Britain In Revolt Over Fuel Tax

The issue of The Spectator covered a strike aimed at an unpopular fuel tax in Britain that, if you believe the coverage, led to “the kind of panic-buying associated with a dearth of soap powder in Cold War eastern Europe” and “in the space of 24 hours… [brought] Britain to the brink of collapse.”

The opening article is full of rhetorical exclamations of this sort, from which I’ll try to tease out a few facts about what actually took place in this protest, and what the grievances were all about.

The article calls the protesters “a gang of largely peaceable farmers, truckers, and taxi-drivers” and mentions “a few tractors” blockading Ellesmere Port. “There has certainly been play-acting by the oil companies, which have not conspicuously urged their drivers to beat the blockades. The police have been mystifyingly lethargic in ensuring that the Queen’s highway is clear.” “[T]he revolting truckers and their supporters have provided the nation with a unbeatable excuse for staying away from the office.… But the main explanation for public sangfroid is that 95 per cent, according to some polls, support the protest, at least in the sense that they believe fuel taxes are high, and should come down.”

A second article, by Ross Clark, describes the protests in similar language: “Ellesmere Port is reduced to chaos by ferocious truckers armed with traffic cones. Motorists on the All are slowed to crawling pace as a procession of angry farmers on tractors converges on Norwich. The police shrug their shoulders and stand aside as an embattled Prime Minister issues a rather pathetic demand for them to act.” “[T]he petrol ‘shortages’ have been hugely exacerbated by panic-buying: a week’s worth of petrol was sold in 48 hours, a change in buying habits so rapid that petrol stations which have had regular deliveries have run dry.”

Behind the protests is a perfectly legitimate argument: that fuel duty, relative to other taxes, has reached the point at which it is disproportionate and unfair to those who rely particularly heavily on petrol, such as those who live in remote areas. Even so, you wouldn’t pick out truckers and farmers as having the most reason to be aggrieved.

Clark points out that agricultural vehicles run on “red diesel” which has an extremely low tax attached to it; while truckers enjoy lots of subsidies and have had their vehicle taxes reduced in recent years while at the same time their weight allowances have risen, necessitating more bridge and road maintenance, which is provided by the state.

A third article, by Lloyd Evans, recounted his discussions with some of the protesters blockading a refinery in Essex:

Phil, a Kent woodcutter with many a fanciful beast depicted on his meaty forearms, told me, “I can’t afford to juice my vehicles any more, can I? Or my saws.” Can’t afford to do what? “Juice my chainsaws,” he said, “I’m a tree surgeon.” And with an outstretched hand he made a scrotum-tightening gesture. “Good to have them like that for a change. Instead of the other way round.”

The protesters’ anger seemed quite reasonable, given that fuel taxes are putting them out of business. When I mentioned the threat of troops being sent in, they howled with laughter. I asked if they minded bringing the country to a halt. They said they were patriots, standing up for the little man, the oppressed motorist. As proof, one spread his arm towards eight cans of Heineken and a jumbo sack of salty fried nibbles. “Gifts from well-wishers,” he said. “Drove by this morning to show their support.” As I left, a snack-van crept into a lay-by and eased gently to a halt. A queue formed immediately. The owner was either a gifted entrepreneur or he’d run out of petrol.

At a second entrance “tranquility reigned” and the blockaders, though present, didn’t seem to actually be blockading the road… the refinery had just decided not to try to use it.

A scene of lawful calm, so welcome to the police, is of course a calamity for a reporter. Recalling vaguely that in extreme cases it may be good practice to incite trouble, I approached a trucker whose lorry was filled with timber. “Why don’t you,” I suggested mildly, “dump that lot in the road? Block the highway. Go on.” He wasn’t having any of it. He told me he didn’t want violence. “Why not?” I goaded. “Because it hurts,” he said, “I mean, do you want trouble? Do you want a smack in the mouth? You don’t, do you?” I backed down, meekly nodding my assent.

Then a bizarre, surreal spectacle emerged from between the trucks. Four young men, identically attired, strolled up carrying cans of Coke and fun-size Mars Bars for the protesters. They were orthodox Jews wearing a dress-down-Friday version of the full Hasidic outfit: white shirts and crisp black trousers, skull-caps clinging to their hair, little ringlets brushing their ears, and jowls bursting with untamed fluff. They joined the demonstrators who stood about in clusters discussing the crisis. The mood was of defiant expectation. Every demonstrator I spoke to swore he would stand firm “for as long as it takes.”

There was a followup by Leanda de Lisle in the issue that’s a little more meaty about the tactics used by both sides in the struggle. Excerpts:

At 11:30 on the night the fuel protest was to end I telephoned David Handley, chairman of Farmers for Action. I read him the headlines of the following day’s newspapers. The Mail and the Mirror were supportive, but said “enough is enough.” There was a pause from David. I said that I too thought it was time for a tactical retreat. But I was pushing at an open door.

David had faced a lot of lies about intimidated tanker drivers and disrupted hospitals. Alan Pugh, a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly, went so far as to tell him on BBC breakfast television that a man had died because of his actions. Such propaganda was having an effect on public opinion. Furthermore, things really were getting nasty on the picket-lines. At our local fuel depot near Tamworth, a very rough crew from Birmingham had joined the good-natured pickets. Nobody knew who they were, but they brought with them an atmosphere of violence.

By the morning most farmers felt that enough was, indeed, enough. But calling off the pickets was a difficult decision and hard on its heels came bad news. The oil companies announced that they would be putting up fuel prices. Gordon Brown said that he would not be cutting fuel taxes. And farmers noticed that in the newspapers they were suddenly being written out of the story. A fuel protest — which began in a cattle market in North Wales, led for the most part by farmers and brought to a halt by farmers — has been analysed as a “taxpayers’ revolt” or a “hauliers’ revolution”, with farmers mentioned as mere bit-part players.