ISN’T competition wonderful? Well, in some cases yes and in others no. The big mistake in the privatisation era was to confuse the two. If it worked for pizzas then surely it must work for gas, electricity, railways, the lot.

Whole think-tanks full of free market gurus were devoted to promoting that doctrine. In the background, lay sharks waiting to pounce. In the name of competition, vast profits were made but the extent to which consumers derived benefit is disputable.

The key distinction is whether conditions exist for genuine competition or are constrained by objective realities. I spent much of the 1990s arguing that case in respect of railways. Privatisation based on competition made no sense and the more effort went into circumventing that reality, the dafter the whole thing became.

Now the theology looks more threadbare than ever. Railways – both tracks and trains – are largely back in public hands but we still struggle to have a fully integrated service because so much fragmentation was created. However, gas and electricity are the ones where roosting chickens are coming down the tracks at a rate of knots with the myth of competition abandoned.

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Both are natural monopolies and no amount of dogma can change that. Whoever you buy gas and electricity from, it is the same gas and electricity arriving through the same infrastructure. There can be tweaking about the generation mix to offer ‘green tariffs’ though even these may well have more to do with marketing than saving the planet.

The theology of competition has been based on inciting people to switch suppliers, though almost half of consumers after a quarter century have never done so at all and most of the rest have bothered only rarely. The novelty wears off and busy people conclude that any short term gains are probably illusory so stick with the devil you know.

Now the theology is being exposed as the myth it always was. Suppliers made their money and attracted switchers by being smarter marketeers and shrewder traders but without ever generating a therm or kilowatt of energy. Now most are being caught out because they weren’t big enough or smart enough to survive when the going got tough.

Last week, Together Energy based in Clydebank was the latest to bite the dust. It website informs 176,000 customers they have been handed over willy-nilly to British Gas and advises: “British Gas will place you on a special ‘deemed’ contract. this means a contract you have not chosen. Deemed contracts can be more expensive, so your bills could go up”.

Competition? Choice? At the first serious whiff of grapeshot, people are being driven into the hands of the big suppliers with deep pockets to be charged more – maybe much more – for the privilege. The music has stopped, the band has run off with the swag and the poor old public are left to foot the bill.

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But that is only the start. For the same reason retailers are falling like ninepins, an explosion in the cost of gas and electricity is on its way regardless of which company’s name is on the bill. This is not confined to Scotland or the UK but because we chose to become stupidly dependent on imported gas, it will be worse here than elsewhere in Europe.

The scale of what lies ahead in April, or even sooner for many whose suppliers have collapsed, is only beginning to be appreciated. Households which are already fighting very hard to keep heads above water and feed the children are about to be hit with bills that they simply will not be able to pay. This is already striking real fear into many hearts.

There are no easy answers but – politically, socially and economically – some hard ones must be found within a very short space of time before this is, amidst all the chaos engulfing government, just allowed to happen and to hell with the consequences. The absolute certainty is that “the market” and glories of competition are not going to help.

The one organisation strong enough to handle this crisis is the state. It could not indefinitely subsidise energy costs, which is another route to disaster as those who have tried it found out. But it could certainly have smoothed out the dramatic increases now threatening households and industry.

Is there anyone now who would place more trust in companies with fancy names rather than great institutions like SSEB, Hydro Board, Gas Board which operated for public service rather than private profit? How long before that again becomes the answer of necessity?

Brian Wilson is a former Labour energy minister. Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.