Nick Clegg wants to prove that he can stand up to big business. At Canary Wharf’s greenest building, and in a speech billed as being about the green economy, the deputy prime minister has announced his plan to guarantee customers the “best tariff” for their energy bills.
“Right now”, he said, “seven out of ten customers are on the wrong tariff for their needs”. But from this autumn there will be an obligation on your energy supplier to notify you of the “best tariff” for your usage.
Before revealing this victory for commercial responsibility, Clegg turned to inculcating us all with a similar sense of responsibility, and this is where the speech was most interesting:
“Just think about today’s Britain: a nation burned by its excesses, paying the price for years spent living on borrowed time and borrowed money. A nation turning the page on a culture of reckless consumption where we sacrificed tomorrow to get-rich-quick today. A nation thriftier, more frugal, more careful than before, determined to clean up this generation’s mess and leave a better legacy for our children.
“We are undergoing a profound transformation within our economy. And for the first time ever our economic and environmental mantras are exactly the same: waste not, want not.
“Whether it’s waste of energy, waste of money, waste of our potential, we are focused on conserving our precious resources – something the people in this room know a lot about. Responsibility, sustainability are the watchwords of the day. And that creates a unique opportunity to put environmental thrift into the mainstream.”
This sounds sensible - and Clegg’s later recognition that government “can’t just preach at people” acknowledges the dangers inherent with environmental policy.
But the delivery of the speech from Canary Wharf was accidentally apposite. As well as being “Canary Wharf’s greenest building”, KPMG’s headquarters is also a hub for top rate taxpayers (whose coffers will be bolstered by last month’s Budget) and institutionalised tax avoidance.
And Clegg’s approach to sustainability and responsibility on green issues would be even more commendable if it straddled these economic issues too. But with the reduction in the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p, social responsibility on the part of those taxpayers was eschewed in favour of unjustified deference to selfishness.
The media-friendly top line of Clegg’s speech on the green economy suggests that government can helpfully influence how businesses operate, encouraging them to act in a way that is socially responsible. But a “nation thriftier, more frugal, more careful than before” should look further than environmental issues for the promotion of social and commercial responsibility.