The issue of high taxes on fuel has been high in the mind of the public (and of course the press) in the UK for months. As background info, two-thirds of price of petrol goes to the government in the form of fuel tax.

In August 2000 we had the (rather ineffective) dump the pump campaign. This aimed to make a statement about petrol prices by boycotting petrol (gasoline) filling stations on certain dates. It was largely ignored and didn't really get anywhere.

Since about September 10, 2000, more direct action has been taken by lorry drivers and even farmers. Petrol distribution centres have been blockaded. These tactics have been compared with those of the French (who, our news would give us the impression, seem to us to be more in favour of direct action). This initially only lead to fuel rationing. Two days later, all filling stations in Wales, the majority in the North of England, and increasingly many in the South have run out of fuel. The few that are open have queues outside, most up to an hour long, of people panic buying while they can.

Current 'crisis'
iain's fuel rationing writeup is very informative as an introduction to the situation.

Tony Blair (the Prime Minister) has defiantly proclaimed that he will not back down. The Labour Party are scared about being seen to give in to trade unions, industrial action etc, as in the 1970s they were seen as being weak in the face of these things.

Equally, the farmers, taxi drivers and truckers (some of whom are even petrol tanker drivers) also say they will not back down until fuel tax is reduced. By hurting the public they are making a big noise, and one which surely cannot be ignored for long.

September 12, 2000 (2 days into the action)

  • Many people can still buy petrol, as long as they don't mind waiting for a long time, and driving around looking for an open garage. Local radio traffic reports have become lists of petrol stations which still have fuel.
  • Unleaded is, predictably worst hit - with some garages being open for Diesel or LRP only.
  • Emergency services have been assured access to petrol. This logistics of this issue is still being worked on.
  • In many areas, Emergency Services, such as Fire, Ambulance etc, are running 'emergeny only' services.
  • Some trains have stopped, as they get their fuel from blockaded sources.
  • Refuse (Garbage) collection is being halted in some (mainly Northern) towns today due to lack of diesel.
  • Traffic levels have not yet decreased. If this situation continues, people will surely stop using cars for non-essential travel. If anything, the roads felt busier yesterday. This was mainly due to long queues outside petrol stations causing traffic jams.
  • Taxi drivers and others added to the chaos yesterday, by creating long hold ups in town centres and motorways.
On a personal level, I can testify that the roads yesterday were terrible. It took me over an hour to get home yesterday (a journey which normally takes 20 minutes) simply because I drove past 2 open petrol stations with huge queues blocking traffic. I also drove past 4 petrol station which were closed. Many people (including myself) are considering other forms of transport to get to work, or working from home.

September 13, 2000
In most areas, filling stations are all empty. One or two had petrol (especially in the morning) but were quickly empied by long queues of motorists. Now, practically all available fuel in the country is going to the Emergency services. Blockade leaders are releasing some tankers on the condition that they suply only emergency service vehicles. Nevertheless, the Health Service is put on a 'Red Alert' today. Blood, and other supplies, are running low, and non-emergency procedures are being cancelled due to lack of nurses, beds, equipment an so on.
Interestingly, most of the public (or at least, most of the public shown in the news) are patient and philosphical - claiming to be 'right behind' the blockades.
Others claim that, while they can see the desire for action is strong, attempting to ransom a government is never going to work. William Hague, leader of the conservative opposition party, demands an immdeiate recall of Parlaiment (which is currently on holiday).

Food stockpiling, which is a self-perpetuating panic, began today. Rumours of empty supermarkets fuelled some serious hoarding. Talk of shops empty of all fresh food within days meant that bread and milk are being rationed in some areas. Radio 4 gave an interesting interview with a supermarket manager (or something) who said that they would not run out of ambient canned goods (i.e. tins of beans... etc).

Tony Blair promised, in a press conference at about 6pm, to have the situation on the road to being back to normal "within 24 hours". With heavy police presence, the first of long line of full tankers leave one depot.

September 14, 2000
This morning, many blockades have ended. Blockades remain at Kingsbury, a large refinery near Birmingham, and a few other small refineries and depots. These last outposts may eventually fall to public pressure, as many people are now unable to get to work. Schools in Wales will close today as bus services cannot run, and teachers cannot get to work. Even though petrol stations are now being refilled in most areas, the demand is so high (most peoples tanks are near or at empty) that the sight of an arriving tanker is met with enormous queues. It will take time for the situation to return to normal, with estimates between 3 days and 3 weeks. When normalcy does reign again, fuel will not be cheaper and taxes will not be lower. Today, Esso and TotalFinaElf announced that they are to raise fuel prices. Mr Blair said he could not understand this decision, and will meet the companies later today.

Did the blockades prove anything? Well the government has hinted that the issue of fuel taxation will be addresed in the next Budget. A desire to meet with angry protesters was expressed. Rationally, a government willing to cave into this kind of blackmail would not be popular anyway. The government will have to be seen to approach this issue though. Next year is, after all, an election year.

September 18, 2000
The situation is now almost normal in some areas. While in some (Leeds and others) petrol is still rare there is a sense of everything getting back to normal.

I analyse the current British petrol crisis rather differently to the way it is being portayed in the media. Yes it's true that many people are concerned about high fuel prices and there is popular pressure for lower prices. But this crisis is really about large corporations trying to make greater profits.

If the oil companies want to they can get their fuel delivered. They simply have to insist that their drivers deliver it. The current "blockades" amount to one bunch of lorry drivers asking another bunch not to work. The tanker drivers unsurprisingly don't want to antagonise their fellow drivers but the crucial thing is that they are not being compelled to by their employers. If they were, the blockaders could not stop them legally and the police would be empowered to get the oil through.

This is because the oil companies share the objectives of the protestors and so are happy to make no effort at all to get the fuel out. If duty on fuel is lower they can reduce their prices. They will make increased sales and hence greater profits.

The British prime minister Tony Blair has promised to bring this dispute to an end within 24 hours. We shall see. But it is significant that he has never spoken to the protestors. On the contrary he is negotiating with the oil companies. So it is perfectly clear that this dispute, apparently between hauliers, farmers, ordinary motorists and the government, is really a dispute between oil companies and the government. So how do you feel about being held to ransom by big corporations?

Finally, let's think about the rights and wrongs of this dispute. Should the duty on fuel be lowered, should petrol be cheaper? The answer has to be a resounding No! For two reasons.

Firstly, global warming and climate change are already apparent. They can only get worse. The only question is, have we already caused catastrophic damage to our ecosystem? So fuel use has to be rationed, we have to find more efficient ways to transport goods than by lorry. Public transport has to be improved. But above all, fuel prices cannot be lowered. In fact they will increase substantially.

Second, our oil resources are strictly limited and no-one is making any new oil. In a relatively short space of time they will run out completely. Evidently, as fuel becomes more scarce its price will increase. You ain't seen nothing yet.

This analysis does not mean that we should be unsympathetic to the plight of hauliers and farmers (the latter already benefit from massively subsidised diesel incidentally) it means that we have to think how to best utilise fuel resources for the good of all of us and not let the agenda be set by large multinationals.

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