Alistair Buchanan

is an unlikely revolutionary. The head of the

Office of Gas and Electricity Markets

, the British energy watchdog, Buchanan trained as an accountant at KPMG, then worked as an analyst in the energy sector for Salomon Smith Barney before running the utilities desk at ABN Rothschild. Besides regulating the energy industry, Buchanan is also responsible for ensuring “security of supply”–making sure that there is enough capacity in the system to keep British homes warm in the winter. In early February, Buchanan warned that under the current arrangement of private power companies subject to government regulation, demand could outstrip supply by 2016; unless drastic action is taken, Britons could see average fuel bills of £2,000 a year.

The problem is that overhauling Britain’s power supply–heavily dependent on aging coal power plants and way-past-peak North Sea gas and oil–would be expensive. Since the sector was privatized under

Margaret Thatcher

, the number of household energy suppliers has fallen from twenty to six– four of them foreign-owned and less likely to listen to government pleas to keep consumer prices low.

Buchanan laid out a range of options for reforming the system, from increasing competition to requiring energy suppliers to build in future capacity. But faced with the additional challenge of meeting Britain’s 2020 CO2 reduction targets, he suggested that the current free-market approach was doomed to failure. Instead, Buchanan proposed a central electricity buyer–in effect undoing the wave of privatization that remained an article of faith to both

Tony Blair


Gordon Brown

. Interestingly, Buchanan’s call for a government-run energy supply drew guarded support even from the

Confederation of British Industry

, a business lobby group. But then, the British have lived with a single-payer healthcare system for fifty years.   D.D. GUTTENPLAN


It’s fair to say that no senator knows as much about the vagaries of broadcasting as

Al Franken

. So when the former star of

Saturday Night Live

raises the alarm about the proposed merger of


, a primary supplier of broadcast and cable content, and


, the cable TV and Internet giant, Congress, the FCC and the Obama administration ought to listen up.

When NBC and Comcast execs appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to plead for their proposed merger, Franken let it rip. “What I know from my previous career has given me reason to be concerned–and let me phrase that very concerned–about the potential merger of Comcast and NBC/Universal,” he declared. “The media are our source of entertainment. They’re also the way we get our information about the world. So when the same company that produces the programs runs the pipes that bring us those programs, we have a reason to be nervous.” Franken detailed discrepancies between statements made to him by Comcast’s CEO and the company’s attempts to thwart consumer protections. “You’l have to excuse me if I don’t trust these promises,” the senator said.    JOHN NICHOLS