Thatcher’s energy plan was derailed – now we are paying a gigantic price

Lord David Howell

It was a favourite dictum of the late Ernest Marples, for whom I worked as a young man, that in politics the urgent always ousted the important. When Margaret Thatcher asked me to be Energy Secretary in her first Cabinet I was to learn the truth of this view soon and bitterly.

The priorities of that moment, June 1979, both the urgent and the important, seemed clear enough.

The first was to do everything possible to protect ourselves against the latest oil shock from OPEC, the second in a decade, which was in full spate as we took office, and to prevent the consequent inflation, already at an inherited 20pc or more, from spiralling still further to the point of total breakdown. This time it had been triggered by the Iranian revolution taking 2 million barrels a day of oil off the market – a small amount globally but enough to send the price rocketing.

The second was to prepare and stiffen ourselves against the looming onslaught by the militant and politicised coal miners’ leaders. Arthur Scargill was rearing to have a go at a new Tory Government, with memories fresh in our minds of the three-day week and the damage inflicted on the country five years earlier.

The third, and most important for the future, was to move as swiftly as possible to replace and expand our ageing fleet of nuclear power stations (the UK having been the pioneer in this field with “atoms for peace”).

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