict green levies are effectively 4% and that’s the renewable obligations certificate, it’s the feed-in tariffs and it’s the Chancellor’s carbon price floor. That’s not been touched. The green energy levies are critical to the renewable electricity aspiration we have and our renewable energy target for 2020. It’s critical to get the transition to a low carbon economy going, so they are not changing.”
But Davey does suggest that the other elements of the bills are up for grabs and gives a strong hint that general taxation is the favoured route.
“What we have been focusing on is the 5% [of Government-imposed costs], which is the social green levies, some of which is a pure redistributive mechanism called the Warm Home Discount – which is just giving money to the two million poorest. It’s very important, £135 quid off the bills. We introduced that and we are very proud of it.
“But the question is should you do that through imposing a £12 plus some other costs on consumer bills? Or could you do it through taxation? Now, taxation is more progressive.”
What did he make of the Prime Minister’s alleged order to an aide to ‘get rid of all the green crap’? He smiles. “We seem at one in the Government in that we clearly support anaerobic digestion [a green way to get energy from sewage]…I’ll leave it at that”.
He is adamant that he will not agree to cuts in the Energy Companies Obligation, or ECO as it is known. “ECO is the other bit, the 4%. I made it clear that there are key parts of ECO which are about tackling fuel poverty. And there’s no way as a Liberal Democrat, as a minister, I can cut the average person’s bills on the back of the poorest. Just not going there. So we’ve laid down from day one a really clear marker. We are up for reform of ECO, we are up for trying to ensure we can meet our carbon emission goals as efficiently as possible, as cheaply as possible, we’ve been having those conversations with the energy companies all the time. What you will not see is any slowdown in our efforts to tackle fuel poverty.”
One suggestion that has been floated is that the Treasury would rather see the ECO funded by cuts to departments rather than by raiding general taxation. But Davey says flatly: “We haven’t been having those conversations, it’s just not been said.”
The minister sounds more than a little weary at the attention Ed Miliband has been getting for his bill freeze plan. “You’ve got to remember that bills have been my top priority, it’s been my top priority from Day One. We’ve got to help consumers and industry with bills, we’ve got to get investment to both get the energy security situation sorted, which we are doing, and to make a low carbon transition. And we’ve got to sort out the international position on climate change. Those are the three priorities and have been from Day One.”
On that first day in post, Davey told his officials that a former consumer affairs minister he’d be keen on getting collective switching going. “That’s been driven by me personally for the whole period, so it’s not as if the bills issue is a new issue for us. Miliband may have discovered it in his conference speech but we’ve been on the case,” he says.
“What’s really pleasing is that since the Big Six have announced their prices, there’s been a lot of people leaving the Big Six to go to smaller suppliers, which is competition working.” Figures show that from October to mid-November, the number has topped 100,000 “which is quite some movement in a short time.” The figures are set to be even bigger when released in January with some ‘astronomical’ increases for one or two smaller suppliers.
Davey says he’s pushed quite hard a ‘Secure and Promote’ [a new licensing regime to improve ‘liquidity’ in the wholesale market] set of proposals which Ofgem put forward. “They are coming into being in the first half of next year and this is a major, major reform of the wholesale market, which hardly anyone is talking about.”
Miliband has not been so quiet, of course. Davey says that “a lot of energy is complicated” but the Coalition has “got a radical series of proposals which will drive down profits without affecting investment”.
“The problem with Labour’s approach, which is a very regulatory approach, price freezes et al, is a) it won’t actually deliver because the energy companies will put their prices up beforehand. Hello? How long did it take them to work that out?
“And b) it will undermine competition because in a price freeze if wholesale prices go up and you are having to trade at a loss because the government won’t let you put your prices up, the Big six will be able to manage it with their balance sheets, small suppliers will go out of business. Labour’s policy is about the worst policy you could imagine. It may be politically popular. I accept they’ve gone for a good, populist policy but actually it’s a bad populist policy.”
Davey is keen to stress that he wants to help, not harm, the UK’s energy-intensive industries. Analytical by nature, he recently looked at a study explaining the biggest different in relative energy prices between the US and Europe: shale gas.
“If you got rid of all the EU’s climate change package, it wouldn’t help you. You’d still be left with a very, very significant relative price effect from shale gas. So we’ve got to think really carefully about that. You don’t want to ditch things that will help you long term.”
He stresses that his climate change policies are as much about energy security – “We are importing stuff from Qatar” – as helping the planet.
As with his backing for nuclear energy, Davey doesn’t meet the usual Lib Dem stereotype on Brussels either. He says that while the EU can do a powerful job, progress on getting a Single Energy Market has been “lamentable”. “Although we’ve got the third energy package from the EU, the interconnections are just hopeless. We’ve got to really improve that, it would make a big step forward and make prices more secure.”
But shale gas is the other big win that is possible. “We’ve got to go for shale in Europe,” he says. So is his mind finally made up now on the controversial energy source?
“My caution on shale was only to make sure we did the analysis right and we don’t jump wildly in without knowing what the downsides are. We’ve done loads of analysis and I’m completely convinced now that shale gas definitely offers you two things: it offers you energy security and it offers you a climate change win. And it might, if the whole of Europe does it, offer us a price benefit. That’s unlikely in the short term, it’s unlikely in the medium term, it might happen in the long term, so we shouldn’t throw that option away.”
The Energy Secretary asked his chief scientist David Mackay to do analysis of the carbon footprint comparing shale with the energy used to extract and ship liquefied natural gas transport to Britain on big ships. Shale worked out as having a smaller footprint. “I think you can create a response to North American phenomenon of shale gas which is a credible one…without ditching stuff you need on climate change,” he says.
As for global warming, Davey treats the ‘energy’ and the ‘climate change’ parts of his title equally seriously. Some countries have in the past few weeks signalled a move away from previous emissions targets, from Australian premier Tony Abbott to the Canadian government and, most significant of all, Japan dropping its 2020 target.
The Minister says it’s important not to ‘misread’ recent announcements. “For Japan, in the light of Fukushima, you knew they were going to make some changes, and their changes are more about 2020, not 2030 or 2050. Let’s see what they announce on 2030, because I think they have a short-term issue not a long-term issue, they still remain very, very ambitious on climate change.”
On the wider issue of the pace of global warming, he has just returned from talks in Warsaw that saw “a pretty good agreement” despite “scratchiness” between some nations. Davey is optimistic, saying the key talks set for 2015 are “going in a very good direction”.
Part of the reason is the Obama administration’s commitment to the cause and he says “the US has been in a better place than it has ever been”. On a recent Washington trip, he found Gina McCarthy of the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz were taking real action, backed up by the President’s envoy, Todd Stern. The President’s own inauguration speech and a big speech this summer proved ‘he could not be clearer’ on the need to tackle climate change.
“And he’s backed by Secretary of State Kerry who frankly discovered climate change before Al Gore did. So you have an American Presidency, and American administration that is really ambitious in a way we’ve never seen before. Yes they have constraints and they are clear, the Republicans in Congress, but a lot of what they are able to deliver is through executive orders,” he says.
What about China? “You’ve got to look at what China is doing rather than what China is saying. China is doing huge amounts. It’s investing more in renewables than any other country.” The Chinese are tackling their coal power station issue too.
“Their leadership have talked about an ecological civilisation. China gets it. And it gets it because air pollution is hurting its people, because of environmental degradation generally – air and water – hurting its people, creating social unrest. Environmental reasons caused more unrest in cities and towns in China than probably any other issue.” With a lot of big cities like Shanghai low lying at the end of big rivers, the flooding issues are potentially huge too.
But does everyone in Britain ‘get it’? There are some who say that at a time of austerity, green policy is a luxury, an almost ‘airy fairy’ distraction.
“There is nothing airy fairy about the climate change issue; it is real, it is present,” Davey says. “You might even call it an imminent danger. Except that imminent danger suggests it’s not already happening. It’s happening. When you go to these climate change talks you see people suffering from the effects of climate change far more than we are.”
But in the UK too, he says “talk to farmers” and one can find “we are suffering from the effect of climate change”. “They may not all sign up to the IPCC figures but they know something is happening”.
“The tragedy of the Philippines typhoon was not that there is any evidence yet to prove that climate change is making storms more frequent or even more intense. What we do know is because the sea levels have risen, the storm surge and impact of the sea on low-lying areas is much more dramatic. So, we are pretty sure, though I believe on going on the scientific evidence unlike some, we have to study it, but people feel one of the reasons why the Philippines was such a disaster was because of rising sea levels caused by climate change. That is not airy fairy.”
Does he think some of this Conservative critics are simply unscientific? “There are many Tories who share my view, the Liberal Democrat view, the Labour Party view, and I think the wider public view and the scientific view that climate change is happening. And you may think this is odd but I know because I’ve talked to them, there are an awful lot of Conservatives who understand that climate change is a real and present danger and we have to tackle it.
“There are some who don’t and I wish they looked at the science. And didn’t pick and choose from the science and looked at the science as a whole. Because I find that when you look at the impact on glaciers, the impact on the north pole, the impact on sea levels, the acidification of the oceans, the extreme weather events, the global temperature, the temperature of the oceans, the science is compelling.”
Speaking of looking at the science, what does Davey think of Michael Fallon describing the debate over climate change as “theology”, as he did to The House magazine this year? The Minister is pointed in reply: “Michael’s responsibilities aren’t on the climate change area. They are on energy kit and nuclear and shale gas – and he’s doing a very good job.”
He is similarly deadpan about remarks by Owen Paterson to a Tory party conference fringe event in which the Environment Secretary praised the merits of global warming, such as fewer people dying in winter and ‘longer growing seasons’.
“I always think, unfortunately, while you can point to one or two things which would appear in the short term to help, the negatives outweigh them by a country mile,” he says. Paterson is the minister in charge of ‘adaptation’ to climate change. “Owen argues very strongly for more money for flood defences. So he must be defending against something,” he says.
Davey seems as optimistic about his own party’s electoral prospects as he is about tackling global warming. Asked if he worries about the Liberal Democrats getting squeezed in next year’s European and local elections in London (his own local council in Kingston is under threat from the Tories), he sees a glass half full.
“Obviously, we will have the European elections and we could have a big UKIP vote. But I think a lot of the politics next May is going to be local.”
He says it won’t be easy but in some areas of the capital, Lib Dems could take seats back from Labour that were lost in 2010 because of the general election effect. “I think it’s all to play for.”
As for 2015 and beyond, some in the party have suggested Davey could be the man to replace Nick Clegg whenever he decides to step down. Will the mantra of the Energy Secretary, who was once interviewed for a job with MI6, be a Bond-like ‘never say never again’? He laughs at the question, but then adds: “I am an arch fan, an arch loyalist of Nick and was very much involved in his leadership campaign and would very much like him to stay as leader for a long, long time.
“We are a democratic party. I don’t think Nick or any Parliamentarian would choose the next leader of the Liberal Democrats, so I think the party, when it comes to it, which I hope is a long way away, will go through that process.”
But he’s not ruling it out? “I’m not thinking about it. We are about to have our second child in February, which we are very excited about, our first child is quite disabled so he takes up a lot of our time, he’s a fantastic little chap but with extra demands. And I’m a Cabinet minister.
“So I’ve got a few things to think about and I don’t worry about things in the future. Let them take care of themselves. I am keen to make sure a job for my constituents, a good job as Secretary of State and keep my wife happy.”
It’s a good job Ed Davey likes noise. It sounds like he’s going to experience a fair bit more in coming months, at home and at work. And he needn’t worry about having a quiet life for some time yet.
DAVEY ON…LABOUR’S BILL FREEZE
“Labour’s policy is a con, it’s bad for competition and it’s bad for investment.”
DAVEY ON…NATIONAL GRID WARNINGS ON INVESTMENT
“I don’t see a drying up of investment. We hope to announce quite shortly some rather big new investments that are going forward.”
DAVEY ON…OFFSHORE WIND
"My first day I opened the world’s largest offshore windfarm. This summer I opened with the Prime Minister the next world’s largest offshore windfarm. The following week I consented what will be the next world’s largest offshore windfarm. We are seeing a lot of them open, a lot under construction."
DAVEY ON… ‘GREEN DEAL’ NUMBERS
“100,000 people have said I’d like an assessment for a Green Deal, nobody can tell me that’s a bad number.”
DAVEY ON…’GREEN DEAL’ FLAWS
“I’ve always thought that asking companies who want to sell energy to help people save it, I never thought that was a terribly good model."
Words: Jess Bowie
Pictures: Paul Heartfield
Kevin Spacey might be taken aback if he saw Lord Ridley’s office on Millbank. The Hollywood actor often has cause to call the phone in this room – which is so plainly decorated it feels vacant, as if awaiting new tenants. He’s not interested in Ridley, the award-winning scientist, writer and former bank chairman, but in his equally ascetic yet illustrious roommate,Lord Dobbs, the onetime Chief of Staff to Thatcher and author of House of Cards, the American TV version of which stars Spacey.
Ridley, 55, arrived in these unassuming quarters via a hereditary peer by-election in February (“Don’t worry,” he told his wife in the run-up to the vote, “I’ll never get it”). Since then, the scientist, whose books include 1999’s Genome and 2010’s The Rational Optimist, has been busy using his position to warn about rising energy costs and, more controversially, to make the case for a less pessimistic view of climate change.
The son of Matthew, 4th Viscount Ridley, and nephew of Nicholas Ridley, a fixture in Thatcher’s Cabinet, Matt Ridley describes himself as a ‘lukewarmer’ rather than a climate change denier or sceptic. He has ruffled green feathers on this score, not least by accusing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of cherry-picking bad news for its reports. But he refutes the charge that he too is selective, and insists he is just following the evidence.
“I’m trying to be fair. I’m trying to look at all sides of the question. So for example I often say the retreat of Arctic Sea ice is actually faster than expected. That’s the one piece of data that has gone faster that people predicted, but it’s the only one I can see – everything else has gone slower than predicted.
“So when I listed in a speech in the Lords nine different ways in which the latest IPCC report is retreating from more extreme positions – namely admitting there’s a pause, admitting the models have overpredicted warming etc etc – I don’t think I was cherry-picking. I mean, I’m making a case, yes, and I’m bringing in arguments, but if there was strong evidence that climate change was worse than expected, I’d be quite happy to say so.”
Following the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, David Cameron hit the headlines by saying climate change should be tackled as an “insurance policy”. The Prime Minister said that while he would “leave the scientists to speak for themselves about the link between severe weather events and climate change”, the evidence seemed to him to be growing. “If I said to you there’s a 60% chance your house might burn down, do you want to take out some insurance? You take out some insurance,” Cameron said.
Does the PM understand the science better than Matt Ridley?
“There’s a lot of room in the science for many different interpretations,” Ridley begins diplomatically, before adding that he’s far from convinced by the ‘insurance policy’ argument. “What kind of insurance policy is it that costs you an awful lot, doesn’t pay out and doesn’t prevent your house being burnt down, as it were? In other words, if you’re the only one doing it, it doesn’t really work as an insurance policy. Also, things like storms are going to happen anyway, so I’m not sure it’s an accurate analogy.”
“But of course, I agree with the Prime Minister,” he adds, casting a pantomime glance over his shoulder and laughing. “We do have to take some precautions and be aware that there is some risk. It’s all a question of how big the risk is.”
His views on risk might be at odds with David Cameron’s – not to mention those of much of the climate establishment – but they do overlap with the Environment Secretary’s. Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in September, Owen Paterson said he was confident humans could adapt to climate change and also pointed to the benefits of the UN’s predicted temperature increase, including fewer winter deaths and the potential to grow crops further north.
The comments caused an outcry among climate scientists, who accused the Environment Secretary of failing to properly understand the UN’s report, but does Paterson deserve credit for breaking a taboo?
“Yes he does,” Ridley says. “Because he’s absolutely right – those are the facts on the ground, as far as anyone can tell them.” He then expounds the advantages of a moderate rise in temperatures, including longer growing seasons and a reduced risk of water stress.
Can it be a coincidence that Paterson and Ridley share these views, given that the Environment Secretary is Ridley’s brother-in-law? (Paterson is married to Ridley’s sister, Rose.) “Well, I had published an article [about the advantages of climate change] shortly before he gave that speech, so he may have read that, I don’t know. But I didn’t feed him the line, no,” Ridley says.
“But we do talk about these things. He picked up on the fact that moderate climate change of the kind we’re going to see through to about 2060-2070, if you accept the current models, is going to be a net benefit, so it’ll be a very long time before we see net disadvantages from climate change. Now, just for saying that, all hell broke loose – the ceiling came down on my head and on Owen Paterson’s head. Yet all we were doing was reflecting the consensus of scientific opinion.”
Ridley recently set out his thesis on this topic in a long essay for The Spectator – an article which reads like a data-supported version of Private Eye’s cartoon series ‘Global Warming: The Plus Side’. In it, Ridley says his children “will be very old before global warming stops benefiting the world”. But he also concedes that, after 2080, climate change may start to do net harm to the world. So what happens then? Don’t we have a moral duty to the generations that come after us?
“We have a moral duty to poor people today, as well,” he says. “You have to balance your moral duty to your own great-great grandchildren against your moral duty to people in poor countries, and peoplein this country who are in fuel poverty. For me, that is the key balance that you have to strike.”
If current economic growth rates around the world continue, Ridley says, the average citizen will be about nine times better off, in income terms, by the end of this century than they are today. “Climate change is forecast to knock that back to about eight times as well off. So we’re talking about a slight diminution in the amount by which they get richer,” he says.
He also thinks that if you follow the logic of Lord Stern – the leading climate change economist who has said that the IPCC’s recent report “makes crystal clear that the risks from climate change are immense” – then people will be “rich enough to drive cars, but not rich enough to build floodbanks”.
Ridley, who believes that adapting to climate change may be cheaper in many cases than mitigating it, also says that Britain should take heed of recent announcements by Australia, Japan and Canada that they are downgrading their climate change commitments.
“I personally think that the British Government does need to take note of what Australia is doing in particular – and of what Canada and Japan have done. The lesson from Japan is: spend money on research, not on immature technologies – not on rolling out technologies. The lesson from Australia is: you can win an election being against carbon taxes – it’s not something to be afraid of.”
Does he think the Conservative Party could learn from Tony Abbott’s approach?
“I do. I think they should…I mean he’s not dismantling everything, but he is quite rightly recognising that the Australian public wants affordable energy, and energy that’s sufficiently affordable to create jobs, more than it wants some kind of really rather empty gesture to the world.”
For many, the fact that other governments are reneging on their environmental promises is even more of a reason for Britain to take the moral high ground and become a world leader on climate change policy.
Ridley sees things differently: “The moral high ground is a very expensive place. We are the world leaders now in offshore wind technology, which is a very bad thing to be a world leader in, because it’s the most expensive way yet devised of producing electricity, and it is going to destroy jobs in this country, as well as make people have to choose between heating and eating.
“We haven’t really seen the impact of offshore wind on people’s electricity bills but it’s going to be there – not just on domestic energy bills, but also on industrial ones.”
Ridley’s damning assessment of Britain’s wind industry isn’t something one would ever hear from a ministerial mouth – but does anyone in Government secretly agree with him? Like his roommate’s creation Francis Urquart, it seems Ridley couldn’t possibly comment – not least because he is “just a humble backbencher”. “I don’t talk to nearly enough ministers to get a sense of anything,” he says laughing.
Nor is Ridley convinced by the reasoning that the UK’s renewables industry will boost the economy by creating jobs, arguing that it isan old-fashioned economic fallacy. “The jobs that count are the ones we’re creating consuming energy not in producing energy, because there’s far, far more of them and if we can make energy affordable we get many, many more jobs in using it.
“If we want to maximise the number of jobs in producing energy, fine – let’s get two million people and put them on exercise bicycles and wire them up to the National Grid. That would be the most labour-intensive way that I can think of to produce energy. It would also tackle obesity!
“We build power stations for the people who are going to use the power, not for the people who build them. We should be thinking about consumers not producers”.
Ridley’s stance is unsurprising given his devotion to the free market: the subtitle of his book The Rational Optimist is, after all, ‘How prosperity evolves’. But his economic libertarianism has also been linked to the failure of Northern Rock, of which he was chairman from 2004-2007. Ridley resigned in October 2007, soon after the bank was forced to ask for emergency funds from the Bank of England.
Who or what does he think is to blame for the Co-op’s current woes? Was it a failure of regulation – or too much intervention?
Ridley avoids getting into specifics. “The only thing worth saying is that the crisis in the banks of a few years ago was just as bad in the mutual sector. In other words, there was just as much bad lending and bad governance in mutuals as there was in the banks – not just in the Co-op but in a lot of building societies too. The idea that there was something more sensible about the way mutuals behaved is not borne out by the evidence.”
What would he say to those who have drawn parallels between his attitude towards risk when he was chairman of Northern Rock (during the crisis, a panel of MPs chastened Ridley for failing to “recognise the risks of the bank’s strategy”) and his attitude now towards the risk of climate change having a catastrophic impact on the world?
The two are linked in Ridley’s mind, but not perhaps in the way you might expect.
“My experience in the financial crisis left me mistrustful of mathematical models, because risk was all based on mathematical models in those days – and they were wrong. It left me mistrustful of regulators who were pointing in the wrong direction, because that was largely the case in the financial crisis, and it also left me mistrustful of experts.
“In other words, just because an expert says something is going to be true, it’s no reason to accept it – you have to make up your own mind about things. Those are all lessons I felt I learnt from the financial crisis – not the only lessons I learnt from it, but they are all of relevance to the climate debate. One has to come to a balanced view about risk and one of the things about the financial crisis is that many, many people in the financial world were focused on the wrong risks.
“Liquidity risk was not being taken seriously, by me or by anybody else before the crisis,” he adds. “So it doesn’t give me confidence that the experts are looking at the right risks in climate change either.”
Such a rationalisation might make Ridley unpopular in parts of the green and banking sectors, but the peer is not a man to shy away from expressing his convictions, however controversial. His advice for politicians trying to assess risk is to “always look at both sides of every question, and challenge one view with the opposite view.”
He cites electronic cigarettes as an example – saying government plans to regulate them as a medicine will do more harm than good. Ridley says he’s becoming increasingly interested in the issue and, having recently discovered e-cigarettes are banned in South America, where the tobacco industry is particularly powerful, he is “putting some questions out about it”.
Away from his Westminster office, Ridley lives near Newcastle with his wife Anya Hurlbert, a neuroscientist. It doesn’t sound as if he’s had much downtime during his first nine months as a peer, but when asked what he is currently reading he gestures towards Lord Dobbs’s empty chair, and wonders if he is allowed to plug his roommate’s latest novel. “It’s called A Ghost at the Door, and it’s brilliant. I was genuinely surprised by the denouement – which I won’t give away.”
The question is, of course, whether a future Michael Dobbs thriller will one day portray an articulate, libertarian hereditary peer with provocative views on climate change. Matt Ridley must know there’s a risk.
RIDLEY ON...BEING A LIBERAL
"It’s certainly true that I see myself as a social liberal and an economic liberal – which means Conservative these days. I believe that people should free to do what they like in the boardroom and in the bedroom."
RIDLEY ON...BEING RELATED TO THE 'INVENTOR OF THE GOLDEN RETRIEVER'
"Did somebody put that into Wikipedia? People are weird, aren’t they... Was it Lord Tweedmouth or something? It was either him or his wife who supposedly invented the golden retriever. I find that quite hard to believe – surely golden retrievers have been around forever?"
RIDLEY ON...GREEN LEVIES
"What worries me about a lot of what’s called ‘social’, is that I’m not sure it’s very well targeted. My telephone at home rings the whole time with people offering me new government subsidised boilers or indeed government subsidised solar panels for my roof, and I’m extremely well off, and shouldn’t be subsidised for anything."
Denis, now Lord, Healey’s ‘First Law of Holes’ – when in one, stop digging – is an enduring if frequently ignored piece of advice for those in public life. So too is the observation of the former Labour Chancellor and Deputy Leader that politicians need a hinterland.
The peer, a military landing officer for the British assault brigade at Anzio during the Second World War, was never a one trick pony and away from Westminster made a name for himself as a photographer.
Most MPs and peers I chat with during my wanderings around Parliament have interests outside the day job and the trick for MPs in particular is to show a bit of ankle because voters like to know the personality as well as the policies of the politician – elections are a five-year job audition in front of a mass audience which make the Strictly and X Factor panels look clawless pussycats.
Ed Miliband’s spin on Desert Island Discs was Middle Britain gold for the Labour leader. He enjoyed 45 minutes to tell the nation how he loved his parents, wife, children, the brother he defeated and the country itself.
The Radio 4 show is hinterland heaven, a glorious opportunity for a politician to tell the nation: “I’m like you. Honest.” Super-cheese band A-ha may not be everybody’s choice but Miliband was telling voters (sorry – the audience) he too has a bit of an embarrassing past.
Politicians love the kudos of an invitation to be a castaway. Nick Clegg, marooned in the early months of his Deputy Premiership, confessed he was up until 2am selecting his eight records though it was the Lib Dem leader’s luxury item which sparked a grass fire.
To admit publicly he smoked, requesting a stash of cigarettes in the wilderness, was the British equivalent of an American Congressman admitting he or she liked half a shandy. The new moralism prohibits fags here and booze over there. Hinterlands have their limits.
David Cameron raised a few chuckles by knowing Two Ton Ted from Teddington, Benny Hill’s Ernie brought in from the cold by a future Prime Minister with an unexpected fondness for the Fastest Milkman in the West. His love of The Smiths was less well received, the band’s singer Morrissey taking a day off as This Charming Man to be appalled the Conservative leader liked his music.
I’m all for public figures sitting on TV sofas, popping up on radio shows, chatting about themselves and everyday issues. It reveals whether they are human, or not. Political broadcasting isn’t just Today, Newsnight, Channel 4 or Sky News – however important and good they all are.
A friend at the BBC assures me many more viewers watch Breakfast and Daybreak on the telly than listen to that establishment bulletin, Today, on the wireless. I’ve not checked the figures but can believe it’s true from conversations with civilians outside the Westminster bubble away from the political class. The wise leader follows the eyes and ears of the electorate.
If there is a contemporary politician who has turned down a request to be castaway, I’ve not met him or her. The prized invitation flatters egos and is a Mount Rushmore of the airwaves. I bet that across Whitehall, buried in ministerial drawers, are yellowing draft lists waiting to be read out by under-secretaries yearning for recognition.
Healey’s picks on Desert Island Discs in 2009, by the way, were mainly classical including Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart. The hinterland politician with the bushy eyebrows proved highbrow.
GDP in Tibet has grown from 129 million yuan in 1951 to 70.1 billion yuan in 2012. It has been growing at a double-digit rate for 19 consecutive years since 1994. Per capita net income of farmers and herdsmen has risen from 142 yuan in 1959 to 5,645 yuan in 2012. A total of 454.34 billion yuan was allocated from the central budget from 1952 to 2012 in subsidies to Tibet, accounting for 96% of Tibet’s accumulative public spending. The central government has made enormous efforts to support Tibet’s development.
The assertions that Tibet’s position is “deteriorating” and that the “economic explosion in China is becoming increasingly reliant on the exploitation of Tibet” are absurd.
There are nearly 800 intangible cultural heritage items in Tibet. Tibetan opera and Gesar epic tradition have been put on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO. There are 1,787 sites of religious activities with over 46,000 resident monks and nuns in Tibet. Every year, more than one million worshipers go on pilgrimage to Lhasa. Since 1980s, the central government has put in more than 1.45 billion yuan for the maintenance of the Potala Palace, Sakya Monastery and other temples, monasteries and prominent ancient sites.
The accusation that religious and cultural freedoms in Tibet are “being extinguished” is untenable.
It needs to be pointed out that what Dalai really wants through his visits under the name of religion is to garner support for “Tibetan independence” and split Tibet from China.
We hope that the countries and people concerned will have a clear understanding about it and stay on due alert.
In recent years, China and the UK have made important progress in their mutually beneficial cooperation. It did not come by easily. At present, frequent high-level visits provide new opportunities for the growth of bilateral ties. The two sides need to truly respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, enhance political mutual trust, deepen practical cooperation and appropriately handle sensitive issues. Only by doing so can we build up “positive energy” for the growth of bilateral relations and bring China-UK cooperation to higher levels.
I hope this letter will help readers of The House better understand Tibet-related issues and where China stands.
Spokesman of the Chinese Embassy in the UK