Why Mr Blair is right to fight for the rule of law

'A shift in policy may happen in the long run. But first, fuel must start moving - everywhere'
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The Independent Online

The current fuel confrontation is rich in ironies. Many of the very same people who screamed foul at French fishermen and farmers who held up British tourists and hauliers, regard their British counterparts as heroes. (In some cases they are the counterparts). Meanwhile, at the TUC, leaders of unions that cheerfully held a previous Labour government to ransom, magisterially demand tough action against these wreckers of the economy.

The current fuel confrontation is rich in ironies. Many of the very same people who screamed foul at French fishermen and farmers who held up British tourists and hauliers, regard their British counterparts as heroes. (In some cases they are the counterparts). Meanwhile, at the TUC, leaders of unions that cheerfully held a previous Labour government to ransom, magisterially demand tough action against these wreckers of the economy.

In fact, these ironies go to the very heart of the present crisis. It is actually two crises. One concerns the immediate threat to fuel supplies. Here, Tony Blair has now shown real leadership - and courage - by gambling on getting the tankers moving again. The progress has been slower than ministers would like. But he was right to intervene. The other problem is what to do about fuel tax.

Empty pumps first. Much has been made of Labour's need to exorcise the ghosts of the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent. Yet, odd as it may seem, the more potent resonance is that of the 1984-5 miners' strike, which marked a decisive shift in government handling of industrial conflict. This applied as much to policing as to Margaret Thatcher's determination to prevent the National Coal Board from settling on anything like Arthur Scargill's terms.

Hitherto, the police had largely seen their role as being to keep the peace and not to take sides between the parties involved. But Baroness Thatcher was, in her own words, "determined that there would be no surrender to the mob and the right to go to work would be upheld". A task to which the police were rapidly - and, not least because of Scargill's obdurate refusal to hold a strike ballot, rightly - suborned.

There are signs that until the first meeting on Monday of the Jack Straw-chaired Civil Contingencies Committee, on which the Association of Chief Police Officers is represented, some individual police forces had similarly interpreted their primary role as keepers of the peace. They began to get the message that ministers wanted to get the oil moving and the forces of the state would be deployed where necessary to ensure that it did.

This comparison, of course, is outrageous to the armchair blockaders in the - largely - Tory papers. The writer Frederick Forsyth, for instance, just can't handle it. Strikers, when they existed, were, to a man, both "schooled and drilled by hard-left fanatics, apostles of the Soviet paradise" and "entirely out for "self". (Er, which is it, Frederick?) By contrast, blockading farmers, hauliers, small - and not so small - businessmen are, by definition, horny-handed, salt-of-the- earth, selfless patriots who have only the true interests of the British economy at heart.

And for Kevin Morris, the President-elect of the Police Superintendents' Association (a 2.8-litre BMW Z3 driver who all too understandably thinks that petrol prices are too high) says the use of the tactics applied against striking miners would be "appalling", that there is a "huge groundswell" against fuel costs, and that "now, because someone is doing something about it, it's suddenly down to us to solve the problem".

Unfortunately, that's democracy. It is true that the miners - "lions led by donkeys" - were dragooned into a deeply anti-democratic and - in the end - self-destructive strike by their Marxist leader Arthur Scargill. But no-one who actually observed that tragic, year-long confrontation at close quarters recognises the Forsyth-Morris caricature in most of the individuals caught up in it.

Policemen rooted in pit communities didn't much care for their role in the miners' strike either, however necessary it was. For now, it looks unlikely that the kind of strongarm tactics required against the miners will be necessary. But that doesn't alter the fact - admitted by BP at the highest level - that there has been real intimidation of individual tanker drivers by protesters at some terminals and refineries.

The Scotland Office minister, Brian Wilson, said yesterday that BP had told him that drivers were in "real fear of reprisals". More pertinently, the consequences of the oil not moving were potentially dire in a way that the pickets' apologists simply ignore. One can only imagine what Mr Forsyth would be saying if it was trade unionists who were threatening food shortages, disrupting ambulance cover or squeezing the supply of vaccines in the NHS. The message appears to be that what used to be called "extra-parliamentary" action is fine as long as it doesn't involve unions and is directed at Labour governments.

All this the police, while sensibly seeking to keep confrontation to a minimum, appeared to be grasping. The problem was partly the oil companies. Indeed, some ministers who believe the oil companies were tacitly colluding with the protests attest to cases of chief constables having to prod - and not always successfully - the companies into using their services to ensure safe passage for their tankers. Whether because they didn't mind attention being drawn to the high level of duty, or whether they weren't too fussed if their retail competitors in the supermarket chains ran out, or because of the intimidation of drivers, they appeared remarkably slow in trying to get the fuel moving. Which is why the Prime Minister - rightly - has been spending so much time putting the heat on the oil giants. And why the latter need the police to help them.

The second issue - the level of fuel tax - may also involve a battle of another sort within the Cabinet. There are real defences to be made of current policy. It is green. Of the 20p increase in the cost of petrol since March 1999, only two per cent is because of duty rather than oil- price rises. (Which may be why some protesters seem to have some other things on their mind - from fox-hunting to farm subsidies.) Gordon Brown did yield to pressure in March to end the automatic escalator. If full motoring costs are taken into account, Britain is actually much more competitive than is being claimed.

Equally, however, there has been a looming political problem. For the best part of 18 months, some ministers have been pressing for a signal from the Treasury that fuel duty was reaching its peak. That pressure isn't likely to abate. There was always a danger that if there was an oil-price shock, the motoring electorate would not distinguish much between Opec-related reasons and the duty. Petrol duty, moreover, is, like all other indirect taxes, regressive, in that it hits the poor, particularly in rural areas, hardest. There will be continued pressure on Gordon Brown to review the balance of environmental taxes. And it's a racing certainty that Downing Street will press the Treasury for a freeze.

That said, Gordon Brown was right to repeat yesterday that budget changes are for budgets. If anything the protests have made it more difficult to make an imminent shift in policy. Such a change may happen in the longer term. But first the fuel has to start moving - fast, and everywhere in the country. The democratic way is not to yield mob rule - of any sort.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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