The queues began at the first filling station we passed and did not end until the other side of Hull, where we found a BP garage with the last dregs of diesel still in the pump and only a few people trying to get at it.
In between, there was a giant treasure hunt being played out, with motorists careening from one empty station to the next in search of enough fuel to take them back home, where they could have remained in the first place and avoided all the fuss.
But it wasn’t drivers who were to blame; it was the hauliers – those that remain in this green and gridlocked land of ours – for setting off a wave of panic buying that was as unnecessary as the great toilet roll crisis of last year, when we chased our tails for five weeks like demented Andrex puppies. The Road Haulage Association, the private company that represents the HGV industry, had decided to leak the details of a confidential Zoom call with Ministers which was aimed at avoiding exactly the situation that the disclosure created. It was the diplomatic equivalent of blocking the middle lane and the other antisocial manoeuvrings we associate with lorry drivers.
The RHA takes the opposite position to everyone else on the road – namely that there are too few extremely large trucks clogging up our motorways and town centres. For this reason, they opposed Brexit, claiming that many drivers currently resident in Britain would be forced back to their countries of origin. The events of the last few days have proved them right on that point.
The Government’s response has been to allow 5,000 drivers to return here for just long enough to fill the supermarket shelves with Glühwein, Stollen bread and other produce that will allow us to enjoy the traditional British Christmas to which we have become accustomed.
But this is akin to inviting a turkey to share your festive dinner – for as a Dutch union official pointed out, foreign drivers are hardly likely to want to return to Britain on short-term visas just to help us out of our own mess.
It isn’t just petrol that is in short supply, of course; it’s absolutely everything. Ironically, the only bed we have been able to buy for our new house is a European size not normally sold in Britain. It was the best Ikea could do. And when we scanned the empty shelves at Sainsbury’s in search of a lemon squeezer, an assistant asked in all seriousness if we’d tried an antiques shop.
Yet not all of this week’s misery could be laid at the feet of the road hauliers, or of Brexit. As we set off towards the M25, the road signs warned of a two-hour delay because a mob – I don’t think that’s too unkind a word – that wants the Government to insulate homes in order to reduce carbon emissions had blocked the carriageway for the sixth time in two weeks.
It’s a very specific issue for such a blunderbuss approach. No-one doubts the need to become cleaner and greener – but turning the motorway into a hothouse of stationary, polluting vehicles is simply counterproductive. Even at Labour’s Brighton conference there were few voices raised in favour of Insulate Britain’s tactics.
Among the protesters was a retired doctor from Sheffield named Bing Jones, who has been arrested four times in eight days. “I’m not worried about other people,” he told the BBC, taking a leaf out of the Road Haulage Association’s manual on how to win friends and influence people.
If we can draw any conclusions from all of this, it is that the double whammy of Brexit and Covid has upset our sense of priorities. The political agenda is being driven not by vision or foresight but by knee-jerk reactions to the daily diet of warnings from pressure groups of all persuasions about the catastrophic effect on the climate, the economy or the NHS should their premonitions go unheeded. We are becoming a nation whose chief skill is frightening ourselves.
There have been calls as a result for a nationwide audit of our other skills, to establish whether we have any. But while we may no longer be the nation of shopkeepers that one famous European allegedly described, we don’t want to be written off as a country of car park attendants.
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