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Archive: Pump wars

Protesters at Stanlow
Stanlow Refinery at Ellesmere Port was the first to be blockaded

As Panorama reports on current high fuel prices, we look back at a film from 2000, Pump Wars: Seven Days That Shook the Government which told the story of the fuel protests that paralysed the country that September.

A Labour government, still riding high in the polls, was shocked as what started as a local protest spread rapidly, bringing parts of the country to a standstill and the government almost to its knees.

The crisis began as a convoy of Welsh farmers and truck drivers - led by Brynle Williams - arrived in Cheshire. Their plan was simple - to blockade the Shell oil Stanlow refinery at Ellesmere Port in protest against the rise in fuel prices.

They did not realise the extent of the support they would get.

Plan hatched

The protests spread, and as the public's panic grew petrol, stocks began to rundown at a breathtaking rate.

Clive Swan - a farmer from Mold in Wales - a key figure in the protest said "it just escalated, it was like a bushfire once Brynle had lit the touch paper, it just spread".

Through the summer of 2000, against a backdrop of rising fuel prices and a continuing agricultural slowdown, disquiet began to grow in the farming communities of North Wales.

At a meeting in the livestock ring of St Asaph's, Denbighshire, that September, the farmers hatched their plan to blockade Stanlow. They decided to act immediately.

May 1997 unleaded fuel 59p per litre
Sep 2000 unleaded fuel 80p per litre
July 2008 unleaded fuel 118p per litre

As oil tanker drivers started turning away from the gates and reports of the protest at Stanlow spread, public support grew and blockades began at other refineries. By the next night the huge refinery at Pembroke was amongst those shut down.

The government had not yet woken up to the scale of the crisis. Some saw this as a first sign of a government that was out of touch.

Blair heckled

By this stage, queues had become commonplace on fuel station forecourts as petrol stocks dwindled at an alarming rate. Scotland was first to run dry as the Grangemouth refinery was closed down by protestors.

Blair statement
We cannot and we will not alter government policy on petrol through blockades and pickets. This is not the way to make policy in Britain
Tony Blair
Prime Minister

Seemingly unconcerned by the protests, then-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair began a regional tour of the north of England on 11 September.

Later that day, Mr Blair did make his first public statement on the crisis stating "we cannot and we will not alter government policy on petrol through blockades and pickets. This is not the way to make policy in Britain and as far as I'm concerned, it never will be".

However, heckled on his way to dinner that evening, Mr Blair began to grasp the magnitude of the situation. He missed the dinner, demanding to know the situation nationwide.

The next evening, Mr Blair said that "we hope within the next 24 hours to have the situation on the way back to normal" - a statement which was to anger the protestors and tensions at the blockades rose.

Police protection

The government and protestors began to exchange accusations. Government ministers claimed that lives were at risk if the National Health Service could not get vital fuel supplies. Protestors denied the claim.

Tony Blair in 2000
Mr Blair was forced to make a public statement

Behind the scenes, the government called on Trades Union Congress (TUC) help to end the crisis. The TUC agreed to mediate and decided that getting tanker drivers to start leaving Grangemouth again - under police protection - could create a domino effect.

The plan had the desired effect and by 14 September, Mr Williams addressed the crowd at Stanlow to end the blockades and the immediate crisis.

Though the protestors gave the government a 60-day ultimatum to cut fuel duty, the protests never again had the momentum again to threaten the government.

Panorama - Pump Wars: Seven Days That Shook The Government was broadcast on 25 September 2000.

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