September 18, 2000
Britain took a three-year holiday from politics after it elected Tony Blair, but now the electorate is back and they have the going home blues. They even seem to have hit the international news. Yes, we had our own tax revolt but don't get too excited.
The revolt had been brewing for some time. The roots have been in the government lying to us about how it taxed us. For years, the Government raised taxes on anything that it thought we would not notice. Private Pensions largely lost their tax-free status. Income tax was raised by cutting some exemptions without anywhere near a corresponding fall in the tax rates. The cost of selling a house was raised. Drinkers and smokers saw their poisons get ever more expensive. And of course car drivers were taxed, paying 81.9 pence a litre, or $4.36 an American Gallon, 75% of which was tax (an effective tax rate of 400%). There is no fiscal logic here, direct and indirect taxes are increased with the same abandon, the prudent are taxed through their pensions and the poor are taxed through their cars. The only cohesive element in this rag tag of taxation policies was a common desire to deceive the voter and then claim credit for the public expenditure that would rise like magic in the approach to the election. It did not work out like that.
The revolt started with the much maligned opposition party, the Tories. The Conservatives, in the form of the unlamented former shadow chancellor (finance minister), Francis Maude, more than two years ago started hitting out at "stealth taxes." Although it made some impact, every one thought that it was only in Parliament. The government claimed that they had not raised taxes, and that was that. Nevertheless, the message did seem to leak out. Some clever researchers in his office had worked out that (at the low prices of two years ago) 85% of the price of petrol was tax and that Britain had the most expensive petrol in Europe. Then it died. However, somewhere it hit home. The low level grumbling went on for a year or so until a couple of computer consultants got so annoyed they set up an internet site calling for car drivers to boycott the petrol pumps for a day. Although not as professional as antiwar.com, it is a fun site with forums, leaflets to print out and e-mail messages to send. A site understands how the Internet can be used in politics. It was picked up by the press who built up the revolt during a slow news period. It was a moderate success on the first day, but thereafter it flopped, leading the government to think once more that the British could be taxed with impunity.
The French were not so sanguine when the oil price started to go up. They started petrol blockades throughout France, and kept them. They also started to block the Channel Tunnel to bring more attention. In addition, it brought them attention, in England. Petrol in France is considerably cheaper than in Britain, and the British started asking "why are they so angry?" Surely, some British thought, we should do the same. One of these British people was John Monks, the chairman of the British Trade Union Congress. We will return to this particular weasel later.
Moreover, who better to start it than the farmers? These usually placid and conservative types were not pleased with the fuel prices, but they were not pleased about much else. Strict animal welfare standards meant that British products were more expensive than anywhere else, but the crazy EU internal market rules meant that any other EU meats could be sold as British as long as they were packed over here. So the British canít even sell their meat as more humane, as Danish bacon or French chicken can wrap themselves in the Union Jack. The farmers are also suffering from quotas that rule that Britain can only produce 85% of itís milk consumption and over strict rules that have closed down a swathe of small abattoirs. On top of this, virtually every sector of British agriculture is in a slump. In addition, fuel, a vital part input in any farmerís business, is taxed to the hilt (even if farmers are taxed less than the townies).
So, the farmers started it. Particularly a man named Brynle Williams, a militant farmersí leader in North Wales and a middle level functionary in the Farmers Union. In a scene out of a 1940s black and white comedy, the farmers from the Welsh market town of St. Asaph (whose anger was not comedic) went in convoy to the Stanlow Shell Oil refinery, the largest refinery in Britain. Some long haul truckers went down and joined them. Then suddenly we had a blockade, and spontaneously other farmers, lorry and taxi drivers started driving slowly down main streets, disrupting the Prime Minister's schedule and blockading all the other refineries on mainland Britain.
When I say blockade I do not actually mean that the place was blocked. You know what the English are like. It was more like a picket, although some very stupid New Labourites (spot the redundant word) objected to the use of the word "picket" as the men were not unionised and had not even voted to strike. Considering Labour's rather puzzling love of American holidays it was surprising that they had never heard of picket fences, although if they'd found out their colour they would have referred them to a race relations tribunal. Any way this blockade, picket, call it what you like was porous in the extreme. Nevertheless, nothing was getting out. This was because no drivers where willing to drive it out. And would you expect them to? Although the farmers and truckers mounting the blockade were law abiding, the popularity of the blockade meant that there was a huge risk of violence at petrol stations. A risk that a man driving 5000 gallons of flammable liquid really should not ignore. There was also a massive amount of sympathy. Many of the fuel hauliers were subcontractors, also being crucified by the high fuel prices that they had to pay. They also had friends who were either out of a job, bankrupt or outside the refinery because of the oil prices. Why would they cross that line?
They would cross the lines, reluctantly, if their bosses told them to. However, the bosses of the oil companies seemed remarkably reluctant to do this. The reason why is hotly debated. At one end are a group of deluded conspiracy theorists, who claim that Big Oil, together with the farmers, lorry drivers and any other normally hard to lead but suddenly pliable group. These conspiracy theories would be laughed out of court if the band of nutters that push them forward were not the government.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the unions saw their future as getting a better deal for their members. No more. The shenanigans of the trade union movement were a wonder to behold. Fist the secretary general of the umbrella group, the TUC, lauded the French action of blocking refineries. Then he condemned the British action. Then the transport workers refused to represent the genuine safety fears of their members driving the fleets of fuel trucks, or the grievances of their lorry driving members and simply told every one to go back to work. What was going on? It was a stark illustration that the unions are merely playing as cats paws for their various patrons in the cabinet. The leader of the TUC, John Monks, is a vassal of Blair, and so liked tweaking Blair's arch rival the tax raising chancellor of the exchequer (Finance Minister) Gordon Brown over tax rises. If people noticed the tax rises then Gordon would be less popular. The Transport and General Workers union, whose members remember are being sacked and going bankrupt thanks to this policy, are allied to Brown. Any overt criticism would be disloyal to him so who cares about the members. Meanwhile John Monks realises his master is suffering a drop in popularity and so denounces what he supported. Everyone is represented, apart from the poor bloody foot soldiers and dues payers.
Tony Blair is in the unusual position of being despised by most of the people he has spent so many years pandering to their every prejudice. Therefore, he seeks to blame OPEC, the protesters, the fuel drivers and the oil companies. His approval rate (for the fuel crisis) hits 3%. However, the root cause is the same. The British do not like being taxed. They may be more pliant than the Americans, but the old Labour (or old Conservative) trick of bribing the voters with their own money is simply not working. The Labour Party were busy in self-congratulation when they thought they had increased taxes but lying about this, but they have been proved terribly wrong. The Government and its wholly owned broadcaster, the BBC, talked about a threat to the democratic process. The 90% of the population who supported the protests asked when they were told that they would have me the most expensive petrol in the developed world.
Although one can argue about the undoubted reluctance of the oil companies to move the trucks, and whether this equates to the Blairites version of the Jewish Bankers cartel, it did actually show that democracy was under threat. From the Government. The fact is that with the rare and honourable exception of certain Conservatives there is no opposition to a smug belief in the rightness of the elites over the people, the very antithesis of democracy.
There is a foreign policy dimension to the petrol crisis, or rather a number of dimensions. The first is the sheer cost of all our foreign involvement and obligations. One can go on about the unnecessary military expenditure, for non-defensive purposes such as bombing Iraq, policing Bosnia or defending Sierra Leone, supporting an Empire is expensive, even if not your own. Nevertheless, there is also the European Union. Britain pays in the region of £10 billion ($14 billion) a year net to the European union, which works out to £1 million an hour. That is an enormous sum in itself, and nonpayment of this Dane-geld would pay to cut the duty in half.
This is before the obligations from international organisations. Take, for example, immigration. Whereas a government on its own (even this government) would probably try to clamp down on immigration to take advantage of state provision, the United Nations charter stops them if they claim to be "asylum seekers". Britain may need a large number of immigrants to pay the pensions of the retiring baby boomers, I can accept that and I am not persuaded by those who argue the cultural case against immigration. So what about immigrants who add to the burden? They also add to hospital waiting lists, problem children at school and petty crime rates. The United Nations forces Britain to accept these people. The government often quotes the small sums that go to international institutions, while omitting to explain the amount of money saved and taxes generated if the needless regulations of international bodies were not obeyed. There is one silly agreement that has a large share of the blame, the Kyoto agreement on fossil fuels. It may not be the prime reason why the tax was raised so high, but it provided ample covering fire.
What really goes down well is the pure hypocrisy. The farmers, truckers and the rest were stopping oil going to people who needed it. Well, Tony Blair would never tolerate an oil blockade of his own, would he? Apart from Iraq. The fact that oil prices could be drastically lower if we left Iraq alone is not mentioned by our masters and better. I wonder why not?
There were never more than 2000 at the gates of the refineries and determined oil companies could have got through the blockades so this was not the peasant's revolt that many of us wished for. Nevertheless, it was not the dark plot imagined by our increasingly paranoid government. It was a warning to the government that its actions have consequences, a warning this exceedingly narrow and arrogant regime is unlikely to heed.
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