This article is from the May issue of Total Politics. Find other columns in Nik's series on the parliamentary debates that made history here
We have been worrying about ‘peak oil’ since the 1950s – that theoretical moment in the future when the rate of oil production enters terminal decline. Scientists have known about anthropogenic climate change since the last nineteenth century, but what about fears of ‘peak coal’ in the 1860s?
William Gladstone (Lib, South Lancashire) presented the Budget. There were record revenues from duties on beer, for example, demonstrating politicians’ hoary penchant for plundering the humble British pint. But then, as now, the country had a debt problem. The national debt stood at £798.9m and more was spent annually on debt payments (£26.2m) than on defence (£24.8m).
In order to continue its rapid and astonishing progress of commercial and industrial development, Britain had to stay ahead in the global economic race. It was ahead of competitors such as France and the United States, and the answer, according to Gladstone, was our vast store of coal – good quality and cheap to mine. However, runaway demand had created the real prospect that Britain’s cheap coal would run out, “whether 50 or 100 or any other number of years hence”. Were we fast approaching, to use a modern phrase, ‘peak coal’? Some experts thought so. Gladstone said that with consumption growing 3.7 per cent each year, demand would outstrip our known supplies by 1970.
Scientists might develop an alternative energy source, but, warned Gladstone, “it will not be peculiar to England”. More coal might be found elsewhere, but Britain would relinquish its advantage, causing “a decline of rents, a decline of profits, a decline of wages”. And the national debt would “remain as a permanent mortgage… on the lands, houses, and works of the country”. Should Britain restrict coal mining by law? Or restrict exports? Gladstone demurred from passing judgement on primordial ‘green’ taxes, but for the sceptics he invoked a proto-precautionary principle: “That it may happen within reasonable bounds of expectation is enough.”
John Hubbard (Con, Buckingham) thought it a “very debatable matter”. Gladstone’s “sensational” claim was immaterial, in light of his decision in 1860 to “abrogate” the right to make France pay export duties on British coal. Disraeli’s Tories were protectionist sorts, who bridled at the Liberals’ new-fangled free trade. Hubbard claimed a shilling’s duty per ton of coal would pay down the national debt within 60 years. Matthew Marsh (Lib, Salisbury) contended that the national debt “was no debt at all”, rather “simply the payment of an annuity”. Coal, moreover, was only part of the British success story, the remainder “produced by our industry and enterprise”. Were coal truly to fail, “our posterity would rise superior to the difficulty”.
Gladstone was accurate in predicting when Britain would hit its ‘peak coal’, but not as he had imagined. Coal mines became uneconomic, not empty.