Gerry’s News Digest 180: State visits, energy policy, a church ad and Hillary (4th December, 2015)

Hi, this is Gerry. And welcome to my News Digest for Friday 4th December 2015. On today’s show, like last time, I’ve got two bigger topics and then a collection of some smaller stories to finish up with. So we’ll start with two VIP visitors to Britain and that will take us into a review of our national energy policy. To finish up with: the Church of England gets banned, an American candidate gets renamed and the result of the doctors’ vote.

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In the last few weeks the United Kingdom has received state visits [1] from the leaders of the world’s two biggest countries. First we had President Xi Jinping from China and he was followed a couple of weeks later by the head of the Indian government, Prime Minster Narendra Modi. Both of them were given the works [2] – a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, a visit to Westminster and, of course, the serious business of discussions with the British government. They were also met by protests by human rights activists concerned with issues such as Tibet and free speech in the case of China, and violence against minorities in the case of India, in particular Prime Minister Modi’s actions or lack of actions when he was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat during anti-Muslim riots there in 2002 that led to hundreds if not thousands of deaths. During the visits both the Chinese and the Indians organised demonstrations of welcome for their leaders to counteract [3] the human rights protestors. But while the Chinese restricted their activities to street demonstrations designed to drown out [4] any protests, Prime Minister Modi was able to fill Wembley Stadium with 60,000 people from all over Britain who came to celebrate his visit. This was a sign of the strength of the Indian diaspora [5]. I can’t imagine any British prime minister ever filling a stadium!

The British government’s priority was, however, economic. What sort of trade deals [6] and investment programmes could Britain have with these two giant countries? Historically, one might imagine that British relations with India are better than those with China. India was part of the British Empire. English is one of its official languages. Today, many of the greatest modern writers in English are Indian. Indians form the largest ethnic minority in Britain. Indian names feature prominently in the list of the richest individuals in Britain. British relations with China, on the other hand, have not always been good. The so-called Opium Wars in the 19th century when the British tried to force the Chinese into trade treaties [7] to buy goods from them, including opium, left bad memories. And then during the Cold War, Communist China was not a welcome partner.

In fact, today Britain exports more to China than it does to India. On the other hand Indians invest more in Britain than the Chinese. That, at least, has been the situation to date. During the latest visit by President Xi, however, a lot of new Chinese investment deals were announced, and one of them got the headlines. The British government, in its move towards a carbon-neutral energy policy, wishes to revive [8] our nuclear energy sector. Britain had the first civil [9] nuclear programme. Its first atomic power station [10] was opened in 1956. It was designed and built by British engineering companies. The last one to be built was started in 1987 and finished in 1995. In the meantime the British nuclear engineering industry has largely disappeared. So now, when the government has decided that nuclear power should be part of the “mix” including the last of the coal- and oil-fired generators [11], more modern gas-powered plants and the “renewables [12]” (wind, solar and tidal [13]), we have to look for foreign help to build new nuclear power stations. The French have the capacity and EDF has contracts to build plants in the UK but has run into financial difficulties. So now, the Chinese are going to invest in England. They are going to participate in one of EDF’s projects and they are also going to have the chance to build one of their own Chinese power stations here. The British government is very positive about this collaboration. There are other voices that question the wisdom [14] of letting China get actively involved in the construction and running of our energy infrastructure.

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Staying with the subject of energy, the future of our renewable energy sector is never far from the news. Where I live wind energy is a hot topic [15], so to speak. We have big wind farms [16] out to sea and quite a lot of wind turbines on the land as well. Over 9% of the UK’s energy requirement was met by wind power in 2014. Near where I live what will be the second largest offshore [17] wind farm in the world is halfway to completion. It will have 160 turbines. While most people support the idea of wind power, not everybody is happy with the result. Onshore [18] windfarms, in particular, are attracting a lot of opposition. In Wales, for example, wind turbines are being erected in tourist areas. Not everybody thinks that they enhance [19] the countryside.

British government energy policy has changed in the last couple of months. This is in response to what one newspaper described as a “trilemma” – the challenge of trying to deal with three sometimes conflicting aims [20]. First, there’s energy security – making sure that the country has a secure supply of energy. Secondly, energy needs to be affordable, and not so expensive that it damages the economy. And thirdly, we have our international commitments to reducing carbon emissions and doing what we can to slow down global warming. The government has now cut subsidies for both onshore wind farms and for solar energy. This has angered environmentalists, of course, but on the other hand the government has also announced that the country will have closed its last coal-fired power station by 2025. At present we still depend on coal for 40% of our electricity. The gap will be filled in the first place by gas-fired power stations. Longer-term there’s nuclear power and the renewables.

Let’s finish this brief look at our energy needs and how to meet them by looking at what’s happening in the solar power business. As I just told you, subsidies for solar power are being cut in Britain. Up until now you could get a very good deal from the government for fitting solar panels to your roof. One reason why the government has withdrawn this subsidy can, perhaps, be found in America. I read an interesting article recently about the boom in solar power in Las Vegas. Well, I suppose they have plenty of sunshine there, but the point is that the boom is based on simple economics. Solar-power companies there have developed a business model that makes sense to people. As one of the businessmen is quoted as saying, “At the end of the day it comes down to money first and foremost.” What’s new about the business model in Las Vegas is that the companies neither manufacture nor sell the solar panels. They just deliver and fit them as quickly and as efficiently as possible onto the roofs of people’s houses. They also lease them rather than sell them to the house owner. Their customers just pay for the electricity that the panels generate, and that’s at a cheaper price than the normal price from the local grid [21]. The advantage of this model is that the customers get cheaper electricity but without any investment. But even in America there are tax credits and other things that subsidize new forms of energy. It’s just a question of how long a government needs to maintain a subsidy until the new technology is so well established that costs have fallen enough to make it competitive. The Chinese are now producing solar panels at a fraction of [22] what they used to cost.

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Now here are a couple of shorter items to finish today’s show. Firstly, British cinemas are worried about religious propaganda. The company that controls the advertising in our biggest cinemas has decided to ban an advertisement because it’s religious. They say that it’s their policy to block anything political or religious. A good thing, you might say, in light of the recent terrible events in Paris, Beirut, Kenya and Mali. The only thing is that in this case it was a short film made by the Church of England – an organisation usually criticised for blandness [23] and for being wishy-washy [24] liberal. The film shows a variety of people reciting the Lord’s Prayer [25] in different situations and the only overt message at the end is “Just pray”. But that was enough to get it banned because it might offend some people. Ironically, of course, this ad was only intended for the cinema, but now that it’s been banned it’s been everywhere – all over the papers, on television, on the internet, etc. You can have a look for yourself if you like on YouTube!

I’m always a bit shocked when I go to visit the block of flats where my mother lives and I read the list of residents. In the case of married couples, they give the names as, for example, Mr and Mrs John Smith. That’s such an old-fashioned thing, and it’s even worse, in my opinion when Mrs Smith receives post addressed to Mrs John Smith, when her name is Elizabeth. The woman who looks likely to be the next presidential candidate for the Democrats in America is… Well, who is she? When her husband was first elected governor in Arkansas, she kept her own name: Hillary Rodham. Then she started calling herself Hillary Rodham Clinton. HRC is how she often signs herself. I now read, however, that for the next election she’d like to be known as Hillary Clinton. I wonder why. Shorter and simpler? Or is her husband out of the way now, so she can use his name without being in his shadow? But just don’t call her Mrs Bill Clinton!

And further to my topic last time about the junior doctors, I can now tell you the result of their vote. 76% of the doctors participated in the ballot, and 98% of those who voted, voted in favour of going on strike. I’ll keep you informed of what happens next. It wasn’t good news for the minister responsible for the health system in England.

And that’s about it. Don’t forget our new vocabulary learning app. Have you tried it yet? And remember if you’ve got anything to say about any of my stories please don’t hesitate to write to me via the website: www.podclub.ch. Or use Twitter: my Twitter address is @Gerrypod. But for now, thanks for listening and take care!


[1] state visit: when the head of another country comes in an official capacity
[2] the works: everything, the full treatment (an informal expression)
[3] to counteract: to do something against something else, to balance out
[4] to drown out: to be louder than (so that something cannot be heard)
[5] diaspora: a large group of people who have left (or have had to leave) their home country and now live in other countries (usually used to talk about the Jews)
[6] trade deal: a contract (a formal/legal agreement) concerned with the import/export of goods or services
[7] treaty: a formal written agreement (contract) between two or more countries
[8] to revive: to bring back to life
[9] civil: here: the opposite of military
[10] power station: a place where electricity is produced
[11] generator: a machine for making electricity
[12] renewable (energy): energy/electricity that is made from these resources does not use something like coal, of which we have only a limited amount
[13] tidal (energy): energy that uses the movement of the sea as it comes in and out every twelve hours
[14] to question the wisdom (of something): to express doubts that something is an intelligent thing to do
[15] a hot topic: a subject that people talk and argue about a lot
[16] wind farm: a place with a lot of windmills (wind turbines) that make electricity
[17] offshore: out at sea
[18] onshore: on the land
[19] to enhance: to improve
[20] conflicting aims: goals that are opposed to each other (so that you cannot easily reach them all at the same time)
[21] grid: here: the usual network infrastructure that supplies electricity
[22] at a fraction of: here: very much cheaper than
[23] blandness: here: having policies and opinions that are designed to upset nobody (NB If a food has this quality it has little taste.)
[24] wishy-washy: neither one thing nor the other, weak
[25] the Lord’s Prayer: the Christian prayer that begins with the words “Our Father…”