Sound and vision blog

26 January 2016

Cecil Parkinson - Tory Architect of Electricity Privatisation (1931-2016)

The death of Lord Cecil Parkinson, brings to an end a remarkable political life. From humble roots he became a political high flyer, party chairman, architect of the Conservative 1983 election victory, and a likely successor to Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. However, his career never recovered from the scandal that broke in 1983 over an affair with his secretary. Inevitably, most of the obituaries have focused on the spectacular rise and fall from grace of his early career, dismissing his later return to ministerial posts as a political swansong. To The Guardian's obituary writer, Parkinson “left no significant legislative mark or achievement.” Yet this ignores his major role in the privatisation of the electricity industry in the 1980s, a subject he was interviewed about for National Life Stories' An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

As Secretary of State for Energy, Parkinson was in many senses the architect of electricity privatisation, a process he planned, but was actually completed by his successor John Wakeham. In this short clip about why Margaret Thatcher gave him the job, he gives us an insight into the politics behind privatisation, the philosophy of competition that guided the process, and the personal difficulties facing him over splitting up the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), led by Thatcher's friend Walter Marshall.

Parkinson recalls why Margaret Thatcher appointed him as Energy Secretary

Whatever one's views on privatisation, it was a hugely complicated task. A mix of politics, technology and finance, which had the potential to plunge the country into darkness if it went wrong. While splitting the CEGB into five or more competing companies would have led to more competition, it also carried many risks and complications. As he discusses in this second clip, Parkinson's approach was pragmatic – not an ideal but what he could achieve. Settling for just two competing generating companies and the National Grid company, was a modest settlement in some ways, the bare minimum needed for competition. However, it also established the fundamentals of the energy market we have today, with many companies competing to supply energy through the marketplace facilitated by the National Grid.

Parkinson discusses the privitisation of the energy industry

The 1980s are probably the most politically divisive decade in the history of modern Britain. To some, Margaret Thatcher and her acolytes were welcome reformers, ushering in an exciting period of liberation and prosperity. To others, Thatcher's Tories were greedy destroyers of communities and industries. Cutting through the babble of opposing analyses, personal recollections from those involved are invaluable. Alessandro Portelli writes that oral history interviews “tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, what they now think they did.” It is in precisely this sort of complicated and contested issue where oral history is at its most useful, allowing an unfiltered chance to understand historical figures and the parts they played as they understood themselves.

The full oral history interview with Cecil Parkinson can be found on British Library Sounds.

Dr Thomas Lean
Project Interviewer 
An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK


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