A Full Tank of Paradoxes

A Full Tank of Paradoxes

Contrary to the impression fostered by the government's supporters, not all the fuel protesters are selfish, gas-guzzling throwbacks greedy for a bigger TV.



In Europe this September protest went populist with a vengeance. The truckers and farmers clogging roads and blockading fuel depots across the continent to protest petrol prices were no rainbow brigade of the disaffected but solid citoyens: middle-aged men with mortgages and beer bellies, deck chairs and thermos flasks. Their avatar, if they have one, is Monsieur Poujade, the conservative French bookseller who led a tax revolt of shopkeepers in the fifties and came to represent the political muscle of capitalism's squeezed middlemen. Leaderless, decentralized, linked by Internet and mobile phone, they have borrowed their tactics from the environmental and anticorporate movements of the past few years; so far, their impact has been much more dramatic. In France, where it all began, they quickly secured the promise of a 15 percent cut in fuel duty from Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. In Britain they took government and media by surprise, threatened to paralyze the economy and the health service, and pushed the Labour Party down below the Tories in the polls for the first time since 1992.

This strange solidarity of the self-employed produced a rash of political paradoxes. Tabloids that have denounced every demonstration since Cromwell discovered the exhilaration of direct action ("Protest," said the Daily Mail, "is the lifeblood of democracy"). While Margaret Thatcher once demonized striking miners as the enemy within, her young ward William Hague hailed the truckers who stalled the country as "fine, upstanding citizens." And Prime Minister Tony Blair found that strikebusting laws passed by the Iron Lady and gratefully kept on the books were useless in this case, because the men picketing the oil refineries were not unionized. Mechanisms devised to control dissent as the old, industrial Britain was being dismantled are of limited use in the new world of virtual networks and unstable work. The oil refinery pickets numbered less than 2,500 across the country, and at some depots looked more like picnickers than protesters. They were able to bring the system to a halt in part because the tanker drivers who were meant to defy them are themselves contract workers with no fixed loyalties.

Of course, if the oil companies had wanted to break the protest, they would have found a way to do it before you could say Texaco. (Imagine if it had been Greenpeace or striking refinery workers at their gates.) Truckers demanding fuel tax cuts are allies, not enemies, of the oilmen, to whom less tax means more sales and a bigger margin for profits. In fact, the price of fuel has risen by 50 percent over the past eighteen months because the oil-producing countries have pushed up the price of crude; oil company profits have doubled. But though the "Dump the Pump" campaign began in Britain as a movement to boycott BP, it quickly veered right and turned its sights on the government, which claims 76 pence in duty and tax–the highest in Europe–on every pound spent on petrol. (In the States the car lobby won this battle before it was even joined: Americans pay 23 cents on the dollar in tax.) The truckers' crusade is partly an explosion of resentment by middle England against a government that wooed it, promised it the Earth–and now sits smugly in Westminster listening to focus groups and spouting homilies instead of making real improvements in the services everybody uses.

For Tony Blair the fuel crisis was truly the stuff of nightmare, calling up ghoulish memories of 1978's winter of discontent, when industrial action filled city streets with garbage and morgues (they say) with the unburied dead, ushering in the reign of Margaret Thatcher. For one ghastly week, New Labour's chief control freak watched helplessly as the country slid toward chaos and public sympathy flooded to the instigators. The tabloids he had courted cheered on the protesters; the corporate leaders he had buttered up smiled sweetly and averred there was nothing they could do. The mirage of Third Way consensus went up in a puff of diesel. Only Labour's traditional stalwarts, the trade union leaders, came through, helping to negotiate an end to the protest. Perhaps there's a lesson here.

The high tax on fuel (put in place initially by the Conservatives) serves a dual purpose: to raise revenue and to protect the environment. Indirect taxes are rarely progressive; this one falls disproportionately on the rural poor. Contrary to the impression fostered by the government's supporters, not all the fuel protesters are selfish, gas-guzzling throwbacks greedy for a bigger TV. If New Labour could stop pretending that the new Jerusalem can be built without taxing the rich; if it could stop thinking of the environment as an issue for sissies and make the green case for petrol tax (there is a golden opportunity in November's international climate change forum in the Hague); if it could even put real money into public transport and renewable energy, some good might come of this bizarre political moment. Otherwise, a warning has been served. Societies dependent on one privately hoarded commodity are vulnerable to all kinds of blackmail, and the new politics of protest is no longer the exclusive province of the anticorporate left.

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