Monday, October 15, 2012

Remember that time you had trouble getting petrol? Sorry about that.

If you're a reader in the UK, you'll likely have no problem remembering the fuel protests back in 2000. Did you know I was the instigator of what ballooned into a national crisis? A crisis that had fuel drivers blockading their own refineries? That had airports shut down because they had no fuel for the aircraft? That caused Blair to finally admit he was propping up the National Health Service with money fleeced from motorists? The crisis that, for the first and only time in the recent memory of UK fuel pricing, caused the government to drop the tax rate? Yeah you can blame me for that.
Late spring 2000, a colleague of mine and I were moaning one morning about the price of petrol at the time and we decided that apathy had ruled long enough and that it was time to do something about it. We set up a website called Boycott The Pumps and filled it with interesting facts and figures. At the time I was running the Speedtrap Bible - a site I later sold - so I had rather a large following of readers. One simple email to all those readers was all it took. We decided to organise a pump boycott - a mechanism that has notoriously failed to go anywhere every time it was tried before, because of apathy. "But if I don't buy petrol today, I'll just buy it tomorrow, so what's the point?". The point isn't that you're buying petrol on another day, it's that you're sending your elected officials a very clear message. And holy crap this time it actually worked. It went nationwide when the Daily Mail picked up the original email from me, and publicised it on the AP Wire and the front page of their paper on the same day. The Sun, Mirror, Star and Telegraph all then picked it up and it just ballooned from there. I must have given 100 radio and newspaper interviews and I was on TV for what seemed like 3 weeks straight from local news stories to the BBC nationally. What really caught the attention of the public though was when the farmers and truckers started to get vocal - rolling roadblocks on the motorways, blockaded refineries and such. At that point it had a much snappier name - wish we'd thought of this originally, but we didn't - it became Dump The Pumps. I had to distance myself from it at that point because the press were invading every aspect of my life, and my family's life, and the life of a lot of my friends. But by that point it didn't matter - the damage had been done. By September 2000 there were queues at petrol stations all across the country. WW2 jerry cans were the hot item to buy and military surplus stores ran out of them. Shortages were everywhere, the refineries were blockaded, trucks were being turned away in France, aircraft weren't landing. Blair even went on TV and told everyone not to panic, and that was brilliant because then people really started to panic. That was when the army reserve were called out to try to maintain some order and use their fuel trucks to supply forecourts across the country.
So what was the point of it all? On the day of the original protest, it worked - petrol retailers all across the country reported much, much less take than normal. I proved that one person can make a difference. Yes the price of petrol has continued to go up ever since, and the drop in fuel duty at the time was only 1p. But put that into perspective : no government before or since has ever lowered fuel duty. It's not the amount that counts. It's that I forced them to do it using a grass-roots campaign. Even today's UK government is extremely wary of what happened in 2000, to the point where I've seen it referred to several times since in a "we don't want that to happen again" sort of way.

An album of the various newspaper headlines is here if you're curious. Dump the pumps. The local paper - the Bracknell news - has the story of me giving up the initial protest.