Saturday, 31 March 2012

Petrol panic

I wrote this for yesterday's Guardian:

Driving down a main road in Liverpool on Tuesday evening, I encountered a long queue of drivers in the left hand lane, all waiting to use the petrol pumps. The tanker drivers’ strike has not yet been called, and we will be given seven days’ notice even if it is, but the panic buying had begun - although “panic buying” is really a misnomer, for the motorists I saw just looked stoical and glum.

I managed to resist the temptation to join the left hand lane, but I could see why people did. A long queue is such a visible sign that something is amiss, it encourages the herd instinct. Even the most bloody-minded people wonder if the queuers are right and they are wrong. A queue, like anxiety, feeds on itself. In the Second World War, when queuing was a daily irritation and necessity, people would join a queue without knowing what was at the end of it, in the expectation that it must be for something worthwhile.

At the heart of this week’s anxiety is the vivid memory of the fuel blockade by hauliers, farmers and motorists in September 2000, when the picketing of refineries threatened to bring the country to a standstill. It was a scary confirmation that the just-in-time routines of mobile, consumer capitalism render it, as Andrew Rawnsley said at the time, “a fuel tank away from anarchy”. Striking workers are often told that they are holding the country to ransom, but these days stopping the petrol pumps is a more effective political tool than withdrawing labour. Pictures of queuing motorists have more visual impact on the news than, say, images of quiet roads during public sector strikes.

But petrol shortages have also had a wider national symbolism ever since the war, when rationing effectively banned private motoring. The ending of petrol rationing on 26 May 1950 was an emblematic moment in the long deferred end of austerity. An event that happily (or, as it turned out, unhappily) coincided with the Whitsun weekend, it created Britain’s first really epic traffic jams. Motorists symbolically tore up their fuel coupons in cathartic rituals held at petrol pumps, and ancient cars undriven since the 1930s were taken out for a spin. There were colossal queues on main roads out of London, and a jam that stretched all the way from Weston-super-Mare to Bristol.

Since that liberating moment, fuel shortages have evoked a return to the privations of the 1940s. Even that word, jerrycan, which helped to generate the queues on Tuesday, has wartime connotations. The first serious postwar queues at the pumps occurred during the Suez crisis of 1956, when even just a 10% cut in supplies meant many garages had to ration petrol and shut at weekends. During the OPEC oil crisis of late 1973, people queued outside post offices to receive petrol ration books, an uncomfortable reminder of wartime for the middle-aged and older. Many petrol stations only opened for two hours a day, and police had to control traffic jams outside them.

The 1973 oil crisis also had a longer term, subtler effect. Petrol used to be dispensed by smartly uniformed station attendants, who would not only fill your tank but also check your oil and give you directions. Today’s self-service petrol stations were a cost-saving device rolled out after the oil crisis, made possible by the new latched nozzle pump with automated cut-off. Now we live latched-nozzle lives, exchanging barely a word with the cashier behind the glass as we pay for petrol with our pin numbers. Buying fuel is an impersonal, dull routine – and like most dull routines, it is something we expect to be able to carry on doing. When the routine breaks down, anxiety and panic ensue.

Groupthink is a curious phenomenon that forms by some invisible, anonymous process and can then disappear like smoke. On Wednesday morning, the queue for the petrol station down my road had vanished by dint of the same obscure, wordless, collective decision making that caused it to appear in the first place. I wonder if it will return.


  1. Herd Behaviour and Keeping up with the Joneses

    Herd behaviour is often natural and individually rational, but it has the potential to be disastrous for the group. In this lecture, Andrew Oswald will discuss human herd behaviour and its links to 'keeping up with the Joneses'.

  2. I'm sure that story of people just joining a queue without knowing what was on sale at the other end of it comes from Eastern Europe before the nineties - and is probably apocryphal.

  3. It's possibly apocryphal, but you do find the story in histories of the period eg Paul Addison's Now the War is Over. It wouldn't be that surprising either, given the nature of the shortages.