Wednesday, 11 January 2017

More lions please, and fewer weasels.

What is leadership?  Doing what is populist or setting out what you believe in and working to persuade your electorate to your point of view?  Weasels do the first, Lions do the second.

Donald Trump is definitely a weasel, despite his claim to have a big swinging dick (or perhaps, to use his own words, bigly swinging). I conclude this because he comes across as someone either with no convictions, other than that he is great, or alternatively as someone so incoherent that he cannot adequately explain what they are.  No wonder he says he loves stupid people (what an accolade for the people who voted for him).

Turning to British politics, leaders of both Conservative and Labour parties are in the weasel camp as they seem unable to articulate a position of their own but are running after whatever they think will attract the popular vote.  I admire the SNP, or at least Nicola Sturgeon, for her relative honesty in maintaining her position on independence although built on a post-North Sea oil chimera.  As for UKIP their premise would appear to be populist.

Of course if your position does not accord with the electorate, then the strong ask why and deal with it.  This may mean revising your position but can equally mean standing by your principles and seeking to persuade, through facts and argument and not with scares and half-truths that seem to be meat and grist to many politicians. The weak change direction and run with the pack, the strong stand their ground and fight their corner.   Of the major parties, only the Liberal Democrats are showing true grit and leadership by sticking to their strongly europhile position despite everything, although  those moderate labour politicians who have chosen to fight the tide of populism in the Labour Party deserve credit too.

For our democracy to survive, people of principle need to be heard.  It doesn't not matter if  we agree or disagree, providing the debate moves from sound-bites and scaremongering to  rational debate. It is unfortunate that voices of principle or rationality are usually drowned out in the clamour of populism, amplified by sensation-seeking media.  In the process, people are being divided into self-sustaining camps of ignorance and bigotry.  In this war we need not only politicians but also journalists and commentators to provide leadership; to be lions and not weasels.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

MPs aren't perfect, but try being them before you criticise

I was prompted to write by one of those annoying Facebook postings with a graphic inviting you to agree with a superficially appealing political or philosophical point that fails to provide any constructive solutions.  In this case

"Our parliament, once the envy of the world, now filled with the vile stench of corporate corruption and greed.  I that what you voted for?"

Now I am as cynical as the next modestly cynical person and I know that the motives of our parliamentarians vary considerably.  Some are undoubtedly attracted by status and power but the vast majority are there because they want to make a difference and do good.  What is most incredible to me is that they put up with so much to succeed; years of long, tedious and sometimes unpleasant meetings in cold church halls, interminable debates with party die-hard constituency members who have not changed their narrow-minded ideas in decades, drinking cheap wine and dining out on another plate of curling cheese sandwiches and Iceland budget party sausage rolls.   And this is just to get elected.  Then they do the same thing over and over again to keep their seats, spending the rest of their lives in draughty committee rooms, cramped shared offices or fighting for a seat in the chamber to ask a question in the debate on obscure legislation that you or I would not understand even if we could be bothered to read it, though will complain bitterly about when it impacts on our lives.  Oh, and I forgot to mention the surgeries where they meet and help some people in genuine need, but also put up with abuse from the disgruntled, and canvassing door-to-door on a cold rainy evening only to be insulted by unwashed and foul-mouthed constituents (I am not saying all the electorate is like this but the few there are, like scum on the broth, tend to rise to the surface).  Occasionally they go home to their families, if they are still there.

Yes, some MPs have shown themselves bribable, some seek highly remunerated positions trading on their status and supposed influence, some get caught with their trousers down (usually trousers, though there have been cases of female infidelity, so that should be skirts or trouser).  But is Parliament really filled with any more corruption and greed a) than it ever was before, b) than any other part of our society where people hold power, c) than politics anywhere else in the world?  If it is, provide the evidence before pouring scorn on our elected representatives.  Otherwise  perhaps better not to point the finger.

Or do we just shine a light on it more, with the help of a venal press who are no less corrupt and primarily interested in selling newspapers and, in many cases, spewing out bile and salacious news to pander to their readers' existing prejudices rather than to inform and supply a public service?

Get real.  If you don't like our politicians, try doing the job yourself and see that the electorate has its own shortcomings; they are no more paragons of virtue than MPs.  The difference is that we seem to  take every opportunity to reflect our own shortcomings on those who do step forward to do this difficult job and criticise them for it.  If you have a biblical turn of mind, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  Let him, or her, be the first to click "like" on the Facebook page anyway.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Why the Bible and the Koran are not Manuals for today

How can anyone point to the Koran or the Bible and say these documents are the bedrock of a peaceful and humane religion?  (This may apply equally to other holy scriptures but I am less familiar with them, so let's stick to these two).  They are full of blood-curdling violence and attitudes that would be completely unacceptable if they were promoted today.   But their violence and anachronistic attitudes are not at all surprising; they were written by people who were ignorant about the world around them, when science as we know it today did not exist, when human life was cheap and hung by a thread, threatened by hunger, natural disaster and disease, where people attacked and murdered each other over food and water as well as the gods they worshipped.  Even the concept of written knowledge was pretty much unknown, other than amongst a few educated elite (and they did not include The Prophet Muhammed, apparently).

So when Saint Paul espouses slavery, or The Prophet wields his bloody sword, or women are treated as chattels, we should not get too hung up about it.  That was then, and this is now.  What the authors of these sacred texts thought 1300 or 2000 years ago is irrelevant to our lives today.  Sure, they have contributed to the intellectual development of the human race, and are interesting from an historical perspective, but as a species we moved on.  We have learned to order our societies better, to control our environment so that life became safer and in doing so we have created time and space to become more tolerant of each other and show empathy for other human beings.  We replaced ignorance and superstition with science and intellect.

To rely on The Bible or the Koran to inform your behaviour is to say that you believe the world in which they were created is a better place than the one you live in today.  Some people may think so; the real fundamentalists.  I think there are even people who believe the world is flat.  But I don't see them rushing to live without clean running water, modern medicine, the written word, (almost) universal literacy, electronic communications or even ready meals.   They do not yearn to live in a time when you existed every day with simple fear that your life might be extinguished tomorrow by a wild animal, a microbe the tribe down the valley or some incomprehensible natural disaster.  

I am not saying you should not live without belief though.  You can believe in the inherent good nature of (most of) humanity; that we know what ethical behaviour is, without recourse to "the good book", and (most people) usually display it. You can believe that an enquiring mind is always better than a closed one.  Of course some people have thoughts that are dangerous to the people around them, or to sections of society, or to humanity as a whole.  To those we show a healthy scepticism.  But approach other ideas with an enquiring and scientific mind and the ascent of mankind will continue unabated, albeit with some hiccups on the way, even further from the distant and irrelevant world to which the Bible and Koran relate.

Some believers will counter by saying that there are lots of good bits in the Bible that they find help them to feel their way in the world.  Some say that the Koran guides them to a pacific way of life.  But if you seriously believe these books have some authority beyond anything else in your local bookshop, then you cannot pick and choose.  You cannot deny the violence, inhumanity, the unacceptable side of them and you cannot rationally argue with anyone who chooses to use that unacceptable side as the basis of their own personal beliefs.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

We will have to accept a coalition with Assad's Syria

When are we going to get off the fence about Syria?  Nigel BiggR writes today (10th October) in The Times that military action is required on the ground, and if necessary The UK should participate even if "illegal", which in this case means without UN approval.  It won't be the first time that The UK would embark on foreign military intervention without UN endorsement, but what is the basis for doing so?  Surely the primary reason would be national self interest, though one might make an argument for humanitarian reasons (to enable refugees to go home or to defeat a palpably evil ISIL regime).

Why do we balk at the idea of supporting the repugnant Assad regime?  There are many inhumane and murderous dictatorships that the west has supported over the years because it has been in one country or another's national interest, or simply to keep them from the Soviet (now Russian) sphere of influence.  Legitimacy has never in our eyes been based on a democratic outcome or moral standing.  We are more than happy to endorse the Saudi Arabian regime, which has judicially beheaded more people than ISIL, jails opponents and oppresses its female subjects.  The only criterion should be a) what will get the right result in the end, and b) what are our national interests?

Iraq, Afghanistan and Lybia, to name a few recent interventions, surely show that we cannot succeed without a sufficiently strong and, preferably, legitimate partner on the ground who can from an effective government when military activity ceases.  Who would that be in Syria?  Are there any amongst the 30 (or is it 60?) opposition groups who can do this?  Only Assad and Al-Baghdadi of ISIL surely are anywhere near strong enough.  Of the two, and with Russia now supporting Assad, is there really any alternative at least in the short term?  Can we not use our influence, such as it is, to persuade the opposition to save their powder for another day?  Given the number of people that have dies so far this may be a far fetched idea, unless something valuable is offered in return.

If Russia expects the West to support Assad then we need something in return.  It should agree to creating a safe space for refugees in the north, protected by NATO.  This would defer resolution of internal Syrian political problems until Assad is firmly in control again of the majority of Syrian territory.  In the meantime the focus can be on eliminating the scourge of Da'esh/ISIL, which is to only murdering Muslims in the Middle East but will, if left to its own devices become a threat to Western Europe as well.

Join the coalition bombing Syria by all means, but that is not the solution to Da’ish

By the time this article is posted, the Parliamentary debate will be nearly over and Britain is likely to moving to join its allies in bombing Da’ish in Syria (Da'ish, Da'esh, ISIL, ISIS, lets not quibble, they are murderous religious zealots. I call them Da'ish after taking advice from someone who claims to know)  The Twitter storm on this topic does not seem to have added much to the arguments on either side; most commentators are dug in on one side or the other as are using increasingly inflamed language.  My reason for writing this blog is not to hope to change anyone else’s mind, though I would hope that some might agree with my position, but to try to articulate my own views by setting them down in writing.

Rod Liddle in the Sunday times is usually good for a laugh and occasionally makes serious points.  Last Sunday he gave some pretty good, if presented tongue-in-cheek, reasons for not bombing Syria.  Here are his reasons:
- whenever we take military action in the Middle East we make things worse.
- our allies, the Free Syrian Army – does not exist as a viable military force
- our other allies out there are no better than ISIS
- ISIS is not a threat to Britain, but radical Islam is
- if we shoot down any Russian jets, this will escalate the war in directions we don’t want.
- it is a knee-jerk action, and not properly thought through.
- lots of innocent people will be killed.
He raises some pretty good points.  But as a satirist, unlike the government, he is not required to go on and provide any practical proposals on what to do. Still food for thought.

Principles will get you nowhere
 There are only two positions of principle:
1.   Pacifism – do not fight wars on the grounds that people (including innocent people) will be killed.
2.   Dogmatists (whether based on religion or politics) – both in favour and against war to achieve some “ideal” end. 
I say positions of principle, though of course in each case there will be ample arguments that can be put in contradiction to individual issues, but the point is that these people are not swayed by logic or by evidence and are, generally, irrationally held views and not open to debate.  Not that that stops them putting their own point of view in the strongest possible terms.  They can be distinguished from the vast majority of opinions in social media that are simply gut reactions, uninformed but nevertheless honest for that.

What is the ultimate aim?
The decision about what to do in Syria, or indeed in any other war, will most likely not be made as a matter of principle, but a matter of calculation of how best to achieve a desired end.  The first key question is is “WHAT IS THE DESIRED END”?  In this case I believe the ultimate aim should be to eliminate the threat that Da’ish pose to the United Kingdom and its allies.  Removing the threat to innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq, and indeed freeing them from the tyranny of Da’ish, is of course also a great objective, but unfortunately this can only be a happy subsidiary outcome; we cannot, neither should we, intervene to address any conflict, war and inhumanity everywhere in the world, even if Tim Farron was moved by meeting Syrian refugees to support the Government’s motion.          
The next question is how is this ultimate aim going to be achieved?  Given the nature of Da’ish, diplomatic and political activity will not be sufficient in itself. Unfortunately military action is the only way that a regime based on force and terrorising people on the ground, can be defeated.  The only position of principle that pacifists can take is that they “would rather die than be responsible for the death of someone else”, that they will not cause harm to others, even if that results in others having harm done to them.  This is surely where the pacifist view fails. 

What about Saudi Arabia’s RoleSaudi Arabia has been criticised both for not doing enough to counter Da’ish and indeed for allowing (private) funding of the terrorist quasi-state. On the first point, Saudi Arabia did participate in the bombing campaign in early days, but seems to have pulled back and is now leaving this work to its western “allies”(Washington Post 25.11.2015).   It seems that, having made a token effort for political reasons, it does not have the appetite to continue the fight.  On the second point, ("Saudi Funding of ISIS", Lori Boghardt, 23rd June 2014) – an article also quoted in the Washington Post article, it is clear that the Saudi Government does not directly fund Da’ish,but there is strong evidence that hundreds of millions of dollars of support comes from private sources in the Kingdom, usually routed via other countries such as Kuwait (which is not an anti-Da’ish coalition member, see below).  Given the corrupt plutocracy that runs Saudi Arabia, it seems inconceivable to me that those funds are not coming directly or otherwise from people connected with either the Government or the Saudi Royal Family.  In any event such large flows of funds cannot be too difficult to trace. 

And Kuwait?Kuwait declared war on Da’ish following the attack an a Shia mosque in June this year and has announced the purchase of billions of dollars of arms from France.  It had previously suffered a number of missile attacks following the beginning of the civil war against President Assad.    However at this time I have found no evidence that they are playing a material role in the current operations.  Unlike Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia It is “pro coalition” but not a coalition member.

But ariel bombardment is proving beneficial today; it is containing Da’ish, supporting some military successes by rebel troops by removing suicide-attacks, tanks, artillery etc., and degrading the economic power of Da’ish, through disruption of the oil-smuggling operation (though not as much as we might thing.  See Raqqa News, 30th November 2015.  And while on this point, why are Turkey and Syria still buying oil and gas from Da’ish?).  Thousands of attacks have been undertaken by the USA, France, Qatar and other coalition air-forces.  The government (and others) have also said that the UK has unique competencies that mean the RAF will make a real contribution.  Nevertheless our 8 Tornados do seem a drop in the ocean compared what is there already.   So in reality, notwithstanding that we can make a (very) small difference, is it not really just a case that, as part of the coalition, we need to be acting alongside our allies?  If the Paris bombs had been in London, how would we react to a French or US vote not to support our response?

The value of military intervention
A massive military intervention such as the invasion of Iraq could be successful in removing Da’ish, but without an effective political follow-up, as we saw in Iraq, it will not eliminate this multi-headed hydra.  It will merely reappear in elsewhere in another form.  Furthermore I doubt that any of the players locally would be supportive of such an action by western powers.  And given the Iran/Saudi Arabia politico/religious divide, it is doubtful that a regional coalition could be formed that could achieve the same end.  The only options available would therefore seem to be to work through established local armies, perhaps with material and practical support from those aforementioned regional powers. 

Whether there are 70,000 soldiers available on the ground, as the Prime Minister says, I doubt.  Ignore those fighting the Syrian government in the western provinces and the north; they won’t want to fight in the eastern provinces.  Ignore too those only interested in the material support they gain from being positive towards the coalition; given half a chance many will revert to their sectarian nature and may even join with the fundamentalist Al-Queda factions to continue fighting against the forces of moderation (Spectator, 27th November 2015)  In reality we might be dealing with 10-15,000 Sunni that the opponents of bombing (@YasminQureshiMP in the chamber today) suggest, plus the Kurds who are not considered favourably in Sunni and Shia areas after some pretty appalling war crimes of their own.  These would be insufficient, even with a groundswell of local support, to take and to hold significant swathes of Da’ish territory, let alone the Raqqa and other cities.

Join the coalition bombing Syria, but other actions are more important
So yes I am in favour of the UK taking a full part in the coalition action in Syria.  But to be clear, air attacks alone are not going to achieve our objectives.  Ground troops are needed as well, but not ours.  And neither will military action on the ground ever be enough to eliminate the threat of Da’ish.  Political and diplomatic actions is also required to deliver a coalition in Syria that includes both Assad (supported by Russia) as well as any opposition that is prepared to participate in an inclusive political process.  Inclusion of Assad is difficult for western coalition partners to swallow, though we have supported many intolerable regimes around the world to achieve our foreign policy objectives.  More difficult is to get most, or any, of the 70+ opposition forces to sit with Assad.  At least some of them however will surely come round because they know that ultimately they will not defeat Assed now that Russia has joined him, and they are also more likely now that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are working together on a political settlement.

Military action and Middle-eastern political  solutions are not the only requirement.  It is necessary to be “tough on terrorism and touch of the causes of terrorism” (to slightly misquote a former Prime Minister).  Those causes fall into three categories:
1.  Enforced poverty and disenfranchisement of failed and absolutist politics throughout the region.  We must speak up and challenge our so-called allies in the region who deny their own populations freedom of politics and thought and discriminate against minorities and women.  Why do we not stand up to Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Bahrain (to name just a few) to get away with it?
2.   Tackling racial and religious discrimination against  minorities in western societies.  Quite apart from the injustice in its own right, continuation will inevitably lead to a (small) number of people moving towards an extremist position?  
3.  Tackling discrimination, ignorance and intolerance within minority communities.  As well as external factors helping individuals move towards extremism, there is enough authoritarianism and intolerance of diversity amongst many minority ethnic communities in the UK to alienate young people.

Taking action on item 1 requires principled political and diplomatic stands abroad, even if others may choose to benefit by taking a different line.  Taking action on items 2 and 3 is more difficult.  Government can legislate and the courts and police can take action, but real change starts with education of children and influencing people throughout their lives; it takes a generation or more.  But we should not shy away from this; the levels of gender and racial discrimination, though still existing today, is immensely less than in my childhood when racist thoughts and language were used on a daily basis in public and private as quite “normal”.  Notwithstanding that he was then a figure of fun, it is inconceivable now that the character of Alf Garnett would be allowed on TV at all, let alone before the watershed.

To tackle item 3 there also needs to be another change and one that is probably most difficult for liberal white middle-class males like me.  Liberal values, in part that have lead to the inclusiveness in much of British society that is the corollary of addressing discrimination.  It has also resulted in a level of “moral relativism” that has allowed the continuation of practices in some minority communities that are either illegal or morally unacceptable to the majority of British citizens.  By majority I am not saying to “white” or “christian”, but inevitably the core of what is termed “British” values do stem from our political and social past so it is idle to claim that they have not been a major influence.  What we should no longer tolerate is “cultural” behaviour which conflicts with the broad values of Britain today in the 21st century. 

As individuals we need to speak up about forced marriage, FGM, gender discrimination.  We should challenge extreme and illiberal practices wherever we see them including religious practices and intolerance, voodoo cults, violent and invasive exorcism that are imposed on non-consenting adults. Let us be clear that  just as religious people should be able in most cases to excuse themselves from doing something that is against their “faith”, so religion or culture should not be an acceptable excuse for imposing personal preferences on others.  If the majority are cowed by accusations of “racism” and “discrimination” from speaking up then how much more difficult will it be for those in the minority communities who feel trapped, from speaking their minds?  Rather straying off the topic of bombing Syria, but it just goes to show how complicated the whole issue is!

Tim O’Brien

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Cultural Norms are not an excuse for acting inhumanely, or illegally

Jenny McCartney in the Sunday Times commented on Mrs Justice Pauffley’s ruling that appears to allow children to be hit by parents, on “cultural grounds”.  The father concerned was also alleged to have beaten his wife horribly.  The mitigation, I believe it only applied in relation to beating his child, appears to be that “recently arrived immigrants” may had different cultural norms and that it takes time for them to adjust.  In this case I don’t believe the gentleman concerned had recently arrived on our shores, but even if he had, it made me wonder how long exactly after arriving in the UK was a person allowed in order to become familiar with, and to adjust to, our cultural norms?  And which aspects of British culture are immigrants expected to adopt (presumably not all since we are supposed to olive in a multi-cultural society)?

As a minimum surely people should abide by the law.  If the laws of this country mean beating your wife or your child is a crime, then so be it.  It matters not a jot that the perpetrator has just stepped off a plane from  half way round the world, because if you want to come and live in this country then you should accept the rule of our laws.  It is often said that ignorance of the law is no excuse, so why should it be any different for a new arrival  (though I suppose there could be mitigation of the punishment, and that is part of our justice system anyway).   Of course we also ought to enforce these laws, which is another issue.

We should also avoid calling our cultural "errors" for fear of being branded racist.  Trevor Philips in the Daily Mail, argued that making excuses for immigrants is not liberal, but racist; that liberals are afraid to challenge unacceptable behaviour by members of ethnic minorities for fear of being called racist, and that this is itself racist.  I applaud the the underlying tenet of the article, but this is nonsensical.  Racism means treating a person or persons unreasonably or unfairly purely on the basis of their race, or ethnicity. It is too much of a stretch to say that includes letting them get away with things that other members of society cannot.   The term  racist is used quite often enough by members of minority ethnic groups as an accusation against anyone and everyone who challenges cultural practices and even accuses them of wrongdoing (breaking the law).  This is enough abuse of the term without Mr Phillips piling on more.   I agree that there is something wrong if people look the other way, for fear of being accused of racism, but that is not itself racist.  For if fear of being called racist is racism in itself we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Take what in British culture we would regard as misogynistic behaviour for example.  Should we accept involuntary arranged marriages, women walking a respectful few feet behind their husbands, or religious texts that are use to justify restricting women’s participation in civil society (this is not anti- any particular religion by the way; it applies just as much to more conservative forms of all world religions).  I think the libertarian view is that if women choose of their own free will, and with all the information they need at their disposal,to follow a way of life that is different from our British cultural norms they should be allowed to do so. But is it really a free choice if the behaviour is a cultural norm?  Not many people voluntarily cut themselves off from family and community; it is so much easier just to “fit in”.  

Female modesty is interpreted differently by different cultures, although of course the rules in most cases were not set by women.   But while in most of Western Europe we are relaxed enough to allow people to dress the way they like (but not to take off all your clothes in public places, with the exception of a few parks in Germany, whether in a religiously sensitive location or not, idiotic western tourists to Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu please note), I think many people (OK, “UK or Irish  white” as one might tick on an ethnicity questionnaire) are still uncomfortable about dealing with someone who, say, covers their face in social or commercial situations (Lets be clear, wearing niqab or Burka is not a religious obligation, it is a cultural choice, or the majority of Muslim women in the world would be haram).

So should we allow people to cover their faces in public?  It is not illegal (except in France) so the answer must be yes, but only a qualified yes.  In our culture we generally think that if a person covers their face, it is to disguise their feelings, intent or identity.  Bandits cover their faces and bank clerks don’t have to deal with people in motorcycle helmets, while on a more personal level, facial expressions are part of the way we communicate.  So I don’t see why a judge should have to deal with a witness who covers her face, or why I should have to seek help from a local council official wearing a face mask.  But If I were to complain there would sure as eggs are eggs be a chorus accusing me of “racism” or perhaps “islamophobia”.

Of course the law also allows for free speech, but increasingly cultural, and religious (because as far as I am concerned this is also cultural) are considered areas where we should be sensitive to other people’s points of view.  We should be free to object to someone else’s culture or religion, and also to find someone else’s comments offensive, but not to take the law into our own hands or act belligerently or threateningly in response.  And anyway in the UK there are there are cultural norms like respect for others which surely go beyond the law. 

Is this not the most important aspect of our culture; if we can discuss our differences openly, without risk and, if you don’t think this is too old fashioned, with politeness and good manners, then there is no need to accuse or be accused of racism or cultural insensitivity.  And if you are so sensitive as to object to challenge or criticism  of your cultural or religious norms, then perhaps you should keep them private and not express your views in public space.  Unless they are illegal, like thrashing children or your spouse, in which case you should desist altogether.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Petrol is not expensive, get used to it (or why petrol prices do not gyrate with the price of Brent Crude)

The price of petrol is one topic guaranteed to get many people hot under the collar.  “why is petrol so expensive?” and more particularly, “why don’t oil companies pass on the benefit when global oil prices go down?" are two of the most frequently seen questions on the web.  The suppliers themselves frequently state that petrol prices are influenced by a lot of factors, but decline to go further because such information is very sensitive commercially, and publishing data may even get companies into trouble with competition authorities. 

On the other hand industry bodies could provide some insight without jeopardising individual producer’s confidentiality - and this may be out there, but I could not find it today.  I am also sure that the press has carried models in the past but I could not find them either just now, so lets have a go at building one. Any suggestions for refinements would be appreciated.

Lets start with a pump price of 107pence per litre of unleaded (Daily Mail, Friday 13th March, 2015).  Diesel and high octane are more expensive but the differentials are not based on crude price, so I have ignored them)

Tax (VAT at 20% and fuel duty) account for 76 pence (again according to the Daily Mail), leaving 31p (28%) for everything else.

Crude Oil, at $60 per barrel, assuming today’s exchange rate of $1.4 = £1, is approximately 25p per litre (ignoring temperature and pressure adjustments, but this is good enough for our purposes).  The recent strengthening of Sterling v the USD makes the raw material relatively cheaper.  At $1.3=£1, the cost is 28p.

We are left with 6p for everything else; refining, distribution, marketing, selling, admin, R&D, and of course profit.

Manufacture (refining) – I can find US refining costs for 2006-8 at around 4-8p/litre (30-60cents per gallon).  The actual price varies considerably with the  size and age of the refinery, the kind of crude used and the mix of products (usually varied to maximise the return to the refinery).  However lets use these figures and assume that efficiency increases in the last 6-8 years offset the impact of cost inflation.

This gives us plus 2p to minus 4p for everything else. I have to assume this includes all additives in the fuel.

We know petrol stations keep around 1-1.5p per litre for their own costs and profit on a good day and this is unrelated to oil price as that is “netted back” to the supplier.  So depending on distribution, marketing costs the margin available to the oil company is between 1p and a significant loss. Not sure how this would be calculated but Shell’s 2014 SEC filing shows Selling, Distribution, Administration and R&D as around 4% of Downstream turnover.  Half of this of course relates to upstream, so for the sake of argument say 2% relates to Downstream (that part of the business which makes and sells fuels), which would be 2p at today’s prices, suggesting that Shell, assuming it is one of the more efficient producers, is just about breaking even on UK pump sales.
Smaller distributors will have lower overhead than the likes of Shell, BP or Exxon; no R&D and probably fewer admin costs (no investor relations, qualms about ethical compliance, no R&D etc..), and they can supply products to the supermarkets more cheaply (fewer additives, so not necessarily as good to your engine).  The Supermarkets of course have negligible forecourt costs and are known to cross-subsides from their groceries.

Finally, gasoline is actually traded on spot and forward markets in Europe, so it is possible independents to scoop up cargoes at sharp prices and sell them on quickly to make a buck if prices are “maintained” at a high level.  And while the volumes are probably not high enough to have a significant impact on retail prices generally especially as securing supply is critical to manufacturers and major retailers so they are likely to be buying far ahead, this will affect public expectations when they see independents or supermarkets selling at lower prices than the major just down the road.

No wonder many oil companies have been exiting retail markets over the last 10-20 years, and closing refineries across Europe as well (building fewer, bigger, newer ones reduces unit costs).  What is all the more amazing is that they are still out there selling petrol at all.  This is of course a political issue as their reputation and brand depend on public perception and would soon disappear if they stopped selling fuel in the key home markets.  They also want to keep in with governments so that they can continue to operate in the upstream (exploration and production) where most of their profits come from. 

With economics like this is it surprising that pump prices do not reflect the gyrations of Brent Crude? Better analysis than mine will undoubtedly come up with more reliable figures but the popular press should really stop trying it on with overhyped headlines and under-researched articles.  Instead they could try to educate the public (as with so many political issues).  But that is probably too much to ask (not a comment on the Daily Mail by the way, I just happened to search and find their article today).

1.  Daily Mail Friday March 13th.  “Petrol Prices Back on the Up”