The Government should uphold the rule of law and ignore these futile protests

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The Independent Online

Britain is in crisis. Airports are closing, schools are emptying and the shelves of supermarkets are being cleared as fuel blockades cause the nation to seize up. Everyone, from the Government and police to retailers and ordinary families, has been caught on the hop by the ferocity of the disruptions and the speed with which Britain suddenly developed a liking for mass civil disobedience. But the activities of a few truculent truckers, angry farmers and bolshie taxi-drivers have ceased to be a joke.

Britain is in crisis. Airports are closing, schools are emptying and the shelves of supermarkets are being cleared as fuel blockades cause the nation to seize up. Everyone, from the Government and police to retailers and ordinary families, has been caught on the hop by the ferocity of the disruptions and the speed with which Britain suddenly developed a liking for mass civil disobedience. But the activities of a few truculent truckers, angry farmers and bolshie taxi-drivers have ceased to be a joke.

Of course, everybody likes a good crisis - blitz spirit and all that. But for the Government, which likes to be constantly and obsessively in control, it has all come as something of a shock, doubly so because of the enduring folk memory of the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent, which paved the way for Labour's 18-year exile from power. It has also underlined the essential timidity of Mr Blair's administration, with its lack of leadership unless shored up by focus-group testing. It has rarely been forced into such an unrelenting spotlight. This is fast becoming the biggest test yet for this government. And so far, there has been some tough talk but too little tough action.

The protests at the cost of fuel, and at the consequent shortages, have wrongfooted the Government badly - not least because it has been so eager not to cause any offence to anybody who has voted Labour, might vote Labour or might one day think about voting Labour. Instead, the Government has stood, wringing its hands, hoping that the problem would go away. Instead of berating the oil companies, which seem willing accomplices to the protesters, and defending their policies, ministers have been slow to react.

Meanwhile, there has been something blackly comical about the sympathy found for the anti-tax protesters among the right. Newspapers and politicians who usually fulminate against industrial action have suddenly come over all coy and supportive of the blockades. A standard phrase is: "Naturally, we do not condone it, but..." According to that logic, the blockades are a latter-day peasants' revolt, the only way that people can be listened to by their vile and vicious rulers. And, of course, while they may be disrupting millions of people's lives and endangering thousands of businesses, they put the Government in a difficult position, too.

Now, forgive us if we have missed something here. But one notable difference between medieval and modern Britain is that everybody has a vote - and can use it to change the government, on a regular basis if appropriate. It's called parliamentary democracy; as a system, it's not bad.

That seems, however, to have been forgotten in all the brouhaha of recent days. Certainly, Britain has high fuel taxes. As the Greens rightly point out, fuel tax is admirable. If it persuades people to use cars less, that can only be seen as an advantage. In addition, tax revenues can be quite useful for running good schools, building new hospitals and improving public transport.

The blockades have been organised by a ragtag mixture of the disaffected, including not just hauliers, fishermen and farmers, but also many Mr Indignants, motorists who have in common only the fact that they would like to drive more cheaply. The blockades can easily be broken. And they are - though this inconvenient fact is often ignored - illegal.

The Government at last seems ready to get tougher with the oil companies, the partners in crime whose hesitant behaviour throughout the dispute has been shameful. Meanwhile, it is high time that the cosy complicity of the oil companies and the protesters is destroyed. The oil companies cannot be allowed to claim that their lorries cannot pass through the blockades, when everyone - police, protesters and the oil companies themselves - knows it is not true. They hope that reduced fuel taxes will ensure that their own profit margins are not damaged. It is a policy of breathtaking cynicism. Their bluff has to be called.

The Government is right to try to end this blackmail. This is an issue on which Mr Blair must stand firm. He should stop worrying about every single "what if?" in public opinion and be ready to defend his principles to the end. The message has to be: the lad is not for turning.

The Government must avoid worrying about all the hypotheticals - especially, what might happen if police were to clash with protesters. It does not wish to be faced with the problem that arrested protesters could be portrayed as popular heroes. But the protesters are not victims and should not get away with portraying themselves as such. If the Government gives way on this, it will lose credibility on a dozen other issues. On this occasion at least, the Government has a chance to show it is not running scared.

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