First, it was stagflation. Then there was a surge in energy prices. Today, news that oil companies are rationing deliveries of gasoline and diesel to garages echoed a growing 1970s Britain.
By past standards, the situation did not reach the crisis levels of 1973, when there was talk of motorists being forced to use gasoline ration coupons left in place during World War II. Nor is the government facing a strike by tanker drivers, as it did in early 1979 during the winter of discontent.
Most recently, Tony Blair threatened to call in the military in the face of the fuel protests of the fall of 2000 that led to panic buying and a virtual shutdown of the country. Things are not so bad yet, although the government will be aware of the risk that they may soon be.
In 1973, the problem was that the oil-producing countries imposed an embargo that limited the supply of crude. In 1979, it was industrial action. This time around, refineries are well supplied with fuel, but oil companies are running out of drivers to deliver it.
The latest business snapshot from the Office for National Statistics shows that the transportation and warehousing industry currently has only 80% of businesses in operation – the lowest of any sector of the economy. Some businesses went out of business during the pandemic, many others are temporarily closed due to understaffing.
Low wages are a key factor. Driving a heavy truck is hard work that pays relatively poorly. BP and other oil companies are now struggling to retain staff at a time when large supermarket chains are offering sign-up bonuses of £ 1,000 to new drivers.
The government says it makes it easier for new drivers to get their truck licenses, but that won’t help much in the short term. Ministers are under increasing pressure to ease visa restrictions for EU drivers, but this is not a quick fix as it would take months for new workers to arrive.
Like Jim Callaghan in 1979, Downing Street says there is no crisis and has advised motorists to continue as usual. Quietly, however, ministers will be working on contingency plans that would involve enlisting soldiers to deliver fuel. It wouldn’t be a good idea for Boris Johnson to host the Cop26 climate change conference in November with the country at a standstill.