In September 2000 a group of road hauliers blockaded British oil refineries, bringing the supply of fuel to forecourts to a halt. Parts of the UK were brought to a standstill, and the Government was put under enormous pressure to accede to their demands. Ultimately the Government held firm, and the protests fizzled out, although there was a threat of a repeat during 2001.
Reasons for the Protest
There are three main ways that European Governments extract money from road hauliers to offset the costs of the damage they do to roads: Vehicle Excise Duty, Fuel Duty and road tolls. The UK uses the first two only, which invites adverse comparisons between the costs of running a lorry in the UK versus, say, France. The comparison rapidly falls apart when road tolls are added, and when you include comparisons of the levels of corporate taxation applied to the profits from the operation (the UK has very low corporate taxes).
The lack of road tolls is a valid issue, however - foreign operators are taking an increasing share of UK-to-overseas freight haulage business, partly because they do not have to pay UK excise duties. There is a proposal to require all commercial vehicles operating in the UK, wherever registered, to pay some form of excise duty.
The situation was brought to a crisis by two factors: an impending budget, with its inevitable increase in fuel duty, and a significant rise in the global price of oil due to actions by the oil cartel OPEC. One further complication was a policy called the 'Fuel Duty Escalator', introduced by an earlier (Conservative) government. This was a formula which ensured that fuel duty would rise at a rate above inflation, to ensure that the real cost of fuel rose - a tool in the continuing war of Government against the motorist, if you will, or a sensible environmental measure to encourage people to use less fuel.
There is another great myth: that fuel and vehicle excise duties should be spent on roads, and are not; it is constantly restated in the press that motorists pay vastly over the odds for the privilege of using their cars and that spending on the roads is greatly less than the revenues raised. This is wrong on two counts. Firstly, nobody expects the revenue from tobacco duty to be spent on tobacconists. Excise duties are mainly a way of taxing things which are notionally undesirable, which excessive use of motor cars is in the views of many people. Secondly, once you factor in the amount spent on roads through local government, costs to the NHS of road accidents and pollution, costs of policing, and the many and varied other subsidiary costs to the economy, it has been calculated that every vehicle on the roads in Britain is subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of around £1000 per year1.
Car drivers in the UK always feel hard done by. They hate congestion, but contribute to it by driving one car each into cities every day2. They ignore speed limits, and hate cameras put in to catch them as they speed3. They park illegally and complain when they get parking tickets because they were only causing a dangerous obstruction for a few minutes while they bought the paper4.
So when the chance came to jump on a bandwagon complaining about fuel costs, many enjoyed the opportunity. Others - often the ones who by now had run out of fuel - were against the protests, due to the inconvenience it caused them. And fuel duty in the UK is high - higher than France, for example. But guess what - in France cars have to pay road tolls and over here they don't. And in France, the basic rate of income tax is half as high again as in the UK. But of course, British governments must always have the lowest level of every kind of tax in Europe while providing the highest level of public services. Anything else would be socialist, and therefore unacceptable.
One reason fuel ran out was that before the blockade had even taken full effect, people started panic buying. Those with plenty of fuel to last a week were queuing to fill their tanks, and draining forecourts dry in the process. An anecdotal example: the driver of a car with a 70-litre fuel tank queued for 15 minutes to fill up, and was only able to get five litres in before fuel spilled out of the filler. Rational behaviour? Possibly not.
There were fights in the queues, some garages restricted the maximum sale, queues for stations with fuel stretched for miles, the police were called and fuel was held back for essential users - all sights not seen since the last oil crisis in the 1970s (also precipitated by OPEC price-fixing measures).
When the second threat of a blockade was made people went into panic mode almost immediately. Some forecourts ran out even though there was no problem at all with supplies, solely because of panic buying.
This kind of behaviour, like looting, is the inevitable downside of human greed and selfishness. A lucky few - those who commute by bike and public transport - at least got a good belly laugh out of watching the lemmings.
There were a few conspiracy theories floated, of varying credibility. It was noticeable, for example, that the oil companies made almost no attempt to get their drivers to move fuel (citing 'concern for their safety') despite the fact that companies routinely expend tremendous amounts of energy trying to get through any kind of picket. Some depots had only a few token protesters outside, but still there were no fuel movements. This has led to speculation that the oil companies were trying to use the protests as a bargaining counter in their then-current negotiations with the Government over fuel duty and VAT.
It was also pointed out that many of the protesters were farmers, a group whose opposition to the Labour government was well-known and many of whom are in the position of being able to use 'red' diesel, which has an exceptionally low rate of duty (about 3p/litre, less than one tenth of the standard rate). Labour was being portrayed as a 'townies' party with no understanding of country matters. The gross mishandling of BSE, overnight extinction of public transport due to bus deregulation and the undermining of rural shops by planning policies which favoured out-of-town retail were seen as mere blips in the Conservatives' otherwise pristine rural credentials, while Labour's clearly intended to decimate the rural economy by banning fox hunting5.
Were the Protests a Success?
Not as such. Fuel duty rose; the decision to scrap the fuel duty escalator had already been made; the Conservative opposition tried to make political capital out of it, but the escalator had also been part of their manifesto at the recent General Election, so no lasting damage was done to the Government either. The irony of a Conservative opposition fighting for one type of tax harmonisation with Europe, while fighting any kind of harmonisation in other taxes, was not lost upon the public.
People did become more aware of how dependent they were on cars, and some people chose to use alternative modes of transport (mostly public transport), but not many, given that less than a month had passed since the Hatfield train disaster.
One lasting effect has been the opening of a debate about the disproportionate costs of living in the countryside, where fuel costs more (due to lack of local competition), public transport is almost unobtainable (due mainly to deregulation of the bus companies by Margaret Thatcher) and where local shops are closing down due to competition from out-of-town supermarkets6. The countryside is the traditional heartland of Conservative support, so this may prove to be a significant factor in a future recovery of Tory electoral fortunes.