UK Gas Protestors Claim Moral Victory

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - A week-long protest against gas prices, which threatened to bring Britain to a standstill, began to crumble Thursday, as protest leaders at several major oil refineries called off their action and urged others elsewhere to do the same.

Claiming a moral victory over the government, truckers and farmers outside a refinery in Cheshire, northwest England, where the protest began last Thursday, were the first to announce it was over.

Spokesmen said they now expected the government to offer fuel tax concessions in return, and in a letter sent to the Cabinet Office, demanded a reduction in the tax within 60 days.

Some 72 percent of the more than $5 a gallon British consumers pay for gas comprises excise charges and value-added tax.

The Cheshire campaigners' example was followed at depots in Scotland, Wales, and southwest England, although at others, protestors vowed to continue.

Amid signs of a breakdown in health services, public transport and food supplies, Prime Minister Tony Blair Wednesday night said lives were at risk and indicated troops could be called out to man fuel tankers which have been standing idle at depots across the country.

Tanker drivers have refused to cross picket lines, in many cases expressing sympathy with the campaign. Some claimed they feared for their safety although protest leaders have denied intimidation was occurring.

Tankers in some areas have now begun to resume deliveries to Britain's 12,500 gas stations, an estimated 90 percent of which have run completely dry. Essential services personnel and other prioritized users will be first to benefit, and ordinary consumers will probably have to wait for several more days before they can buy gas.

The Petrol Retailers' Association said resupplying the empty stations presented "a massive logistical problem," and fuel companies warned that it would be weeks before the situation at gas stations returned to normal.

Thousands of gas stations hung out "no petrol" signs days ago. But by Wednesday evening, the wider effects of the action were becoming evident in many areas.

The national health service (NHS), the biggest employer in Europe, was placed on "red alert" for the first time in 11 years. Supermarket chains warned they would run out of essential food within days, and some began rationing bread and milk.

In many centers, public bus services were restricted or cancelled altogether.

Despite the widespread disruption affecting the vast majority of Britons, a BBC opinion poll released Wednesday night found 78 percent public support for the protest.

Most of Britain's newspapers, uniformly critical of the government's handling of the crisis, appealed Thursday for the picketers to end their protest while they still enjoyed the sympathy of the public.

"As a friend who believes in the justice of your case, the Mail urges you to end your blockade today, while you still hold the moral high ground," the pro-Conservative Daily Mail tabloid said in a front-page message to the protesters.

"You've made your \plain\lang2057\f3\fs23\cf0 point," said the Labor-leaning \plain\lang2057\f3\fs23\cf0\i Daily Mirror\plain\lang2057\f3\fs23\cf0 . "We agree with you. And we will help you fight Tony Blair every way on the outrageous cost of petrol in Britain ... but people will start dying very soon and no fuel protest, however justified, is worth the loss of a single life."

"Blair crisis deepens," ran the mass circulation Sun's large-print lead headline, highlighting the political predicament faced by the prime minister.

Blair on Tuesday evening said he had no intention of giving in to the action, and expressed the hope matters would begin to return to normal within 24 hours. Several papers attacked him for having misread the situation.

"Is this the road to normal, Mr. Blair?" asked the Daily Express in a headline above a photograph of a row of unmoving gas tankers, while the Independent said Blair "appeared to have misjudged the determination of protesters."

Some newspapers were skeptical of the government's claims of imminent disaster for the NHS, with the Sun accusing Blair of "crying wolf."

The left-leaning Guardian said an "increasingly desperate" Blair had tried to turn public opinion against the protest by putting the health service of emergency footing.

The opposition Conservative Party's health spokesman, Liam Fox, said there was "strong suspicion in many quarters that the government is purposely talking up the problems in the NHS for its own political purposes ..."

The National Blood Service denied government assertions that blood supplies were at risk.

"This is scaremongering and it is causing unrest," a spokesman said. "People are saying that they are being told that blood donation centers have closed when they have not. It is outrageous."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow