It’s another frequently raised fact in comment threads and pub agreements. Everybody knows it’s true. If it wasn’t true, why would everybody know it and repeat it all the time? They can’t all be wrong.
You would think though that such a fact, with all of the resources of the tabloid media and interested industry lobbies behind it, would have some readily available evidence to support it. You would think that all these petrolhead websites would be falling over themselves to present the data showing off our great national
Here’s the data:
There are six EU countries with more expensive petrol right now; two others that match us. The rest clustering around. In Norway petrol is 20p per litre more expensive than here. In Spain it’s 20p per litre cheaper.
Obviously relative fuel prices between countries fluctuate according to international and national events, our various national tax schedules, and, where applicable, currency fluctuations. The order of countries on the list changes all the time. I’d quite like to assemble a timelapse of the graph for the past 20 years, to see whether there were any interesting trends — perhaps it was true for a while that the UK was paying a noticeable amount more? But there are a lot of other things I’d quite like to do more, so I’m not going to.
The best source I can find for the claim is a uSwitch “survey” from 2008: PDF. As you can see, uSwitch take researching their “surveys” even more seriously than I take researching blog posts. They put some keywords into Google, found various sources of data, and put them together in Excel. I recommend going to page 5 to follow their quite fabulous method for calculating the annual national spend on petrol. Apparently we don’t have the real data, so they had to make it up. Only they forgot the Peter Snow “just a bit of fun” disclaimers when they prepared the press release and accidentally got their made up facts printed in every newspaper.
The “survey” did show that Britain was paying more per litre than other European countries in 2008 (when the pound was noticeably stronger against the Euro). In many cases it was only by a hair’s breadth, and thus it was not a particularly interesting fact, but it was true nonetheless, according to the data given. So a press release was prepared and the newspapers mangled some impressive sounding numbers out of the data, which have become part of the collective wisdom of the British people. Interestingly, even though the “survey” itself pointed out that we do not pay the highest rate of tax, this didn’t prevent the Daily Mail declaring that it is so in their headline.
But enough of that. The basic conclusion is that, currently, the claim is not true. And when it was true, it probably wasn’t interestingly true. And the other conclusion is that, for such a common claim, there doesn’t seem to be any good quality well presented and well publicised data on this. I’d love to see such things as:
- Price-per-litre trends over time for these countries, with and without taking into account inflation and currency fluctuations.
- Amount and proportion of the price-per-litre that is tax, with trends over time.
- Total national spend (not made up numbers), with population, number of cars, etc, for comparison. (Because paying more for petrol is not the same as spending more on petrol, and the latter probably says far more interesting things.)
And probably more. But I looked in the obvious places and found nothing, and I will obviously not be compiling the datasets myself from each individual data point. Surely there must be databases for this sort of thing? I’m a science guy. This sort of basic data is what scientists have free and publicly accessible databases with powerful querying tools for. I’m used to having silly ideas and being able to instantly try them against the vast databases of already collected data. I want a database for this sort of thing. Is there one? If it exists, it’s well hidden. I know all of the data exists, it’s just not accessible and easy to use…