Why politicians are addicted to denial about the causes of boozy Britain
“Observe closely…I have a turkey up my sleeve..”
Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, the sociological braindeath of our political élite goes with you. I awoke this morning and turned on the bedroom telly to discover a debate going on between four people about the new Coalition ‘policy’ of raising the price of alcohol in Britain.
There is but one strategy employed by the pols in relation to controlling our national drinking habit: to look at some research from somewhere else on the planet, and then conclude that their policy must be the one for us. “It worked in Borneo, so let’s go for it” seems to be the guiding principle.
There are three possible reasons why they do this. One, cost. Two, profound stupidity. Or three, a desperate search to find something – anything – that supports what they’ve already made their minds up to do. Trust me: it’s the last of these, with just a subtle hint of the second one.
A full-on qualitative study of the social anthropology, cultural mores and community quality influences upon drinking behaviour would cost, tops, around £350,000 from a good UK research agency. This being a government-sponsored project, you can double that (suppliers always do) and then add on a little for ‘subsistence’ while doing the fieldwork. Call it a round million. For a problem that has direct socio-economic costs of many billions of Pounds per year, it still represents a minute investment in tackling the problem. The hard bit would come when the research was debriefed, and everyone in the room started trying to promote their own policy hobby-horse. The only answer to this issue is the appointment of a Cabinet-level Big Beast independent of the Health, Treasury, Employment, Home Office, Family and Community ministries…as well as all the health, alcohol, busybody and police lobbies. God alone knows how one could ever arrange that within our current governmental model, but it would be fun trying.
Profound stupidity was the inordinately heavy cross Tessa Jowell brought to the table when she was Labour Minister of Culture. Well, that and a greedy husband with shares in the brewery business. So it was that Ms Jowell decided to extend both drink licenses and drinking hours as the best means of controlling anti-social drinking. She also had the hots for opening casinos everywhere, with drink readily available to fuel the gambling habit. Her sole rationale for doing this was that it worked in Belgium, and the Irish experiment was, so far, working quite well.
The Irish ‘working well’ myth was soon exposed, but Tessa ploughed on to produce the redoubled disaster we face today in the A&E departments and pub-blighted centres of our cities.
Now the Conservative-dominated Coalition (for the sake of brevity, I’ll just use the major Party name from here on, as the LibDems are clearly unimportant to this and many other issues) has alighted upon price as the determining factor that outweighs all others. Reflecting the general sloppiness associated with all ‘ideas’ that emerge from behind the high walls of Camerlot, the research stage has been eschewed in favour quoting the experiences of Canada.
I’ve never met a Canadian I didn’t like, although I suspect Mark Carney may be about to break that rule. However, I’d like if I may to summarise the minor differences between Canada and the UK. These are, in no particular order, that its culture, urban population density, drink-ordering model, retail structures, size, location, financial system, economic performance, unemployment level and climate are the chalk to Britain’s cheese. As a valid comparison to aid the evolution of alcohol consumption policy in the UK, its potential contribution to any sane debate is around that of a teetotal badger.
This didn’t stop the guest on the BBC sofa this morning (he was very pro the policy) from simply saying, over and over, “it worked in Canada”. I could sit on the same sofa and argue for the annihilation of the British Royal Family by saying “it worked in Russia”, adding weight to my argument by observing that Nicholas II and George V were cousins with a striking physical resemblance to each other.
In the background on a large screen was another bloke (he was very anti the policy) who had done quite a lot of research involving the tedious and time-consuming process of talking to British people and observing communities – rather than crunching Canuck numbers. He said it wouldn’t work, the problem was a cultural one, it would hit those without a drinking problem hardest, and it was a tax on the poor and increasingly desperate folks at the bottom. “It worked in Canada,” said the van Rompuy lookalike in the studio.
My vote went to the remote contributor because he appeared to have done his homework, as opposed to staring at a Maple Leaf over his navel. But he’d have got my vote thirty years ago, his views reflecting those I drew from the last research project I did on the topic myself for the Whitbread Brewery client: that heavy drinking is a cultural cancer the Tories propose to cure by using the anti-homoaeopathic strategy of doubling the price of the disease-catalyst.
It’s odd the way in which, as supposed members of the European Union, the policy-fakers never go to France, Spain, Italy or Greece. There, all booze is cheap, and binge drinking a rarity. Life there (despite the best intentions of Berlin-am-Brussels) is less challenging than in the UK, the climate more cheerful, and the cultural drinking rules more firmly embedded in a supportive family model. In Britain – where the climate sucks, life gets harder every year, and families are coming unglued from Perth to Penzance – poor, young and older people get pissed all the time.
Anyone can join up those dots and – allowing for the standard level of human error – work out roughly how to solve Britain’s drink problem…which didn’t exist at all in the 1950s, when the pace of life here was roughly on a par with that of Southern France today. It wouldn’t tackle every problem: our overlaying of a wine fashion onto a session-drinking beer culture, for example, has been a major factor, in that the British tend to favour bottle-slurping plonk gulping, rather than a quiet glass of wine spritzer with a, say, French midday family meal.
In short, we drink far too much because the cultural milieu is overwhelmingly accepting of it; and because profound social and economic changes have brought us more misery not less. This is relative – it could be a massive mortgage being fed by a stressful job, or a trapped underclass desperation being calmed by the escape into oblivion – but alcohol’s success in retaining a trendy and largely positive image in our culture makes it the mind alteration of choice for most people.
The difficult, longer-term factors will therefore not be addressed by our political Party structures and processes. This is because first, the credit won’t be given to the person and Party that kick off the bullet-biting; second, the drinking lobby is treated with kid-gloves by all governments because it is a powerful pressure group; third, changing the propensity for mind-numbing booze sessions would mean rejecting the entire target-driven, globalist, deregulated employment, home-ownership, media-content, neocon construct upon which our hopelessly failing economy is based; but above all, the Government needs more money – and fast.
Do not underestimate the last point there as a motivator for classic superficial and cynical Camerlot policy-making. Taxing alcohol has three advantages, if you’re a short-termist idiot: it can be spun as responsible social policy, it brings in half a billion quid in HMRC revenue a year, and the potential for more tax on it is enormous – if your criterion is the fact that it represents only 2% of government receipts currently.
Keeping it simple, a 30% increase in alcohol duty would, if introduced gradually over three years on top of inflation, cover the cost of the NHS. Doing that over a five year period would wipe out the entire burden of the Welfare State. At first glance, it sounds like an ironically neat way of getting a fat booze industry to pay for the social damage it inflicts. In fact, it solves nothing: the problem won’t go away, the percentage of household income spent on alcohol will go back up again (it’s been falling for over a decade thanks to discounting), the adverse effect on inflation will be notable, it will fuel illegal grey import crime, domestic violence will continue as is, familial structures will remain weak, days lost to the economy will rise, and the brewers will both lay off workers and build in their own extra profit-fudge in order to maintain profitability.
If you want to truly comprehend the hypocrisy involved in political alcohol-control policies, then go to any off-licence point of sale material, any bottle, any can or any wine-box. Big and bold will be the brand name, alcohol type and strength; very small indeed will be the units warning and the by now robotic ‘drink responsibly’ lip service paid by the industry to the need for ‘social awareness’ about the dangers of drinking.
The worst binge-drinking in the world takes place in Russia - a country whose Wild West Friedman-on-steroids ways and previous command-economy greyness have, over time, made for a strong argument in favour of being blotto much of the time. When given access to the laughing-liquid, the Swedes aren’t far behind: this and their high suicide-rate in turn reflect a climate, wildlife and geography that consists largely of elks wandering about in freezing cold pine forests and near-perpetual darkness for much of the year. I once spent a Saturday evening in Gothenburg during which, after 6.45 pm, I didn’t meet a single sober person beyond the restaurant staff and the cab drivers. The same dark, cold and moralising socio-climatic mix of Scotland goes a long way to explaining its never-ending love affair with the whisky bottle.
Northern ‘protestant’, miserably-driven cultures create binge drinking. Southern ‘Catholic’ warmer and more laid-back cultures don’t. The booze prices in the former are far higher than in the latter; but the truth is, decades of research have shown that using price as a social policy to tackle addiction is useless. The correlation between consumption and price is there among moderate drinkers at the margins: among the unhappy pissheads, the correlation between the two is zero.
As long is there is universal Establishment denial that we are an unhappy culture, we will get tax-rises disguised as social policy…with a little time off immediately before every election. I did a reasonable calculation during the last election suggesting perfectly credibly that 12% of all those who voted after 5 pm were anything from tipsy to legless. Now that is a correlation….and it sums up the irony of cynical idiocy better than anything else I can offer.
See also The anti-meritocracy of the Masons and Common Purpose