LONDON — In a government communications center in the heart of London, alarmed civil servants last week watched computer screens flash e-mail messages telling them that Britain was in the grip of a new and disturbing crisis.
At a dozen oil refineries and some 50 gasoline distribution centers around the country, bands of disgruntled farmers and truckers wielding mobile phones urged tanker drivers to block deliveries to Britain's 12,500 gas stations. Almost to a man, the drivers agreed.
In a world communicating more with cellphones, the call to picket not only had a striking ring, it exacerbated a crisis where temporary workers with no contractual obligations, and gas stations with limited reserves, brought Britain's wheels to a virtual standstill. In the process, the Blair government was badly tarnished in public opinion polls.
Over the weekend, oil companies were trying to restock gas stations as quickly as possible, but industry spokesmen say, in some areas, it will be two weeks before motorists can be certain of filling their tanks. The result, says Will Hutton, director-general of Britain's Industrial Society, a nonprofit campaigning body based in London that supports British industry. was "a very 21st-century crisis made possible by information technology."
Before the farmers and truckers called off their action last Friday, they had shown that a mere 2,000 protesters equipped with cellphones and a few laptops could drain a nation's gas stations virtually dry and threaten food supplies.
Their protest of spiralling fuel prices, most of it in the form of taxes, rocked Prime Minister Tony Blair's government to its foundations. This week, it is sparking an urgent review of energy security. By Christmas, the government says, tough new civil order laws will be on the statute book to prevent such a crisis from ever happening again.
More immediately, Mr. Blair faces the chastening fact that adverse public reaction to his handling of the seven-day fuel crisis means the opposition Conservative Party has overtaken his government in opinion polls for the first time in eight years.
On Sunday, a poll conducted by MORI, an independent research agency, showed the Conservatives two points ahead of Blair's Labour Party. Another poll in London's Sunday Times put them neck-and-neck. Mr. Hutton believes Britain escaped total breakdown "by a whisker." He says journalists, like ministers, failed to see the crisis coming, and couldn't believe the speed with which it escalated.
Explaining the "newness" of the crisis, Hutton says, "Old organizational forms have been succeeded by a new conception, the network." He adds, "Using mobile phones, people with no experience of protest were able to coalesce around common aims while never actually meeting."
Meanwhile, the protesters are sticking to Friday's ultimatum giving the Blair government 60 days to bring down fuel prices - at more than $5 a gallon the highest in Europe. Otherwise, says Brynle Williams, a top protest organizer, a renewed crisis "seems inevitable." Mr. Williams says he is not part of a national campaigning organization, but "a network of like-minded people."
This is not the first time electronic technology has been used in Britain to fuel dissent, but it is far and away the worst. Last year, a group of "anticapitalist" agitators equipped with laptops staged a violent protest in London's financial district. But the nationwide scale and devastating effect of last week's demonstration caught authorities off guard.
"This was something extremely novel, and extremely alarming," says a senior Scotland Yard police officer, who asked not to be named. "Nobody anticipated that the actions of a small group of people with a single grievance could impact so heavily upon a country of 55 million."
Prime Minister Blair has blamed the oil companies for failing to force drivers to cross picket lines and deliver gas to service stations. The companies retort that to have done so would have been dangerous.
In recent years, two developments have made fuel distribution vulnerable to disruption. Many tanker drivers are free-lancers without contractual obligations. This meant the oil companies last week had no legal levers to apply. Also, rather than allow stations to carry large "dead" stocks of gasoline, companies now operate a system of "just-in-time" deliveries. This meant that when widespread panic buying at the pumps started, service stations, with only small reserves, quickly ran completely dry.
Blair says he will not give in to the protesters. But Conservative leader William Hague, delighted that opinion polls have at last swung in his favor, claims Blair badly mishandled the crisis. He has called the fuel protesters "fine upstanding citizens" who "must be heard."
Hutton says the way in which the fuel crisis developed carries an ominous warning for future governments wishing to maintain a firm grip on national affairs.
"In an information age," he says, "the electorate is better educated, more articulate, and more insistent on having its voice heard than ever before. Trust in old forms of governance is declining.
"This crisis was different from anything in the past. It was brought about by protesters whose coordinating center was constantly changing and was linked by mobile phones, CB radios, in-cab fax machines, and laptops," he adds. "The government has been made to look a fool and knave."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society