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Monday, 11 September, 2000, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
The blockade that grew
The spread of fuel protests by a seemingly rag-tag alliance of farmers, lorry drivers and taxi drivers armed with mobile phones has taken many in the UK by surprise, not least the organisers themselves. By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley.

The lettering on the placards may look rushed, but the rough coalition of fuel price demonstrators has executed a blockade of oil refineries to put even meticulous military planners to shame.

Sign written by protesters
A little makeshift, but the message is clear
However, unlike more conventional battle plans, the besieging of the UK's oil installations has now taken on a life of its own.

Richard Haddock, a South-west beef farmer, a national committee member of the National Farmers' Union and now a leading light in the more militant Farmers for Action, admits the action has "snowballed".

Starting with the blockading of the Stanlow plant at Ellesmere Port by farmers, picket lines manned by lorry drivers and taxi drivers have formed across the country.

Protest call

"It's just happened, people have had enough. I've been getting calls from pensioners wanting to join in," says Mr Haddock.

During last month's fuel protests in France, many commentators said no comparable action could happen on this side of the Channel.

However, the seed of the current UK demonstration was already being planted by Farmers for Action.

French fishermen block British tourists
The recent French blockade spurred on British farmers
"There's been talking behind the scenes about this for several months. We were planning a big push next month and a demonstration at the Labour Party conference, but the French protest spurred us on."

Farmers for Action was founded last year at a service station near Bristol, when Mr Haddock and his colleagues decided direct action, not union delegations, was the most effective route to winning concessions for their industry.

"The unions aren't prepared to back us, so it's been left to the run-of-the-mill British public to do something."

Joined in protest

Although Farmers for Action campaigns on many issues specific to agriculture, Mr Haddock says it forged firm links with taxi and lorry drivers' groups - though not with their unions - for the fuel protest.

"Two or three of us are seen to be at the centre, because we talk to the media. But it was organised like a chain letter. We'd say: 'So and so lives here.' Call them, and they'd phone so and so over here."

A farmer sleeps during the oil blockade
Tyred out: Protests are 'spreading south'
Mobile phones are proving invaluable as the protest spreads. "Everybody has them," says Mr Haddock.

According to a spokeswoman of the Road Haulage Association - which is not involved in the blockade - protesting lorry drivers have been using e-mail and the internet to co-ordinate their actions.

More than 200 e-mails about the demonstrations have landed in her inbox since yesterday, she told BBC News Online.

e-protest

Messages left in internet forums - such as that on the Boycott the Pumps site - point to the role the media have played the growing movement.

After hearing of a new protest on the television news, a user called "Lorry" decided "to pop down to see how its going", according to a message posted today at 1143GMT.


You tell [Chancellor] Brown we're coming to see him

Richard Haddock, Farmers for Action
The spread of direct actions is not entirely organic. Mr Haddock says there is an underlying system.

"We in the south-west are often painted as troublemakers. So we told the boys in the North: 'You start off and we'll join in later."

Mr Haddock says the slow southwards creep of blockades and protests is part of this "funnelling" plan.

Fuelling the ire

So what's at the end of the funnel? Will the protesters try to bleed the country dry of fuel?

Mr Haddock says his colleagues do not want to alienate a public they feel to be sympathetic to their calls for cheaper fuel. Neither do they want to put lives in danger by cutting supplies to the emergency services.

French famers' demo in Paris
Get an Eiffel: Could London see such protests?
So what next? The Road Haulage Association is planning to join the fray with a rolling road block in Scotland tomorrow, but Mr Haddock says his organisation has set its sights higher.

The focus of the blockades may move from the sharp end of oil production, he says, to the sharp end of policy making - Whitehall.

"You tell Mr Brown we're coming to see him."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Terry Stiastny
"Farmers have realised that even a relatively small number of people can cause widespread disruption"
The BBC's Gordon Brewer
"It's not actually a blockade"

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11 Sep 00 | UK
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