28 JULY 1990, Page 19


No power to the people, but tell Ski: Hanson is as Hanson does


John Wakeham is a minister for impro- ving the Government's communications, a point which appears to be wasted on his private office. The smoothest communica- tor, though, would have his hands full with Mr Wakeham's latest plan as Secretary of State for Industry: Hansonisation. We were just being told, at vast expense, that there were now two companies making electricity in England and Wales, and one was called National Power and the other was called PowerGen, and after another saturation bombardment of advertising we might have been able to tell which was which, but in any case we should soon be able to buy shares in them — Power to the People! Correction. PowerGen is the one which Mr Wakeham now plans to have taken over, with Hanson the front runner. Power to the People? You can (just about) imagine big-company buyers whose names would induce a warm glow — Imperial Chemical Industries, or, in spite of my trouble with their shirt-sleeves, Marks & Spencer. Hanson is not in business to induce warm glows in the companies it approaches. Hanson is our leading expo- nent of the art of management by taking mouthfuls and spitting out the bones. Not that PowerGen would be likely to reward that treatment — privatising ministers have learned the hard way not to leave tasty assets around. What it might be, under commercial management and (in the Han- son style) having shed many managers, is a formidable competitor to National Power, its larger rival, still bearing the impress of Lord Marshall of Goring. The appearance of Lord Marshall in these arguments, as a rustic and voluble version of Sir Denis Rooke, lends them a much needed touch of humour. Everybody is out of step except Our Walter Marshall, and all would have been well if he were still sitting smugly on top of the nation's nuclear pile — which, now that we know its costs, is demonstr- ably unsaleable to Hanson or anybody else. He is the least of Mr Wakeham's troubles. His biggest trouble is that, after all these years of privatisation, his govern- ment still wants three contradictory things — the most competitive industry, the widest spread of ownership, and the high- est price. Muddle in means muddle out, and good communication only makes it more obvious.