Thursday 28 June 2018

No matter what the cost...

The financial merits or demerits of the tidal lagoon project can be spun either way, depending on the figures selected, as we’ve seen in some of the reactions to the decision not to proceed.  Whether it’s assessed on the basis of the price per unit or the impact on electricity bills is one of the questions; both approaches have a degree of validity, but they lead to very different conclusions.  About the only thing that does seem entirely clear is that the financial arguments have been given considerably more weight than the question of decarbonising the production of energy.
The Tory MP for Maldwyn, Glyn Davies, has unsurprisingly defended the decision. His reasoning struck me as interesting however.  He says that he’s “been really taken aback by the calls for the UK Govt to back the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, no matter what it’s cost. I just cannot think like that. I do not think it’s the way a Conservative does think”.  At first sight, it seems like a fair point – although it isn’t only Conservatives who might baulk at supporting something “no matter what it’s cost”.  But then I thought of the Rees-Moggs of this world and Brexit.  Isn’t that, ultimately, a very good and simple summary of what they want?  A quick, clean Brexit “no matter what it’s cost”?  Some Conservatives, at least, clearly do think that way.
He also quoted part of the report’s conclusions, which said “The inescapable conclusion of an extensive analysis is that however novel and appealing the proposal that has been made is, even with these factors taken into account, the costs which would be incurred by consumers and taxpayers would be so much higher than alternative sources of low carbon power that it would be irresponsible to enter into a contract with the promoter”.  Again, I found myself substituting ‘remaining in the EU’ for ‘alternative sources of low carbon power’.  Clearly, Glyn Davies and other Brexiteers do believe that sometimes, it is worth doing something which is far from being the lowest cost alternative because it achieves other desirable aims.  The real disagreement comes over deciding what other aims might be desirable, and how much we’re prepared to pay to achieve them.  (And, of course, all of us suffer from the problem that our prior beliefs on the desirability of a particular outcome inevitably affect the extent to which we choose to believe a particular set of figures when they are placed in front of us, to say nothing of the method used to derive those figures.)
But that issue of ‘desirability’ is where political debate should take place; costs are part of the argument, but cost should never trump all debate about what is the ‘right’ thing to do.  That applies whether it’s in relation to the lagoon or anything else – including Brexit and, yes, even independence.  Reducing everything to the bottom line – especially when the method of calculation of the bottom line is itself a matter of considerable debate – often looks like a way of avoiding the much more important debate about the sort of world in which we want to live and how we get there.  But of course, reducing everything to the bottom line isn’t really “the way a Conservative does think” at all.  It’s only other people’s ideas about what’s desirable which can be dismissed on cost grounds without further discussion.  And there’s something very Conservative indeed about that approach to debate.

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