In September 2000 fuel protests over petrol prices stopped Britain for seven days. Schools closed, supermarkets shelves emptied and the NHS was declared to be ‘in chaos’. The cause? Warnings from the AA that petrol prices could climb to an average of 87p per litre, which caused protesters, spurred on by pickets, to block the pumps – demanding action on petrol prices and a reduction in fuel duty rises.
The cost of the protests to the UK’s economy was estimated at £1bn - and it cost the Labour government political credibility too. Three years after Tony Blair’s landslide, the Conservatives briefly crept above them in the polls.
Eleven years on, and petrol is back on the agenda – and AA estimates put it at an average 131.5 pence per litre at supermarkets. In some places it's not uncommon to see unleaded touching 140 pence.
But instead of blockades, petrol has become a political issue: MPs debated its cost in the Commons in November following a government e-petition receiving over 100,000 signatures. Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who opened the debate, said it was an issue for “hard-working, vulnerable Britons”. His fellow MPs agreed – voting with his motion after ministers abandoned plans to whip MPs against it.
So has Britain become more civilised? David Handley, chairman of Farmers for Action and the leader of the 2000 fuel protests, says no - we’ve just become more apathetic.
“You can write as many bloody petitions as you like - excuse my French - the only way that the government will address the situation is when people get off their rear ends and say 'enough is enough'. When you stop the supply of fuel to all bar essential users, then government looks up and says 'Christ we've got to do something about this.'
“I don't think the government are going to do anything about it, because the government are financially in a really tough place. They need every bit of taxation they can get, whether it can be legitimate upfront taxation or fuel duty - which some people don't even realise is taxation.”
Peter Carroll, of the Fair Fuel Campaign – the pressure group behind the e-petition debated by the House Of Commons - would disagree. He says their campaign is different from what happened in 2000, where people were at risk of getting hurt.
“It’s not the right way, our campaign has been fought within the law.”
But Handley says people are still angry – the point is “we’re in different times”.
“Over here we all moan and groan about it continually, I've got people ringing our office, and I've just got to the stage now where I turn around and say to them, 'What are you going to do?'
"Why should I get behind bars just because one or two people want to have a moan."
So what’s changed? “In 2000 there was prosperity, people were in work, there wasn't the threat of job cuts than there are today and I think people have got more on their minds.
"I think there would have to be a complete and utter mindset change by people for the fuel protests to happen again - But I think a similar thing is happening over the banking issue.
“There are still a lot of young people who can't see where the future is. Whether the ordinary motorist is prepared to do anything in respect to fuel or the price of fuel, is up for discussion.”
But after the government admitted during the fuel prices debate it was a time for “listening”, the question is whether they will act before the people. Carroll said the Fairfuel campaign was “the mother of all lobbying campaigns” – it forced politicians to confront the issue of fuel prices in the Commons, and ensured it was at the forefront of public debate. But will it force the government to reverse January’s 3p rise in fuel duty?
From what he’s hearing, yes. Carroll thinks there’s going to be a concession in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement – and so does the Westminster rumour mill.
David Cameron may have dropped his own hint during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday when he said it was "this Government that has cut the petrol tax".
It's a contentious issue ahead of next week's mini-budget. But Conservative MP and member of the transport select committee Paul Maynard says he hopes the tax cut will go ahead. "I understand that the chancellor has a difficult job in balancing the books after the mess left by Labour, however I do not think that this task should fall solely on hard press motorists," he told HuffPost UK.
"To many people, in rural parts of the country as well as in towns with poor public transport networks, cars are a life line for work, investment, jobs and social interaction. I would hope that George can continue to support drivers and hold off on this rise."
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