Friday, March 14, 2008

The Budget: panem et circenses and Special Brew

This year's spring Budget, which no sane person doubts is at least as much the Prime Minister's as Alistair Darling's, will be fodder for psychoanalysts and psephologists alike for many elections to come. In Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger predicates of Hitler's character the quality of doing everything possible to bring the house of cards of his own creation crashing down around his ears; in a similar way, the Prime Minister seems determined to go the extra mile to destroy himself, his party and his country.

There's not enough time or blogs to chew over the slings and arrows of outrageous farce aimed across the whole spectrum of social class that Darling Brown is determined to systematically alienate. So I'd like to concentrate on one aspect - alcohol.

Government apparatchiks appear to have noticed that alcohol prices are going down in real terms, but not to have clicked that this observation pertains to supermarket-sold alcohol. So, in an effort to stop binge-drinking, which is in principle - rightly - applauded by doctors, the Budget has piled above-inflation tax hikes on beer bought in pubs: the very places where it's not too easy to binge-drink, because the licensee faces prosecution and loss of license should a serious incident result from binge-drinking on their premises.

So, with the smoking-ban, rising beer and wine prices and competition from supermarkets selling cheap booze, our pubs are facing mounting pressure just to stay open, with worrying consequences. For one thing, rather than smoke out in the streets of our draughty old fens, people are smoking at home in front of their children; now, with the double-whammy of the rising price of a pint while off-license drink gets relatively cheaper, they are taking booze home to drink in front of their children as well. Another victory for the received wisdom of the liberal-socialist axis in the face of common sense.

I can understand the rationale behind the move on alcohol taxes. But it's difficult to envisage gangs of yobs getting tanked up on Cabernet Sauvignon before having a sophisticated night out headbutting all the right people then doing a Damien Hirst on the pavement. If the government wants to put the pressure on problematic drinking, it should target certain brands of alcoholic drink with the precision of a cruise missile instead of blanket-bombing the whole industry. Specifically, superstrength lager, strong cider and spirit-based alcopops.

However, it would be unfair to tar all of these drinks with the same brush. Bacardi, for example, has a website that can only be accessed after the surfer has entered their date of birth and country of domicile. There's also a facility to enter your postcode and find a taxi-firm.

Carlsberg has the same sort of setup. It also has a responsible drinking page, which informs us that a 500ml can of Special Brew contains 4.5 units of alcohol. On the page dedicated to Special Brew, the street-drinker's tipple of choice, we are told that "the Department of Health advises that men should now drink no more than 3-4 units of alcohol per day, and women should drink no more than 2-3 units of alcohol per day." In other words, drink one can of the product and, in the light of Carlsberg's own responsible drinking policy, you're drinking irresponsibly. The concoction, we are told, was "first brewed in 1950 to satisfy the refined tastes of Winston Churchill himself". Sounds impressive, but I'm not aware of the old war-horse having had a taste for paint-stripper saturated with syrup; and I think it's unfair to project an image of fighting them on the beaches and never surrendering which is simply setting up the average consumers of strong lagers which their brewers knowingly target to be objects of derision at best,and of fear at worst.

If this government wants to stop binge-drinking, wine and pints of beer are the wrong things to target. Put higher tax on superstrength lager and cider, and alcopops, if you dare, Darling Gordon. The disadvantage for you is that this may nudge some people struggling to end their addictions to become free of drugs and alcohol, and they would soon be looking for employment which is no longer there because immigrants have arrived unimpeded to reap what they have not sown.

While we will argue for a long time over whether the Minister for children shouted "So What?" in reply to David Cameron's delineation of the increasing tax burden, the sight of Housing Minister Caroline Flint in full Blair Babe fatigues was certainly an eye-opener: I hadn't realised how easy it was to disguise jackboots as heels.

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