Minimum alcohol pricing: I hate it!

Sharing a pint with Chris Heaton-Harris

When I saw Cameron’s latest wheeze to crack down on binge drinking — minimum alcohol pricing — I instinctively hated it.  I hate higher taxes.  I hate the Nanny State.  I hate social engineering.  Of course I know that I tend to be counter-consensual, so I am accustomed to being in a minority (except on Europe and climate, where it seems to me that I share the views of most sensible people).  So I was quite pleased and surprised when I saw that Wednesday’s Telegraph leader seemed to take much the same view as me, though expressed in more measured language than I can usually manage.

Oh, and I’d better declare an interest, before Leo Hickman at the Guardian flags it up in another shock/horror revelation.  For four very happy years, I was employed by the drinks company Diageo (then United Distillers).  I was Mr. Johnnie Walker in South Korea for several years — which was about as long as my liver could stand it.  But I currently have no financial interest in alcohol, except as a consumer.

My first concern is that we’re aping Alex Salmond, who’s introducing a similar measure in Scotland.  Not a great starting point for a Conservative Prime Minister.  Tail wags dog.

Secondly, this is (as I Tweeted earlier) a regressive tax on the poor.  Very likely the drinks that you and I buy are already ahead of the minimum price-per-unit (though I suppose we must expect a knock-on effect up the range, as marketers and retailers seek to maintain differentials).  But the people who’ll really suffer are (as so often) low-income pensioners.  They may not drink very much at all, but they like to have a bottle of supermarket gin or whisky in the cupboard.  Judging by the figures recently published in the press, the price of that bottle will practically double.  We’ve already driven up the pensioners’ cigarettes to eye-watering levels, and now we’re going to do the same with alcohol.  Have we forgotten that pensioners also vote?  This is a profoundly regressive tax proposal which will hit those who can least afford it.

And of course we’re doing a big favour to the smugglers, the black-market traders — and the cross-channel ferry operators.  Booze cruises will be more attractive than ever, and the anticipated increases in revenue may not materialise at all.

It often happens that well-meaning attempts to stop anti-social behaviour end up penalising the law-abiding, and largely miss their intended targets.  The classic example is speed cameras, which indiscriminately hit the average driver, whilst joy-riders and boy racers get away with it until they lose their licences — and then they carry on driving and speeding while unlicensed and uninsured.

This measure will penalise pensioners, but may do little to address our binge drinking culture.

So is there nothing we can do?  Not at all. For a start, we could re-visit Labour’s changes to the licensing laws.  These were designed to create a Continental, café-style drinking culture, but what they seem to have achieved is huge new costs for late-night policing, and vomit on the pavements.  We need tougher policing, especially of drinking in public places.  Above all we need to stop groups of feral youths (and sad old men) from drinking in shopping malls.  A little Zero-Tolerance is called for.  And we need to educate young people in a responsible approach to alcohol.

But I think the thing that worries me most about this initiative, on which Cameron, so the papers say, has placed his personal seal of approval, is this: it is so wretchedly patronising.  It plays straight to the negative stereotype of an old Etonian patrician, who knows better than the poor and the common folk, and is entitled to set standards for them and impose those standards through punitive pricing.  And it will be so easy for Labour to portray it as beating up on the poor.

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8 Responses to Minimum alcohol pricing: I hate it!

  1. Mike says:

    i am so glad you wrote this piece.
    I am one of your old age pensioners and I must admit that I like a bottle of beer every now and then. Why not?
    What concerns me more and more is the decline of the pub. Young women and men who drink at home and then in the street and then go down the town for a final binge are totally out of control by society (not the government). They can urinate in the street, vomit in the street and fight. Nobody seems to care much.
    In a pub, the landlord will tell you if you cannot hold your drink. Women loathe looking slutty in a pub. They despise drunken violent men in a pub.
    And landlords who run an unruly pub will soon get closed down.
    By persecuting pubs, we are asking for bad behaviour in the streets.
    And then there’s the smoking ban…….

  2. Givi says:

    One day left and giving it all you’ve got, how do you think you’ll be portrayed?!

    I jest. Things are so mixed up right now, DC will never win the next election, all I can hope is that on the first, member of the Conservative party or not, you’ll be able to support the new rising minority arty, which, with any luck might well carry on the tradition of being the tail that wags the dog in the inevitable next coalition that fed-up the British peoples will bestow upon us.

    Hopefully too, it’ll be as frustratingly unbreakable for the left as this one will be, although for very different reasons.

  3. Martin says:

    The only sensible way to curtail binge drinking in city centres (assuming that is actually the reason for this) is to bring back licencing hours. That system worked well, and without it it seems some people can’t drink responsibly. So Cameron will penalise ALL drinkers, even the responsible ones, rather than revert to the one measure that worked.
    And Roger, you forgot to mention illicit distillers, whose product can actually be poisonous! They will make a killing (pardon the pun).

  4. David C says:

    Absolutely agree Roger. Please put Mr Cameron straight on this one.
    BTW, I loved Guido’s piece on you today – I trust it’s true.

  5. Jon says:

    Will it really have that much impact upon the people you say it will? A higher price (not high) in the supermarkets, which often have used loss-leaders to attract people, will make the relative costs of the pub seem more like an attractive option.

    But I take your point about this being Nanny state, but why do most Conservative backers not criticise the plans to offer tax breaks for married couples? Why should someone who is single, or someone who is not married but in a stable and loving relationship pay more tax then someone who is married? It makes no sense, unless you are trying to socially engineer, and that does not sound very Libertarian.

    • Mike says:

      Sometimes I agree with social engineering by the State. I want, for instance, to discourage burglary and murder. I also want to encourage permanent families which I believe are the basis on which the state rests.
      As a Catholic, I don’t want to encourage things, though, which are not Catholic – euthanasia, divorce – and I want to see native children again – we seem to have sort of stopped having them unless, of course, we are from abroad.
      Even if you take a utilitarian point of view, surely you must agree that children are much better brought up in a permanent family? And, of course, if people will not swear in public to honour, obey and so on until death and all that, then, quite often they part at the first sign of trouble.
      What depresses me so much about the Jeremy Kyle Show is the total lack of understanding about stuff.
      “I was drunk”.
      “It’s her fault!”
      “I don’t know who the father is: it could be either of them.”
      Well worth watching to see the state of many mums and dads today.

      • Jon says:

        Tax though, as a monetary incentive, does not seem to fit with the promotion of values, in my view at least, and is still discriminating against those who are not married, and there may be some not lucky enough yet to have met someone to marry.
        Tax won’t change norms and culture easily. Marriage itself is not necessarily the answer, as many end in divorce, and there are many examples of people staying together because of stigma despite real difficulties between them, creating a negative environment for their children. Rather, it is people’s attitudes and patience towards finding, nurturing and supporting long-term relationships which needs to change perhaps.

        It’s a tricky issue and one that is sensitive on many-levels, and I don’t profess to have the answers, only some views!

      • Mike says:

        I have heard the arguments before – a lot. But I am afraid hard cases make bad law. For far too long we adults have been talking about our rights, our problems. Marriage is not two cats being tied together by their tails – there are the kittens to think about too.
        Discrimination is a word that fits lots of cases on both sides.
        Divorce is breaking a solemn promise and is wrong however you look at it. In no way is it an answer to this question.
        And then we have the argument from Jeremy Kyle – what of the poor?

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