September 18, 2000
Petrol Pump Politics
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
revolt but don't get too excited.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
DOGS OF GOVERNMENT
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.