Academic Historian Pauline Gregg on the Nationalization of the Electricity and Gas Industries

With the energy crisis threatening even greater numbers of working people with grinding poverty, while the bosses of these industries record obscene profits and pocket millions in bonuses, I looked up the nationalisation of the electricity and gas industries in Pauline Gregg’s The Welfare State (London: George G. Harrap, 1967). She writes of their nationalisation

‘The Electricity Bill came up for its second reading on February 3, 1947. The history of electricity supply was another example of haphazard growth and piecemeal legislation. At one time there had been no less than 635 Electricity Undertakings over the country; in London there were still 75 in 1947. The industry was governed by 243 Provisional and Special Orders and Acts of Parliament; tariffs and voltages differed from area to area, and often in adjoining districts; municipal ande company undertakings had never come to terms. Whichever Government had been returned in 1945 would have had to impose some degree of order and rationalization upon the industry. Scotland alone showed some ordered development. In 1941 Thomas Johnstone, the devoted Secretary of State for Scotland in the Coalition Government, had appointed a committee to consider the practicability of developing the water-power resources of Scotland for the generation of electricity. It was a scheme which would make work for areas which were losing their population besides bringing the great boon of electricity to small townships and scattered homesteads. It was a great tribute to a country at war that in February 1943 it had passed the Hydro-electric Development (Scotland) Act which established a Hydro-electric Board for the North of Scotland.

The Bill before the House in 1947 proposed to establish a British Electricity Authority with full responsibility for generating electricity and selling it in bulk. Local distribution would be in the hands of fourteen area boards, Scotland would still be served by the Scottish Hydro-electric Board, who jurisdiction was extended to include some 22,000 square miles north and west of a line from the Firth of Tay to the Firth of Clyde-about three-quarters of the total area of Scotland. Again the measure raised only a token opposition and took 165 Conservatives into the lobby against it on February 4, 1947, rather as a gesture against the Labour Government than from real opposition to the Bill.

A similar pattern was proposed for the reorganisation of the Gas Industry. On January 21, 1948, the Bill “to provide for the establishment of Area Gas Boards and a Gas Council” was presented by Hugh Gaitskell, who had succeeded Shinwell as Minister of Fuel and Power. It was given its second reading on February 11 by 354 votes to 179. Gas supply, like Electricity was complicated, disintegrated, inefficient and controlled by a legislative framework that was a major obstacle to improvement. All Reports agreed on the desirability for larger areas of administration and for great integration, and Gaitskell claimed that the most suitable structure for the industry would be found under public ownership.’ (pp. 73-4).

And on pages 76-77 Gregg explains why these measures were needed and that they didn’t constitute a political and economic revolution.

‘Nationalization, it has been said, was a political and economic revolution, forced through after a generation of waiting. There had been a generation-and more-of waiting, but both the election results of 1945 and the debates in the House of Commons overrode any suggestion that they were ‘forced through’. The myth that they involved “a political and economic revolution” is disposed of on several grounds: the industries concerned (with the exception of iron and steel) were either semi-derelict or in urgent need of such reorganisation as could come only from a central authority with large resources to back it; they were all natural monopolies amenable to the advantages of large-scale operation; they were either public services or approximating to such; their public control was in step with a world-wide movement and one which, in Britain itself, was already well established. Banking and insurance all over the world, big power projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority in the U.S.A., the Volta River scheme in Ghana, the Panama Canal Company, the Aswan Dam on the Nile, the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi, afforestation schemes, flood-control, navigation improvement, agricultural development, railways in Europe, America, Canada, Australia-schemes which started before or after and continued at the same time as the British nationalization undertakings – put Britain in the main flood of development, not in any revolutionary situation. For the Labour Party and for their opponents this was paradox that changed the political scene. Who had stolen whose thunder was difficult to determine, but, with the exception of iron and steel, it was unlikely that much party political capital could ever again be made out of the issue of nationalization’.

This last sentence was disproved when Thatcher and the Tories went on their rampage of privatisation in the 1980s and ’90s. But even then, support for privatisation never went above 50 per cent. The nationalisation of the utilities was common sense and the majority of the Tory party at the time understood this. Privatisation was supposed to open up further sources of investment, and competition would lower prices.

This has not happened.

Energy prices are going up, while bosses are pocketing massive pay rises. Thatcherism, as I have said in a few previous posts, has failed.

The only solution is to renationalise the utilities.

Advertisement

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: