Autumn 2000 fuel protests: the last time high gas prices brought UK to a standstill

·3-min read
2000 fuel protests - EPA/AFP Photo/Adrian Dennis
2000 fuel protests - EPA/AFP Photo/Adrian Dennis

In Sep 2000, Britain was in chaos. Commuter trains were running a limited service. Hospitals were cancelling all routine operations for lack of staff, while there were shortages in blood, medicine and sutures. The Royal Mail was scrapping deliveries. Supermarkets were rationing basic goods amid panic buying.

The cause? Major protests over the price of fuel.

Protesters, in particular farmers, had blockaded two-thirds of Britain’s oil refineries and a number of fuel depots, leaving more than 4,000 petrol stations empty.

By Sep 13, the crisis was at its peak, with lorry drivers organising go-slows on major motorways, while in Liverpool taxi drivers gummed up the city centre at rush hour.

The parallels to now seem obvious, but there are, of course, plenty of differences too.

2000 petrol protests - Phil Noble/PA
2000 petrol protests - Phil Noble/PA
2000 petrol crisis - Reuters/Jeff J Mitchell
2000 petrol crisis - Reuters/Jeff J Mitchell

Economic growth was 3.5 per cent – similar to the present day – but was far healthier given that the country was not bouncing back from a pandemic. Inflation was at just 2.9 per cent, while wage growth was a solid 6.9 per cent.

Oddly enough, it was the Conservative Party that had done much, initially, to instigate the protests, trying to organise a national boycott of petrol stations to pile pressure on the Blair government.

The trade unions and the Road Haulage Association, meanwhile, spoke out against the protesters.

In that topsy-turvy September, the public, far from outraged at the disruption to their daily lives, appeared to mostly back the strikes. A small BBC poll put their support at 78 per cent.

The obvious reason for this was that, for once, the Government was substantially to blame for inflated prices.

In the early Nineties, Britain had some of the cheapest fuel in Europe. By 2000, it was the most expensive, and almost all of that was down to tax.

Tony Blair - Peter J Jordan/PA
Tony Blair - Peter J Jordan/PA

Scarred by protests over road building and keen to meet commitments made at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to combat climate change, the Major government introduced the Fuel Price Escalator in 1993.

By 2000, when Gordon Brown, the chancellor at the time, introduced yet another rise, tax accounted for 81.5 per cent of the cost of a litre of petrol, which in inflation-adjusted prices was now up to £1.30 a litre.

Ultimately, the protests subsided, but from then on the escalator would not exceed inflation. A decade later, under George Osborne, fuel duty was frozen. It remains so 12 years on.

The consequence of those policies, combined with soaring oil prices, is that nowadays tax makes up just 44 per cent of the cost of petrol.

Gilet jaunes - Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP/Getty Images
Gilet jaunes - Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP/Getty Images

Sep 2000 was a unique moment in British politics and it is no surprise that two further efforts at fuel protests in 2005 and 2007 failed to gain any traction. What does their return say about 2022?

Petrol is no longer a single black spot in an otherwise roaring economy, while the Government is constrained by a weak fiscal position and taxes are historically low.

In that sense, a more apt comparison might be the Gilet Jaunes that turned France upside down in 2018-19. That popular uprising was triggered by a climate-based rise in fuel duty pushed by Emmanuel Macron, but it soon grew to encompass all kinds of grievances from France’s provincial middle classes.

The French president responded with €5 billion (£4.3 billion) of tax cuts but, determined to improve France’s fiscal and international standing, pressed on with his economic liberalisation.

He now finds himself re-elected, but without a majority in the legislature and a surge of far-Left and far-Right assembly members.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting