It was something of a moment of revelation – a wake-up call – when what passes for a general election campaign suddenly saw a bizarre swapping of sides.
Having condemned the idea of price caps on energy tariffs during the 2015 general election, the Conservatives proposed almost exactly the same thing themselves only a year or so later.
Let’s set aside the political rhetoric about this for a moment. Of course there is an element of hypocrisy involved. There always is in general election campaigns. But what is interesting is what it says about the official opposition, the Labour Party.
What it implies is that the policies are irrelevant to the drift of the opposition. It means that ideas, at this particular juncture of political history, depend on who puts them forward. Policies come and are condemned out of hand and then adopted. It reminds me of Franklin Roosevelt’s old adage that conservative ideas are radical ones when they are worn out.
It may be that the UK media bias is responsible. It may also be that the vehicle needs rethinking. It is almost as if, when Labour proposes sweetness and light and a cut in taxes, it would be roundly condemned as absurd by the Conservatives and the Daily Mail. Perhaps it is the structure of government and opposition that are worn out and not the policies themselves.
But there is another aspect of this strange business which is worrying. It is as if the cycle of proposition for its own sake, and opposition for its own sake, is designed – not to enlighten – but to buttress poor ideas. Both government and opposition parties propose an energy price cap, ergo it must be a good idea. A similar process is used by the BBC to shrug off criticism on the grounds that one crazy critic is balanced by one crazy supporter.
The truth of the matter is that an energy price cap is a poor idea which will store up difficulties, and it is adopted because – as always – the real solution seems too difficult. The problem with the energy market is the same as the problem with the banking market, which is that it is an oligopoly. The big energy companies need to be broken up.
Actually, the anti-trust position is by far the most important measure never undertaken by governments of either left or right. Yet while it is ignored, there will be increasing enthusiasm from politicians who want to tinker with prices.
That is not to say that prices are real in some religious sense, as we have been led to believe in recent decades. Just that messing them around directly is liable to lead to political difficulties later.
So that’s my solution for the big energy companies, the big banks and the big political parties too. Break them up. It’s a pity it seems unlikely to happen soon.