Opponents of natural gas development often say the government should listen to the democratic argument. They should be careful what they wish for.
Oil and Gas resources in the UK belong to the Crown. This constitutional question recently escaped Frack Free Lancashire in a recent petition to the Queen. The Queen’s power is a reflection of the wishes of the people, as advised to her by Parliament. The irony of asking an unelected monarch to overrule an elected government for the first time since the Civil War is lost on the Lancashire Nanas. The democratic reality is that all 65 million of us are the owners of the hydrocarbons under the UK. Therefore one could easily say that the wishes of a couple of hundred residents of the Roseacre area about the disposition of common property should be considered equally with those of their fellow citizens who live hundreds of miles away, or even overseas. 82% of UK residents are in cities or large towns. Democracy is not a veto based on 18%, and of course, not everyone in rural areas are opposed.
Democracy goes through local and county councils and ultimately resides in Parliament. (All at the grace and favour of the Sovereign, at least in the convoluted theory of the unwritten UK constitution).
If the national Parliament only listened to the minority, it would ultimately defeat the purpose of ruling for the common, democratic, good – not narrow local interests as opposed to the democratic national majority. There were at least two candidates in the Fylde constituency who as recently as May 2015, ran on an express platform opposing shale gas development. While perhaps they did well in Roseacre, they didn’t have a majority among the 66,504 fellow local citizens. They received a total of 6,547 votes, 15% of those who voted and less than one out of ten eligible voters. 15% is not democracy.
The democratic argument against shale is thus not compelling even at the local level. The planning enquiry by the officers of Lancashire County Council took on their concerns and they ruled against them. It can be said they as public servants, addressed the concerns of the majority. The council themselves, intimidated into making a decision that was truly a national decision, acted rationally in kicking the debate upstairs into the national arena.
The Lancashire Nanas make the common mistake of self-isolating groups. They think because everyone they know agrees with them they have a majority.The problem lies in what was recently called the John Peel mistake in a piece pointing out the isolation of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn:
Circa 1969, the DJ wondered why one of his favourite albums was not in the charts: “Everyone I know’s got a copy,” he said. Back came the reply: “No – you know everyone who’s got a copy.
That’s where the democracy debate belongs, isolated amongst the paranoid and angry. But it also belongs higher, as Friends of the Earth would surely admit. The impact of Lancashire shale gas on world carbon emissions must also be considered. The selfishness of a few can’t screw up the planet for the many. Despite the delusions of the Nanas, if Exxon Mobil can’t poison the air without being held ultimately to account, neither can the Friends of the Earth poison the debate for much longer. More on that next time.