I’LL GET ME COAT

GasOne of the benefits of my gradual withdrawal from watching ‘live’ television is the removal of that irritant known as the ad break; on the rare occasions now when something airs on commercial TV that I actually want to watch, I instinctively record it so that any pleasure which might be derived from the viewing experience is not routinely gatecrashed by ads. The ability to skip through ads was a genuinely liberating element of the VCR when it became part of the household furniture in the 1980s, but the advent of ‘catch-up’ has detached me further from the in-yer-face aggression of the ad man pushing his unwanted products on me. Quite a change from back in the days without choice, when we all saw the same ads at the same time and consequently all ended up humming the same jingles and reciting the same catchphrases. ‘Naughty but nice’; ‘The sweet you can eat between meals without ruining your appetite’; ‘Hands that do dishes can feel soft as your face…with mild green Fairy Liquid’ and so on. Rather quaintly, there are occasions today when I’m asked if I’ve seen ‘that ad’, and I have to explain I don’t watch them anymore.

This self-imposed exile from exposure to the ad break means I’ve no idea if energy suppliers advertise their wares on TV in the way they used to. Just as the unlikely likes of the Milk Marketing Board once claimed advertising space between programmes, I recall British Gas hiring Noel Edmonds to promote the brand in the late 70s with a characteristically annoying jingle. Why a publicity campaign was deemed necessary in the days before deregulation, when ‘the gas board’ was an umbrella term that encompassed twelve regional boards as a nationalised British Gas Corporation free from competition, isn’t entirely clear; but all of that was destined to be sacrificed at the free-market altar of privatisation come the Thatcher era, anyway. The plethora of competing energy suppliers may have offered a superficial variety of choice to the consumer since the tedious ‘Tell Sid’ auction of 1986, but anyone who has chopped and changed over the past 35 years is well aware that any initial reduction in price when switching from one supplier to another is short-lived, as there is always a gradual gravitation towards the same extortionate cost, whoever the supplier.

Energy suppliers seem to have been a political hot potato ever since plans to reform the system formed part of Ed Miliband’s manifesto in the run-up to the 2015 General Election campaign; it’s probably the sole policy idea from that era of the Labour Party that struck a chord with the electorate, for it was generally felt customers had been getting a raw deal from suppliers for far too long. Speaking personally, I know I’ve had more problems with gas and electricity bills over the last 20 years than any other; the likes of rent, water, telephone/internet, and even the much-derided TV licence (the cheapest of the lot by far) have all remained at a relatively manageable rate, in line with inflation and the cost of living. By contrast, gas and electricity have fluctuated wildly and rarely fall into the ‘manageable’ category; I tend to be informed of a ridiculous hike in prices via a letter (usually overestimating what I should be paying), which then necessitates a lengthy phone call in which I have to try and negotiate a price I can just about afford. And now it appears that same old troublesome utility is all set to spark one more crisis amidst the mounting of many.

This week, threats to gas supplies have been added to the Doomsday narrative that began with Brexit and has continued with Covid Project Fear. Just in case the prospect of the upcoming winter months doesn’t appear bleak enough with predictions of rising coronavirus cases, further lockdowns, and the reintroduction of restrictions, now the talk is of festive food shortages, possible blackouts reminiscent of the Three Day-Week, and astronomical increases in the cost of energy. Last year, Christmas came within a whisker of being cancelled ala Oliver Cromwell due to the Covid factor; this year, the media’s misery soothsayers are relishing one in which it’s okay to have more than six people in the house, but only so everyone can communally shiver and starve by candlelight. And, of course, by the time we’re on the eve of it it’ll be officially the Worst Winter Since 1963 as well – like every winter; and the NHS will be days away from complete collapse – like every winter. Other than that, though, sounds like it’s gonna be fun.

Seven of the smaller energy suppliers have gone bust in the past year – five of them in just the last few weeks – and the global gas market surge, provoked by a cold northern hemisphere winter that drained gas storage supplies, has sent the market price of gas soaring by over 50%; this is especially concerning in the UK, where the price of electricity has also risen due to gas plants generating just under half of the country’s electricity. The fact this is happening during September’s ‘Indian Summer’, even before the descent of the autumnal chill and the annual ignition of the fireplace, is worrying, for we’re hardly at peak usage time right now. The spectre of fuel poverty haunting households that we may well be confined to come the winter is not helped by scare stories about empty supermarket shelves; the ramifications of the energy crisis merges with food supplies via talk of a threatened shortage of carbon dioxide, which is a vital ingredient in the food and drinks industry. CO₂ can be found in beer and fizzy drinks, but it’s also used to stun animals prior to slaughter in abattoirs, as well as being a pivotal component of the protective packaging that keeps food fresh, meaning a shortage of it affects more than merely pig-farmers or dedicated diehard carnivores.

With so much time and effort devoted to imposing renewable sources of energy upon the public (without much in the way of consultation), the need to be seen doing anything to theoretically combat climate change has served to dismiss dependable and unfashionably traditional sources at a moment when they might actually come in handy. Plentiful supplies of natural gas have been left untapped by the fierce opposition to fracking, and nuclear being a dirty word has caused constant delays in the building of new plants to supersede the old ones; yet with the low-carbon PR campaign hindered by the unreliability of ‘green’ alternatives like solar and wind power, the remaining coal-powered stations in this country are now being bribed to stay open in order to cope with the impending new crisis, putting the usual crisis we are routinely bombarded with to one side. It seems the sudden U-turn mantra is jam today, regardless of the jam we’re constantly told we require for tomorrow.

The price rises are scheduled to kick-in next month, nicely timed to coincide with the end of the £20-a-week ‘uplift’ Universal Credit payment introduced during lockdown and the severest Covid restrictions; it was never going to last forever, though most probably didn’t imagine it would draw to a close the same week as a 12% increase in energy bills. It was inevitable that all the financial incentives required to pacify opposition to lockdown were destined to come to a shuddering halt eventually, though the timing of an energy crisis is unfortunate, to say the least. I guess the problem with news of this nature is differentiating between any genuine threat there may be and the scaremongering hyperbole we’ve become accustomed to over the past couple of years; the danger of governments and ruling elites crying wolf too often is that no one will believe them when the big bad wolf really is at the door.

© The Editor

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