If you read the newspapers today – or watch the myriad of news channels and broadcasts available to us via digital television, or browse the news pages of the Internet – two stories will stand out more than any other.
They’re not stories about our beleaguered soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, or missing children or, indeed, the little titbit of news that crept out yesterday that last year’s summer floods were nothing to do with Global Warming; they’ve kept that very quiet. Instead, it’s the stories that Britain is literally cowering under attack not from terrorists or immigrants but, instead, binge drinkers. The other story is that tomorrow, somewhere in his budget, Alistair Darling – he of the Gerry Anderson puppet eyebrows – will put the price of beer up. Probably by quite a lot.
Darling, and Brown – and the Daily Mail – all seem to think that we’re a nation of obese alcoholics and therefore the best way to tackle such extreme beer consumption is to tax it. Obviously, it has nothing to do at all with the fact that since 1997 this Government has spent and spent and spent until there’s nothing left and now they need to find more ways to make money.
The other assumption that the Cabinet appear to be making is that publicans – the people ultimately responsible to the customers for how much their pint of beer or glass of wine is costing them – are wealthy and can therefore probably absorb a major price hike. They seem not to have noticed that gone are the days of publicans driving around in Jaguars and Rolls Royces dressed in a sheepskin that would make Arthur Daley proud. Today, I drive around in an eight-year-old Jeep that passes its MOT and keeps running by nothing more than sheer luck and my battered corduroy jacket is almost as old as the car.
Estimates on how much money Darling is going to put on alcohol vary wildly depending on which publication you read but, by the time you account for the increase in taxation, the increase in transport costs in the past twelve months and the increase in the cost of wheat, barley and so on, the price rise could be as much as 20p on a straight-forward pint of lager or bitter. And that doesn’t account for the higher alcohol beers, or the bottles of alcoholic pop that are synonymous with the younger crowd. In some areas of the country the price of beer is creeping ever-steadily towards £4.00.
Official figures show that a binge drinker is somebody who consumes roughly four pints of beer or a bottle of wine in one night which, to me, seems frankly ridiculous. Everybody I know would fall into the category of binge drinker if that was the case. If I go out for a meal with friends, I would probably enjoy a nice bottle of wine throughout the evening. If I were to meet friends in town for an evening, I would probably drink four pints of lager – over a period of four hours, that’s not that much. I certainly wouldn’t advocate driving after such a volume of alcohol, and it’s not good to do it every night of the week, but I would hardly consider myself a binge drinker based on such consumption; and I’m certainly not obese.
Equally, being a publican, I have yet to notice binge drinkers leaving my establishment, heading out in to the street and then immediately knifing a passing taxi driver. I’m not saying that violence doesn’t happen, but I suspect I could go out in Newmarket tonight for a few beers and not feel in the least bit as if somebody is going to put a bottle in my eye.
By focusing attention on the apparent violence and health risks attributed to having a pint or two, Gordon Brown’s team are hoping to validate their decision to hike the price of beer, wine and spirits in tomorrow’s budget. But there’s another report they should be keeping an eye on.
According to CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, in a report out this week they state that 57 pubs are closing each month. That works out to be almost two a day. I’m aware of five pubs that have closed since Christmas. As supermarkets make alcoholic drinks cheaper – not to mention easier for younger people to buy – more and more people are drinking at home. This has the knock-on effect of forcing publicans out of business and the slightly less healthy aspect of reducing the social ability of our nation, not to mention increasing their ability to drink grossly more alcohol than might be good for them because there’s nobody around to tell them when they’ve had enough.
There are many calls in the press today for Alistair Darling to leave the alcohol tax alone or, even, to reduce it, but I suspect that they’ll go widely ignored. I only hope that when the government start earning this extra cash from their tax hike they put some of it aside to create a benevolent fund for publicans. There might be a few out of work soon who’ll need that sort of help…