Blair must not cave in to the truckers

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This weekend, many Britons will be thinking back 60 years to remember "the Few" who saved us from fascism in 1940. But we should also remember with anger the "bully-boy few" who - using tactics the fascists would have admired - tried last week to hold Britain to ransom. Using all the technology at their disposal - the internet, mobile phones, access to a voracious 24-hour news media - a handful of pickets blockaded our petrol supply and demonstrated how terrifyingly fragile both our infrastructure and our democracy are. It is in the interest of the many groups who cravenly failed us last week to minimise the past seven days as a one-off, a single-issue protest or a legitimate complaint against an over-mighty government. It was none of these. What happened was blackmail, and nobody emerges from last week with credit.

This weekend, many Britons will be thinking back 60 years to remember "the Few" who saved us from fascism in 1940. But we should also remember with anger the "bully-boy few" who - using tactics the fascists would have admired - tried last week to hold Britain to ransom. Using all the technology at their disposal - the internet, mobile phones, access to a voracious 24-hour news media - a handful of pickets blockaded our petrol supply and demonstrated how terrifyingly fragile both our infrastructure and our democracy are. It is in the interest of the many groups who cravenly failed us last week to minimise the past seven days as a one-off, a single-issue protest or a legitimate complaint against an over-mighty government. It was none of these. What happened was blackmail, and nobody emerges from last week with credit.

First, the blockaders. Hauliers, taxi owners, farmers and other out-of-towners all have grievances about the cost of fuel. They are free to protest about taxation in any way that our country permits: lobbying their MP and the media, permitted demonstrations, petitions and the rest. They could - should they dare to do so - stand for election and put their case to the voters, listing the cuts in services they would have to make if their taxes were cut. If they did, we would wholeheartedly endorse their right to do so, for that is how people should make themselves heard in a democracy. What they should not do, and should not be allowed to get away with doing, is disrupt the country's normal business because of their objection to a tax legitimately imposed by the elected government.

So what of the Government, caught, as it admits, on the hop? Tony Blair was too slow to condemn, too obsessed with not upsetting public opinion, properly to stand up to the intimidation. We fear that he was frightened, not by the blockaders, but by the massive public support they appeared to enjoy. The Prime Minister has made "being in touch" his mission. For an elected politician, that is a sensible position to adopt. But sometimes it is better to lead than to follow. As Steve Richards notes on this page, Mr Blair may have some sneaking sympathy with the protesters' cause. That does not excuse their methods - and his coded nods and winks that their case will get an enthusiastic hearing, perhaps even that the tax will be cut next year, are ill-judged and weak.

No better has been the behaviour of the opposition parties. William Hague has disgracefully appeared to side with the hauliers in what he calls a "taxpayers' revolt", laying on the pressure to cut the fuel duties which - remember - the Conservatives introduced and were committed in their 1997 manifesto to retaining. One might have looked to the Liberal Democrats, always keen on honing their green credentials, to have spoken out in support of the environmental case for a high fuel price. No such luck. Their failure even to try was a woeful omission.

But perhaps the most shameful behaviour came from the right-wing media. The Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph were among the first to denounce the "scum" of the trades unions who disrupted life during the Winter of Discontent and the miners' strike. Only a week ago, these newspapers mocked the French police and government for their weakness in caving in to fuel protesters. Yet last week they hailed the British protesters as heroes, urged the Government to buckle in the face of intimidation, and castigated any fellow journalists - notably the BBC's Andrew Marr - who failed to join their orgy of anti-democratic spleen.

The police, too, must shoulder some responsibility. If drivers were intimidated by the hauliers, either verbally or physically, that is a crime. Many of the drivers, working on short contracts, will rely on the blockading hauliers for future business. It won't have taken much by way of blackmail for them to decide that it was wiser for their prospects not to deliver fuel last week. The police should have tried harder to prevent it.

The oil companies - thanks partly to the inept decision to raise prices on Thursday - have endured an uncomfortable week in the public spotlight. Their stumbling attempts to dodge responsibilty for getting their product to market have led to accusations of collusion with the protesters. After years of disloyalty to their workforce, laying off staff drivers in preference to contract workers, it is hardly surprising if they could not persuade the drivers to show loyalty to them.

To our mind, only one organisation last week showed the backbone to condemn the protesters outright. At its annual congress in Glasgow, the TUC might have been expected to side with the "workers in struggle" manning the blockades. But its general secretary, John Monks, got it right when he made an impassioned speech, comparing the hauliers out to "get" Blair with those who had "got" Allende's Chile in 1973.

A week ago the Independent on Sunday stood alone as we urged the Government to face down the hauliers and maintain the environmentally sensible fuel tax. We do so again today.

The protesters have given the Government 60 days to cut fuel duty or the blockades will resume. Such action, as winter begins to bite, would be murderous. The Government must prepare for a much worse crisis and - certainly until this grotesque threat is lifted - not even consider cutting fuel taxes. Only when they are free from blackmail can the Government begin to address the grievances of those - particularly in the countryside - who have no choice but to rely on petrol.

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