At the CAMRA national AGM in Cardiff in 2008, I went to a discussion group about the neo-prohibitionists. Who? The people who, flushed by their success in getting the smoking ban through, then decided to turn their attention to alcohol. They wish to contain and restrict the sale of alcohol so that consumption is brought down to a level they approve of, which in some cases is nil. Why do they wish to do this? They give several reasons:
- Our health.
- Cost to the NHS of treating alcohol-related disorders.
- Public disorder.
- Cost of policing.
- Effect on the economy of sick days lost to drinking.
- Cost of benefits paid to alcoholics not well enough to work.
Tax: British beer tax accounts for 40% of the entire European beer tax bill, even though the UK accounts for only 13% of EU beer consumption (EU figures). Our beer is taxed on an escalator whereby the tax increases at more than inflation, which is a particular burden when most people are getting below inflation pay rises, pay freezes or even cuts. Plus all those who are losing their jobs.
Minimum pricing: Scotland is trying to bring in a minimum price per unit, and the Coalition is looking at something similar. There may be problems with EU law, but they are looking for ways around that.
The trouble with both tax and minimum pricing as methods of control is that they are in effect a poll tax, whereby everyone pays the same no matter what income you have. On other words, the poorer you are, the harder these measures will hit. Conversely, they will make little difference to the pleasures of the rich. There seems no logic to me in bringing measures that have less effect on you the more money you have. Our Cabinet consists mostly of millionaires whose pleasures - and whose children’s pleasures - will not be restricted by the price rationing that they are imposing upon everyone else. But the double standards don’t end there. Several prominent politicians, including the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London, belonged to the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. This is a dining club in which members not only go out for meals, but they also get very drunk and smash up the restaurant. The damage is always covered by daddy’s cheque book, but even so, they often have to make their bookings under an assumed name, as many restaurants don’t welcome the ensuing mayhem. The message that sends to me is that rich hooliganism is fine, but if your parents don't have a big cheque book, we'll come down on you like a ton of bricks. The Bullingdon Club is merely the best known - not the only - example of such wealthy misbehaviour, but in my book, no hooliganism is acceptable.
Fines: mostly imposed on licensees for breaches of law relating under-age drinking. Under age drinkers used to go into a pub and behave themselves because they knew that if they didn’t, they’d draw attention to themselves and get thrown out. So now they get cheap supermarket booze and drink at each other’s homes or in the park, and it’s not ordinary beer: it’s strong cider, lager or cheap vodka. And in an unsupervised environment, they don’t learn how to behave when drinking. The consequence is that binge drinking develops at an early age without social controls, resulting in bad behaviour. So the rigid enforcement of a law to prevent under age drinking has probably had quite the opposite effect.
Contrary to the propaganda, alcohol consumption in the UK has been in slow decline for a long time. By concentrating on price, tax and fines to deal with the problems that undoubtedly do exist, the government has gone for the cheap, easy option. Education about alcohol would be more effective, but would cost a lot more money.
As for disorder, we all know that there are problems with people falling out of pubs, throwing up in the streets, creating noise and getting into fights. Or do we? I’m a regular pub goer, but it’s so long since I’ve seen bad behaviour that I can’t remember when the last time was. In Southport at weekends, the number of people drinking in pubs, social clubs, night clubs, bars, restaurants and hotels will be in the thousands at least, if not more. Nearly all of these people behave themselves, and the troublemakers are a tiny percentage. I don’t dismiss the impact they have, but the measures the government favours punishes the many for the bad behaviour of the few, while at the same time leaving wealthier people largely untouched. This is inherently unfair, and it is having a bad impact upon pubs now: pubs are closing down every week as more and more people find they cannot afford the prices and as a result either cut back or stop going altogether.
What about the real alcoholics? Will price rationing deter them? I’ve known a few over the years and, in the worse stages, they ignore everything in their lives except drink. They don’t eat properly, don’t pay their bills, and don’t replace their clothes, which can end up in tatters: most of their money goes on drink. If the price goes up, they will simply cut back even further on everything else. Price rationing will not do anything except make their situation even worse.
You may have noticed the recent heightening of the government's rhetoric and the intense media attention on Britain's "problem drinking culture". This is simply to smooth the way for their only solution: further rises in the next budget in March. MPs love to say they support the pub, but most of them won't challenge the government's tax policies that are closing pubs week after week. They won't risk the accusation of being soft on crime and disorder, so despite the damage that they know tax rises are doing to the pub industry, they'll still nod them through and perpetuate a failing policy. Government policy on alcohol misuse is a mess that will resolve nothing. Stern ministerial words may win rounds of applause at conferences and on BBC Question Time, but won’t amount to much, except to deprive the majority of ordinary, well-behaved drinkers of a simple, sociable pleasure.