By Mark Wallace
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A few years ago, I visited the Soviet-era Stalin museum in the tyrant's home town of Gori in northern Georgia. The museum has many curios – from the small hovel in which he was born, sheltered under a ludicrously overblown marble gazebo, to his official railway carriage in which tourists can (and always do) take a snapshot of his toilet. The museum has itself become a historical exhibit – a staggeringly dishonest exercise in totalitarian propaganda, preserved for posterity as a demonstration of the Soviet regime's lies.
Even the staff are engaged in a stark demonstration of living history. Our guide, a rather stern lady, had clearly learned her entire tour in English by rote at some point in the 1970s. She rattled through it word-perfectly, shooting magazines of syllables at us like a stuttering machine gun. It was an impressive memory stunt – but when she was interrupted by questions her comprehension of English was very limited, and it became clear as we went through the plush galleries that she didn't have a clue what the words in her patter actually meant.
Sometimes political ideas gain the same rote-learned quality. We repeat them as obvious statements with which no-one can disagree, while paying far too little attention to what they mean in practice.
Here are a few: "we must rebalance the economy", "we need a British manufacturing renaissance", "more young people should go into engineering", "energy prices are too high", "the North must not be left behind by growth focused on the South East". I'd wager that most MPs and commentators have said at least one of those at some point – many will have said all of them repeatedly in recent years.
But what can be done to fulfil these aims?
Peter Lilley has an answer in this week's Spectator: develop a UK shale gas industry, as soon as possible.
The economic potential of the UK's shale reserves is clear. An extremely conservative analysis by my former colleagues at the Institute of DIrectors, published last September, estimated that shale could generate 35,000 jobs, particularly engineering jobs in the North, meet 10% of the nation's gas demand for the next century and potentially lower domestic and business energy prices. The knock-on effects are being studied at the moment, but it is easy to imagine the impact a lower energy price would have on wider manufacturing industries as well as the population at large.
Of course, few things in life are free of any risks. As the Lilley piece discusses, much of the outcry from those green groups who want to see no shale gas exploration whatsoever is hugely exaggerated, but we would be foolish not to study and assess any real risks involved in fracking. In that sense, we are fortunate that the US has experienced a shale boom already – any British regulatory regime should learn from the American experience and take the best bits of safety regulation from them.
Similarly, we must consider the way in which shale gas installations will be viewed by residents living nearby. As well as ensuring the proper regulations are in place, they should be very closely involved in deciding the terms on which shale gas companies can operate – call it fracking by consent.
We should go further. The Government is rightly proposing that those who live near to a shale "pad", as the facilities are called, should be offered discounted or free household energy for life as part of any agreement to go ahead. This already happens for new power stations in France, and is a wise, fair approach to recognise that power generation cannot be divorced from the area in which it happens.
Before anyone asks if I would be happy for fracking to take place near my house, yes I would. And if you gave me free household energy for life in return for agreeing to the arrival of my new neighbour, I'd do the drilling myself.