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Sunday, 9 September, 2001, 21:10 GMT 22:10 UK
Seven days that shook Britain
Last September's blockades starved the country of petrol
By BBC News Online's Finlo Rohrer

The farmers and hauliers meeting at a market in St Asaph in North Wales in September last year had little idea their semi-spontaneous protest was about to bring chaos to the UK.

Their one-night blockade and one-week picket of Shell's Stanlow refinery at Ellesmere Port on the Wirral sparked similar protests at oil sites around the country.

The ragtag coalition wanted the government to recognise the harm being done to rural communities and hauliers by fuel taxes that pushed the price of petrol much higher in the UK than in Europe.

If fuel went to last year's price, I believe there would be spontaneous direct action

Brynle Williams
Although pumps ran dry, with massive queues of motorists snaking out of filling station forecourts, the protests gained widespread public support.

Brynle Williams, a livestock farmer from Cilcain in North Wales, rose to prominence as a spokesman for the protesters.

Mr Williams had been a leading figure in previous protests by Welsh farmers, including lively demonstrations at Holyhead where Irish beef was dumped into the sea.

Concrete achievements

He told BBC News Online that one year on he was happy with some of the changes that followed the fuel protests, particularly concessions in the last budget.

"It achieved several things concretely," he said.

Brynle Williams
Brynle Williams is planning to stand for the Welsh Assembly
"It drew the attention of the government of the day to the fact that things were not good and that they could not rule over people and take no notice."

But Mr Williams still says he looks upon the current government as a kind of "democratically elected dictatorship" mainly concerned with life in London.

"Anything that happens outside of the London orbital road doesn't count. The government is that complacent.

Fuel reductions

"There was 93% support for the fuel protests. Compare that to the turnout for the general election."

Mr Williams pointed to the reduction of some fuel duty in this year's budget as well as big reductions in licence costs for hauliers as evidence of the protest's impact.

Police at Stanlow
The protests at Stanlow and elsewhere remained peaceful
"The wagon owners had a dramatic reduction, the cost of fuel has come down by approximately 10%."

But he added: "You can't say it is an unqualified success."

The erstwhile "ringleader" has said his days of direct action-style protests effectively ended after the Stanlow protest.

Mr Williams said he had no time for anti-capitalist protesters who set out to destroy city centres to make a point, although he appreciated their concerns about globalisation.

"Direct action [is acceptable] in certain circumstances provided it is purely peaceful.

Globalisation protests

"Before we even moved out of St Asaph market we said the first senseless act of violence will be dealt with by us ourselves and then the police.

"These young people protesting about globalisation - they most certainly are not right to destroy city centres - but governments are going to have to start listening."

Empty pumps
Petrol nearly ran out in many affected cities
And Mr Williams maintained - despite the drop in the cost of fuel - that it remained a major issue in rural areas.

"There is disquiet in rural communities, disquiet over the cost of fuel is a major thing.

"Where I'm standing, the nearest bus service to us will be in a few days times.

"A car here is a necessity not a luxury."

But since the Stanlow protest ended, the protest leader has also been occupied by the latest calamity to strike UK agriculture - foot-and-mouth.

Public inquiries

Mr Williams has spoken with ministers about the crisis and has a burning desire for the truth about the disease.

"All this about three public inquiries instead of one is just throwing sand in the media's face.

Motorists queue
For a week motorists queuing became a common sight
"I think on the whole the public has been grossly misled but they are sympathetic towards us.

"I can see their disgust at these funeral pyres."

He has demanded that agriculture officials investigate the possibility that the disease could have spread from the government's laboratories at Pirbright in Surrey.

And Mr Williams continues to rail against a government who, he says, cannot support their farming industry while meat produced in "substandard" conditions is imported from Europe.

'Dirty beef'

"The government have decided they are going to subsidise farmers in Zimbabwe. Here, there are farmers going out of business and committing suicide.

"We are importing dirty beef. It is cheap and nasty."

Hauliers formed an ad hoc alliance with 'militant' farmers
Having announced he is likely to run for the Welsh Assembly in 2003, there is interest as to whether Mr Williams will choose a party.

"I have been approached by various political parties, unofficially approached by Plaid Cymru."

Rural struggle

But he admitted he was "nearer Conservative than anything".

And he said, in the meantime, the struggle for a fair deal for rural areas would continue.

"My colleagues and I have never stopped. We have been going all through the summer to see what can be done about fuel, to get the tax reduced.

"The government has been putting pressure on the oil companies with the threat of the super tax.

"I don't believe direct action is the answer this time. If fuel went to last year's price, I believe there would be spontaneous direct action. I hope it never comes to that."

See also:

20 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Straw visits protest refinery
13 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Brown 'offers fuel concessions'
02 Oct 00 | Business
Factory output hit by fuel crisis
18 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Fuel protesters threaten mass rally
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