Richard Dite was mad as hell and he honked his horn to prove it. “I would be better off on the dole,” declared the welder between blasts of a musical horn that bizarrely blared out the theme tune to the Disney film Pirates of the Caribbean.
Some of Britain’s busiest motorways and main roads ground to a halt on Monday in the latest protest that threatens to derail Boris Johnson’s premiership. Furious at the rocketing cost of petrol prices, a ragtag army of motorists vented their anger by creating rolling roadblocks on the M4, M5 and other major trunk roads. They held up signs that declared “Britain is Broken” although another read: “There is no such thing as Broken Britain. We’re just bloody broke in Britain”. Either way, further protests that will doubtless coincide with train strikes and airport shutdowns are threatened.
Any motorists stuck behind the rolling convoys, travelling at anywhere between 10 and 30 mph on the UK’s fastest roads, would have found it hard to disagree with their sentiment.
Mr Dite, 44, a welder from Maesteg in South Wales, had had enough. His spending on fuel just to get to work and back each week is now costing him £300 a week. “My only option soon will be to put the welding gear in the shed and call it a day, maybe go on the dole. Face it, at this rate I’ll be on more that way,” he said in despair.
Fuel protest ‘go slow’ on the M4. I’m in a van with protester Richard Dite who is leading a 30mph procession of vehicles as his horn blares the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. We’re approaching the M4 Severn Bridge. pic.twitter.com/tcztcJXTG4
— Conor Gogarty (@ConorGogarty) July 4, 2022
He drove his van along the M4, over the Prince of Wales Bridge that connects England to Wales over the River Severn, while another rolling roadblock moved in the other direction, blocking the motorway both ways and causing lengthy tailbacks from 7am. The bridge was shut in both directions for more than an hour. Stranded motorists kicked a football about on the empty carriageway to pass the time.
Additional rolling roadblocks were carried out on the M5 with around 25 cars meeting at Bridgwater services on junction 24 to travel on the M32 in Bristol before turning around and going back. In West Yorkshire, police deployed stingers - long tracks with spikes on them unusually used to apprehend joy riders - to prevent protesters leaving a service station at Ferrybridge on the M62.
The protests had begun on Facebook and turned from a grassroots, localised campaign into a day of national action. The numbers were not huge but it doesn’t take many cars, vans and lorries to bring chaos to the roads. The fear for the Government will be if the unrest snowballs.
The strength of feeling on Monday suggests the anger will not be easily assuaged. With the average price of a litre of petrol reaching a new high of 191.5p at the weekend and diesel at a penny short of £2 a litre on average, only a swingeing cut to fuel duty will mollify the masses.
Asked what Mr Johnson should do, Vicky Stamper, an HGV driver, had a simple solution: “Resign.” Ms Stamper, 41, and her partner Darren have both given up their jobs in Bristol as a result of the cost of fuel. “We had to leave those jobs because it was costing us £380 a week just to get to and from work,” said Ms Stamper, from Cwmbran in south Wales. “I then lost a job two weeks ago because the company couldn’t afford to put fuel in that many lorries. So last in, first out.”
She had little sympathy for motorists caught up in the protest and advice for them. “We’re doing this for us and for them. If they want to have a moan, they should join us instead,” she said.
Sharon Downs, 46, a saddle fitter from Pontypridd, said: “I’m fed up of putting so much fuel in my car. I’m self-employed and people rather not get their saddles fitted now than cover the travel cost because of the fuel hikes. It means I’m losing business but also it means the horses are suffering.”
She made a plea “for more protests … so our voices are heard, and the Government knows we won’t stand for it any more.”
Police arrested 12 people for their part in the M4 protest for the offence of driving too slow and accusing the demonstrators of, as a consequence, putting emergency services “at risk”. They were stopped and told they were being detained for driving below the agreed 30mph speed for a prolonged period of time. Police had agreed in advance that the protesters could drive at 30mph but no slower to keep traffic flowing.
Tom Harding, Gwent Police chief superintendent, said: “The right to protest under UK law must be balanced with the rights of the wider community who may be affected.”
In a reference to Mr Dite who had filmed himself going at a snail’s pace and shouting “We want our country back,” the chief superintendent said: “We are aware of other driving offences, not connected to the protest, such as the use of a mobile phone whilst driving. These offences will be dealt with appropriately.”
The protests had been organised on social media under the banner Fuel Price Stand Against Tax. The M4 protest started simultaneously at the Magor services in South Wales and the junction 20 Almondsbury interchange near Bristol and police escorted the blockades as they crossed the River Severn, but prevented them from completing the return journey by halting the convoys and arresting the drivers.
12 protesters arrested
Dozens of police vans and hundreds of officers from both Gwent Police and Avon and Somerset Police were drafted in, arresting four protesters at 8.30am and a further eight at 10.45am, loading them into police vans and taking them to Newport Central police station, according to eyewitnesses. Their vehicles were seized.
There were also protests on the A38 in Devon and at a Tesco petrol station in Shepton Mallet, which forced it to temporarily shut.
Further afield, rolling blockades stopped traffic on the M54 in Shropshire, on the M62 and on the A64 in the York area. The M180 near Scunthorpe and the A12 in Essex were also targeted. In Essex, the A12, which links Suffolk and Essex with London, was blocked at Colchester at rush-hour causing tailbacks of as much as 12 miles long and causing a major build-up of hundreds of container lorries travelling from the busy port of Felixstowe.
At Buckfastleigh in Devon, motorists were given formal warnings for driving too slowly. “We had some challenges in relation to action being taken on the A38,” said Supt Adrian Leisk, of Devon and Cornwall Police. “At around 9am we had reports of excessively slow speeds from some of those protesting, leading to cars braking suddenly and potentially causing a serious issue on our roads.”
Marcin Gonera, 42, a lorry driver and business owner, had met up with other truckers in Bridgwater, Devon, before driving to Filton, in Bristol, at a sedate 30mph. “There was a lot of honking in support,” he said. “I know one driver who was working this time last year. He says he’s now paying eight grand more for fuel over the last month this year compared to last year. Straight away his profits have gone.”
By about midday, the protests had largely died down. Traffic density maps on Google Maps showed thick red lines on major roads across the country as hundreds of vehicles were slowed to a crawl. It could have been worse. A planned protest for the M6 didn’t take place and on the M40 only Matt Hill, an unemployed gas fitter, showed up for the event. “The police were great,” he said. “They stayed with me the whole way. But I am so disappointed because everyone has done all of this moaning on social media for so long and then no one actually turned up.”
Two traffic officers and one constable in a marked vehicle escorted Mr Hill to ensure his safety as he drove at 30mph on the M40.
The day of protest passed without major incident. But the demonstrations won’t go away. The worry for Mr Johnson is the truckers, van drivers and motorists of Middle England will continue their insurrection. And that won’t be a road the prime minister will want to travel down.