Decent drinkers vs demon drinkers

The campaign to ramp up the price of booze is an unspoken class war by wine-quaffers against cider-consumers.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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With news that the Scottish parliament finally looks set to introduce a minimum price for alcohol, it seems that the British political class’s war on booze is picking up pace.

Of course, it’s not actually an attack on alcohol itself. After all, I’m sure many politicians, health advisers and policy experts enjoy a hefty Sauvignon Blanc sesh themselves. No, the real problem is the people who are doing the boozing; this is less a case of ‘demon drink’ than ‘demon drinkers’. The message of the booze-pricing debate is that, yes, people like us can drink appropriately and responsibly – it is them who cannot; the people who buy cheaper booze, the polo-shirted, short-skirted denizens of Booze Britain.

Not that such masses-fearing snobbery would ever be stated quite so openly. Rather it takes the form of something else: minimum pricing.

Minimum pricing’s principal political advocates, the Scottish National Party – currently the largest party in the Scottish parliament – have been pushing for minimum pricing for some time. In March last year, Scottish health minister Nicola Sturgeon was already calling for a minimum price plus a ‘social responsibility’ fee levied at particular drinks retailers. Now the SNP is pushing ahead with proposals for a 45p per unit minimum price. That means that 24 cans of four per cent lager, which a retailer might once have sold at a special-deal price of £9, will now go for no less than £16.72. Which is quite a hike in price.

While the SNP has been at the forefront of the War on Bargain Booze, it is far from alone. South of the border, too, calls for minimum pricing have been increasing in volume.

In Manchester for example, 12 local councils are trying to implement a minimum price of 50p per unit using local bylaws. Ominously, Lib-Con prime minister David Cameron has said that the government will look ‘very sympathetically’ at the proposals. And well it might, given that Britain’s healthocracy seems to be keen to lend its support to such policies. Chief medical officer Liam Donaldson, for instance, has been a long-time champion of price-ramping measures. And, never slow to seize the moralising equivalent of a photo opportunity, the British Medical Association has added its support for nationwide minimum pricing. ‘There is strong scientific evidence that increasing price reduces rates of alcohol-related problems, particularly among young people’, a BMA spokesman said. ‘We have consistently called for a minimum price per unit as part of a raft of measures to tackle alcohol abuse and would urge the other UK governments to follow the example set by Scotland.’

There has been criticism of the proposals. But unfortunately it is criticism of the means not the ends. So, critics argue, while lager will rise in price, other drinks such as Buckfast or certain alcopops might actually end up being sold more cheaply. This clearly terrified Scottish health spokesman Murdo Fraser: ‘Minimum prices could actually see a fall in the cost of some problem drinks which we know are favoured for their high alcohol strength by people who wreak havoc in our communities.’

Fraser’s Ned-fuelled anxiety betrays the real target of minimum pricing: those people who can’t be trusted with alcohol. These people aren’t random individuals, either – they are a particular social segment, a segment clearly marked out by their relative poverty. Hence the horrible logic behind minimum pricing. Want to stop the lower orders from drinking and from appearing really, really scary in the eyes of Fraser and friends? Then price them out of the market. A surreptitious fear of the masses, a loathing of the scum and the young, transforms itself into what appears as a neutral-looking policy proposal.

Writing at the time of the temperance movements in the mid- and late nineteenth century, libertarian philosopher John Stuart Mill was unequivocal in his opposition to precisely this type of measure – what he called a ‘sin tax’. It is, he suggests, prohibition with an economic face, a moralistic judgement introduced under the cover of retail policy. ‘Every increase of cost’, he wrote, ‘is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price; and to those who do, it is a penalty laid on them for gratifying a particular taste… To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition; and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable.’

But there isn’t a trace of the moral conviction necessary to justify prohibition amongst the advocates of minimum pricing. A justification of prohibition would require its correlate: a sense of how people ought to live, an idea of the Good Life. Given that the best today’s political pygmies can rustle up is a vague notion of a big, we’re-all-stuck-in-this-together society, such a ‘vision’ is unlikely to be able to support full-scale thou-shalt-not-booze prohibition.

Then again, minimum pricing has little to do with some suppressed prohibitionist impulse on the part of policymakers; rather it is born from the absence of moral and political authority and its underpinning: genuine society-wide support. That is because it’s a measure that articulates, not a popular mandate, but a fear of the people. Hence it takes the form of one rule for those who can afford it, and another for those who can’t.

This fear of what the Tennents-swigging hordes might get up to gives public statements in favour of minimum pricing more than a touch of hyperbole. ‘It is no coincidence’, asserts Sturgeon, ‘that as the affordability of alcohol has plummeted in recent decades, alcohol-related deaths, disease, crime and disorder have spiralled’. Ironically, given Sturgeon’s going-to-hell-on-a-booze-cruise rhetoric, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) said that in 2009 there was the sharpest year-on-year decline in alcohol consumption across the board since 1948. Sadly, this is unlikely to puncture the caricatured vision of binge-drinking, booze-torn Britain. That’s the problem with hysteria; those too busy screaming Blue Nun murder have difficulty grasping reality.

Professor David Nutt, former head of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and current head of the anti-alcohol league of hysterics, recently gave vent to this fear of the masses. ‘The past 50 years have seen the worst epidemic of public harm from a legal drug since the introduction of cheap gin in the 1700s’, he wrote. Quite how he knows this is unclear. One doubts that he has access to some sort of 1740-1751 report on alcohol-related harms. Perhaps Hogarth’s ‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’ was evidence enough.

This fear-laden snobbery is not limited to disconnected politicians and quangocrats like Nutt. Binge-drinking Britain has become something of an insular middle-class obsession, an issue to be talked about in grave tones over a bottle of Port. In the course of talking about his new travel book, smugger-than-thou sort-of-comedian Dom Joly admitted last week: ‘I’ve never felt afraid in the [foreign places] I’ve been that are supposed to be dangerous. I’m more nervous at chucking-out time in Cirencester, where gangs of drunken chavs wander around looking for a fight.’ Such is the fearful perception of normal people enjoying themselves that Basra can appear safer than Grantham after the Wetherspoon’s shuts.

Such a fear of the people, of their decisions, of their possible rowdiness, has a deleterious effect. It further diminishes our autonomy. Such measures have nothing to do with so-called responsible drinking; actually they deprive certain people of responsibility. Not being able to drink bottles of strong cider because you can’t afford to isn’t a decision – it is a state-wrangled necessity. Out of elite fear and loathing, people can’t choose sobriety – they have it forced upon them.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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