Cocktail-Napkin Briefing: Why England's Out of Gas

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Britain's gas pumps have literally run dry because protesters have stopped tankers from reaching the gas stations. The protesters — primarily farmers, truckers and cab drivers — are demanding that the government cut the gasoline price. Although stung by recent increases caused by the rising world price of crude oil — resulting less from OPEC's tightening of the supply than from the economic recovery in Europe and Asia — the protesters are demanding that the government cut gasoline taxes. Britons pay around $5 a gallon for gasoline, a full $3.75 of which consists of tax.

But Britain's high gasoline tax is designed precisely to discourage Britons from driving their own cars, in the hope of curbing the output of the carbon gases believed to cause global warming. The Blair government has insisted that it won't cut those taxes, and plans instead to use force to break the picket lines around gas stations to get the tankers through. The showdown threatens to become the biggest political crisis of Tony Blair's career, but the prime minister may calculate that any sympathy with the protesters will evaporate once ordinary motorists are unable to fill their cars. He may try to ride out the crisis by hanging tough, possibly making a few concessions to "essential users" such as those represented by the protesters, while keeping his environmentally motivated taxes in place.