Every so often I pick up the Sunday papers at the petrol station and, as usual, I had slammed the nozzle back, and sauntered to the check-out; I was fishing for my wallet and looking down at my purchases when my blood ran cold.
It wasn’t the news about poor old Alan Johnson, though I will greatly miss my cousin Alan, not just because he is a nice guy but also for the satisfaction I used to get when I saw a headline saying “Johnson in new gaffe” and realised it wasn’t me. It wasn’t the stuff about the bugging scandal, though you have to wonder whether the papers that have been so hysterically pursuing Andy Coulson have themselves been entirely guiltless of the practices they denounce.
It wasn’t even the news about the undercover officers – you know, the undercover officers who have been getting under the covers with their targets in order to penetrate their – er – networks more effectively. No doubt this is a reprehensible way to carry on, but you have to admit that such behaviour has been sanctioned and glorified on every page of James Bond, Britain’s number one post-war security professional.
No, it wasn’t anything in the papers that chilled my marrow and stole my voice and made my hair stand up like the quills of the fretful porpentine. In fact, most people in this country will treat all these stories with the sublime indifference they deserve, compared with the fact that stared me in the face – a fact more obscene and shocking than anything allegedly done in the bunga bunga room by Silvio Berlusconi. That fact, of course, was the price of fuel.
Now, I’d done a sneaky thing yesterday morning. I must have been subconsciously aware that a hefty bill was in the offing, so (unusually) I had decided to fill up before the tank was completely empty, with the needle indicating that there was still a smidgen to go – perhaps the depth of a small glass of whisky. And in so far as I was furtively trying to cushion the blow on my own frail psychology, I failed.
If you included the Sunday papers, the cost of filling about seven eighths of the tank of a 1995 Toyota Previa came to £80.54! Talk about whisky. It would be cheaper to fill it up with Black Label. “Cor!” I said, or it may have been “Ghorrh!” The nice woman who serves at the petrol station looked inquiringly. “That’s unbelievable,” I said. “That’s a crippler!” The woman behind the counter gave a cynical cackle – perhaps it was the first cynical cackle she has given for a long time.
“Well, whose fault is that, then?” she demanded. She called to her colleague from the back room. “He’s complaining about the price of petrol, and I just asked him whose fault it was, then!” I bridled. My powers may be great, but they do not include the price of fuel; so I told her that it wasn’t my blooming fault, and staggered in a daze back to the car.
As I started the machine, and the liquid gold began to course through its veins, I pondered her question. Whose fault is it, then? Why is petrol in this country so infernally expensive? It seems to cost twice as much, even allowing for inflation, as it did 10 years ago, when the hauliers launched their doomed revolt. The price clobbers small business and makes life very tough for people in rural areas who don’t have access to good public transport. Some people seem to think the position has been exacerbated by the weakness of sterling against the dollar, though the pound is not appreciably weaker than it was last October, and yet the price of petrol is now heading for £1.29 per litre.
Some people blame the oil companies, or speculators, or middle men or – most absurdly of all – a recent blow-out on the Alaskan pipeline. It is hard to see why UK forecourts should suffer particularly from difficulties in Alaska when you can still fill up your tank in America for something like 50p per litre. The same goes for Russia. In fact, petrol is cheaper in virtually every other European country than it is in Britain, and whatever the reason for the recent spikes, we cannot get around the fact that the spikes are jabbing the consumer all the more painfully because the Treasury takes about 60 per cent of your fuel bill in excise.
And that, of course, is the answer I should have given my friend at the petrol station check-out. If I had been thinking quicker, I would have blamed the Labour government for its useless policies and the mess it left behind. I would have blamed Blair for bamboozling the public into a war about cheap oil that ended up delivering all sorts of disasters but no cheap oil – or at least none available to British motorists. I would have blamed Brown and Balls for racking up the vast deficit that makes cutting taxes so difficult. And I would have tried to give her some sort of sign that the Coalition recognises this escalation cannot go on forever.
It’s not just that it’s inflationary. If Britain’s businesses cannot afford to run their vans, then they will stop hiring, they will stop expanding, and tax yields will go down. It is not just for environmental reasons but for cost reasons that I am starting physically to ache for the age of the electric car. In theory, it should all be kicking off this year. Mitsubishi, Peugeot and Smart are offering electric models this month; next month it is Citroën; in March, Nissan and Tata come to market, and in April we in London are launching our Source London network of charging points.
The electric revolution is happening, but it will not be overnight. The up-front cost of the vehicles remains high, and there is still no electric people carrier. For the foreseeable future, millions of people will have to invest not just in a car but in an overpriced lagoon of fossil fuel.
If I were the government, I would think seriously about that fuel duty stabiliser, because when it costs more to fill your tank than to fly to Rome, something is seriously wrong.