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.