1960s >> 1967 >> no-752-april-1967

The Review Column: Petrol Price War

Esso started the latest battle in the petrol price war because they were afraid of the competition they were meeting from the cut-price companies like Jet, Curfew and Heron.

At the moment these firms have about ten per cent of the British market; they are growing fast and one forecast sees them holding almost thirty per cent by 1970.

It was clearly time for quick action; Esso took it after a detailed review of the market Their decision was a close secret; a BP Shell executive confessed that the first his firm heard of it was when they read their newspapers.

The all round price reduction which has followed was inevitable. Esso’s big rivals could not be left out and the cut price firms were bound to try to keep their advantage

It was also inevitable that this should be greeted as an example of the benefits of competition, as if the results of a commercial war are always lower prices and as if these give any permanent advantages to the working class.

In fact the petrol firms are the last examples which supporters of capitalism should give as proof of the benefits of competition

In terms of human effort and social welfare, is it efficient to have two stations opposite each other, both selling basically the same commodity but vying with each other in the colour and shape of their pumps, in the glamour of their forecourt attendants, in the colour and number of the stamps they give away, and in the sheer stupidity of their sales gimmicks?

What advantage did anyone, apart from Esso shareholders. get from the Tiger In Your Tank campaign? Does society progress a little each time a Regent station adorns a rear windscreen with those plastic bullet-holes?

In many ways, the oil industry shows how ingenious man can be. It also shows how capitalism restricts him, and how it wastes so much of what he achieves.

Wasted Wealth
Everyone knows what they did to the coffee in Brazil; someone even wrote a funny song about it.

We are all accustomed by now to hearing about all sorts of food being destroyed because it could not fetch what is called an “economic” price on the market.

In pursuit of the all-important economic price they have burnt coffee. They have ploughed in vegetables, tipped milk down pit shafts, stored wheat in unemployed ships.

This sort of waste is not confined to foodstuffs. Industry will often stockpile its products, or simply stop making them, if the market is not right.


The contortions which capitalism goes through to satisfy its economic priorities can seem amusing, especially when the pens of reporters or song writers get busy on them.


Last February, for example, the Italian police started burning 57 million postage stamps, some of them rare and valuable. Keen philatelists might beat their foreheads in frustration at this news, so engagingly reported as another example of Italian whimsy.


But the reason for the stamps being burnt was that the Italian government was afraid that to release them would have devastated the world philatelic market.


A more complicated example is the case of the Drinks Down the Sink. British European Airways have issued a stern reminder to their cabin staff that all partly finished bottles of drink served on their aircraft must be poured away at the end of each trip.


Not that there is anything wrong with the stuff. It is just that to bring back part-bottles breaks Customs regulations, which have been painstakingly built up over the years to stop something so sensible as the free movement of the world’s wealth.


Some day the working class will stop laughing at capitalism’s contortions and realise at whose expense the joke is being made.


Labour Pains
It is by no means impossible that Harold Wilson’s famous castigation of his critics in the Labour Party as “dogs” was another piece of Wilsonian tactics.


The phrase itself, carefully leaked, with all the accompanying comments about licenses, was bound to be seized on by news-thirsty journalists and to be worked to death in all its canine variations.


This gave Wilson the headlines again, for day after day as the M.P.s under his whip answered back in the same doggy simile.
But this is no time for clever speeches and articles. The Labour Party is facing another of its many crises and. as the recent by-elections have shown, its support is falling away. Said The Guardian of March 6:


  The high promise on which it was elected in 1964 and re-elected in 1966 is not being fulfilled.


This may cause some disappointment in the Labour Party, especially in its so-called Left Wing, and among less committed circles such as The Guardian, which have supported Labour for some years, in fact since the Macmillan government started going downhill.


Yet surprise is the last thing anyone should feel. We have had plenty of experience of Labour government and we should know by now that each time its “high promise” is unfulfilled. The only surprise is that anyone, anywhere, still believes in it.


It was this knowledge, and not prophetic insight, which caused the Socialist Standard of November 1964 to greet the new Labour government with these words:


  They say that they intend to give “strong” government and to carry out their full programme. They are confident now. Let them remember this when the time comes for apologies and excuses.


That time is now. This is not the first occasion Labour Party supporters have writhed in frustration. Now let them remember.