The Fuel Tax Protest and the Crisis of Parliament

Article excerpt

THE fuel protest of September 2000 has baffled the analysts, for there are no historical precedents or theoretical explanations for it. Initially on the continent, then, more or less suddenly, in the United Kingdom, a group of hauliers and farmers confronted government with demands for tax cuts in the pump price of fuel. Their demands were simple, yet layered. They complained of high tax costs, especially the high price of fuel in the United Kingdom (the highest within the European Union), and pointed to unfair advantages for European hauliers who could operate in the United Kingdom with a full tank of cheaper fuel from the continent. Farmers, too, had their own grievances, while the average motorist could not but feel that the price per litre at the pump was simply too high. The protestors, including the pensioners in their on-going low profile protest, seemed to have the benign support of the public. (See George Wedd's 'Preparing for Emergencies' in Contemporary Review, November, 2000.)

The generally peaceful picketing by a rather small number of people had an unexpectedly rapid multiplier effect upon the country: long queues formed at petrol stations, and, soon, pumps ran dry, which raised concerns about the effects of shortage of fuel on the emergency services, hospitals, and supply of food. The speed with which the country came to a grinding halt took many, including the government, by surprise, and exposed the ease with which a determined number of people with effective communications and acting strategically could rapidly cripple the country. Such an outcome resembled a much-feared terrorist scenario, but here we had a case of daily life coming to a peaceful stop as a result of the failure of responsible and democratic government: that the government was caught by surprise simply underlined the extent of this apparent failure. Clearly, the protestors dictated the tempo of events, whereas the 'authorities' appeared to be inactive bystanders: this added a sense of bewilderment to the pre vailing thinly veiled sense of panic. The country appeared vulnerable, and the government was just not there. We were, quite obviously, in a political crisis.

The government awakened to the situation three days into the protest. The turning point was the very public change in the itinerary of the Prime Minister on a visit to Hull: the police advised Mr Blair not to attend a much publicised dinner engagement, and he was whisked back to London. Meanwhile, quietly, and on the same day, the government had assumed emergency powers by asking the Queen to sign an Order in Council.

It is said that modern telecommunications technology has a significant impact upon the making of political crises: it enables perception to feed upon the images, which serves to re-enforce the perception. On the one side, we saw images of the protestors and of pickets outside petrol depots, of closed petrol we had the rather unusual image of a 'hostile' crowd at a Prime Ministerial function, active police presence, and the very public way in which the Prime Minister was 'forced' to change his itinerary and return to London. This hasty 'retreat' signalled a change in policy and soon a battle of words followed; the Prime Minister, other ministers and numerous spokespersons pointedly denounced the protestors in the name of democracy, and presented a tough government line. Policy, it was claimed, cannot be made on the streets, or in response to pressure from this or that group, rather the government has the duty to make policy based on the general interests of the country.

Tough talk always raises the stakes and is menacing: the government could not yield to the specific demands of the protestors without being exposed to the charge of 'weakness' and loss of political authority; nor could the government take on the 'unknown quantity' of this protest head on. Suddenly, 'politics' was dead and we were in a zero-sum game, allowing for one winner only. …