Friday, May 14, 2004

Why we shouldn't care about fuel scares

As the oil price goes through the roof (all about oil was it? Ha!) the now-traditional news stories (Freudian - I just wrote "tories" for "stories". The unconscious speaks, or rather it blogs..)about renewed fuel protests have duly emerged. The BBC reported today that ministers have been meeting with oilmen, Petrol Retailers' Association reps, Army and police officers, and if you believe some newspapers' version, spooks to prepare for possible blockades of oil targets by "fuel protestors". With oil at $41 a barrel, you might think there was something in it. But that would discount the element of ritual involved. These stories have been regular ever since the September 2000 refinery blockades - whenever the oil price takes an uptick and the government doesn't look too good, the same tales of protestors preparing and draconian menaces by government reappear in the rightwing press. David Handley and Bryne Williams pop up and rant, and a few days later, the oil market adjusts and the news agenda moves on. Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe. The threatened blockades are never delivered.

That is the giveaway. The weird days of September, 2000, with their closed petrol stations, plotting and sense of national hysteria were like that not because the fuel protestors had vast mass support but because the government was asleep at the wheel. A limited bunch of Welsh right-wing wing nuts camped about refinery gates, but the government missed it for the main reason that it happened in the north, far from any politically legitimate concern. London was barely affected, and at first not at all. I remember most of all the strange inactivity of the powerful - there were plenty of legal pretexts to arrest anyone who physically barred the tankers' way out, but nothing much seemed to happen. In the end, the right things were done, of course. A combination of a direct challenge to the blockade (at Grangemouth refinery) and trimming (the end of the fuel-duty escalator) sorted the matter. That is how power-political problems are solved without war. It took a long time, though, for government to get a grip, a gasping vacuum of authority in which wild talk about plots to subvert the Labour government helped no-one. And the government's capability to deal with a civil-defence/crisis management problem was badly shown up. The grim winter of train wrecks, foot&mouth and floods that followed only underlined that.

There was mass support for cheaper petrol, sure, but that is a silly question. Nobody will tell an opinion pollster they want less money, still less vote for it. There wasn't support for not having any petrol, which doomed the Right's wannabe revolutionaries from the start. The lessons of the fuel crisis were that our industrial system is vulnerable to the acts of small but determined groups of disrupters (sound familiar?), that a considerable degree of tribal loathing for Blair existed whatever the polls said, and that when the chips were down only the Left could be relied upon by the Left. The entire press swung anti-government with tthe exceptions of the Daily Mirror and the Guardian. The solution was achieved by the intervention of the trade unions - the TGWU drivers at Grangemouth who decided to go out despite the protestors, which permitted the police to arrest anyone who attacked them, which discredited the blockades everywhere. All the supposed Sun support evaporated. No-one outside the organised Left would stand by Labour in its first crisis. Needless to say, the prime minister who missed the crisis also missed this, with results well documented in the archives of this blog.

The relevance? Despite this, it's been amply shown that Handley and Williams are a busted flush. Every one of the dozens of times their spectre has been summoned by the Murdoch and Rothermere papers, the genie has failed to appear. Williams, of course, comprehensively nixed his claims of impartiality by becoming a Tory member of the Welsh Assembly. Handley's Farmers For Action shows no sign of being able to organise any action (remember when he was going to blockade all supermarket distribution centres?). It only remains to giggle at the strangeness of the Right, supporters of the view that all prices must be determined by market forces, and their eternal belief that this doesn't apply to whichever one affects them.

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