Even before I got out of bed, I could tell Britain had entered one of its periodic national crises of stiff-upper-lip, everybody-pull-together stoicism. I could tell because BBC Radio 1 was patiently explaining to listeners
how to store large quantities of petroleum in your house, and urging people to avoid a complete societal breakdown.
Walking onto the main street, it was quickly apparent that Britain had entered a fuel panic. My local gas station, usually quiet, had a lineup outside, including people carrying plastic containers to store fuel at home.
Elsewhere things were less civil. In the southern English city of Bournemouth police had to close a gas station
because tempers flared when motorists began to “argue over queue-jumping” in a half-mile lineup outside the station.
Garages reported an 81 per cent increase in fuel sales, and department stores reported a 500 per cent
increase in sales of jerry cans, with the director of one chain, Halfords, telling reporters that “it is clear that there is an element of panic buying, with customers telling us they want to be prepared.”
The ostensible reason for the panic is a possible strike by fuel-truck drivers, part of a wave of industrial action that has hit Britain during the country’s deep economic downturn. While the government has insisted that it is training soldiers to deliver the fuel, the British public seem to have been hit with an apocalyptic sensibility.
It didn’t help that Francis Maude, one of David Cameron’s top cabinet ministers, blurted out during a briefing that he felt it would be a “sensible precaution” to keep a “little bit of fuel in the jerry can in the garage.”
In a country where “having a little drink” is taken to mean multiple litres of beer, people took those words as a licence to hoard.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband responded with strong words: “The prime minister is presiding over a shambles on petrol.”
Mr. Cameron was quick to slap down his minister’s advice, telling people not to panic, but it was too late. It didn’t help that jerry cans, those 20-litre metal carriers you’ve seen in every Second World War movie, have been unlawful for decades.
Mike Penning, the roads minister, apologized for his colleague’s words.
“What Francis didn't quite realize is that a jerry can holds 20 litres, and of course you're only allowed to have two five-litre cans of petrol,” he said. But he defended the hoarding advice: “If the strike goes ahead – and we don’t want the strike to go ahead… it’s going to be a much better-prepared situation if petrol tanks are topped up.”
A few more conspiracy-minded Britons wondered if Mr. Cameron was up to something: After all, the economy’s first quarter was due to end at midnight Thursday, with the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development predicting that Britain will have tumbled into recession – that is, two consecutive quarters of economic non-growth.
One writer suggested that George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, might have hoped that a nationwide binge of last-minute fuel-buying would produce just enough economic activity to keep the country out of a technical recession. “It isn’t a far-fetched idea to assume Osborne will do almost anything to avoid a technical recession,” Sunny Hundal wrote.
As if to confirm this, the Automobile Association reported that panic-buying of fuel was, in the words
of the Evening Standard, “handing the Treasury a 32-million pound windfall from extra fuel excise duty.”