This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics. Find other columns in Nik's series on the parliamentary debates that made history here
The humble British drinker is being hammered from all sides. Beer taxes have increased by 42 per cent in four years, during which time 4,500 pubs have closed at a rate of 16 per week. Now the government is considering a floor price for alcohol to tackle the nation’s Hogarthian town centres, and Scotland’s ban on multi-buy promotions (which the coalition wants to imitate) is pounding the already suffering wine trade.
Politicians have long tinkered with the price and availability of alcohol in order to manage the UK’s thirsty tendencies, or to fight proxy wars with the French. The latter is no longer a factor – in terms of imports, Australia has overtaken France by some distance – but today’s politicians are preoccupied with making us drink less, or, so some say, to make the poor drink less.
In 1860, the Liberal government did the reverse. In that year’s Budget, chancellor William Gladstone reduced the duty on foreign wine “from a rate nearly reaching 5s 10d to 3s per gallon”, and, the following year, introduced a sliding scale according to alcohol strength. It was a double-edged policy to democratise wine and to encourage its weaker varieties.
The Earl Grey, showing he had inherited his father’s keen eye for beverages, complained that the reduction in duty on imported wines would punish English brewers, who were labouring under the weight of duties on malt and hops. Wine was still the reserve of the upper classes; ale, the working fellow’s tipple. Much as today’s minimum pricing is bemoaned as regressive, so some saw Gladstone’s policy as a sop to wealthier wine drinkers.
William Ewart (Lib, Dumfries Burghs), lauded the general promotion of “our commercial intercourse with France”, but he too questioned the benefits of making wine cheaper unless “the consumption of the wines was brought down to the lower substratum of the population who never drank them before”.
William Seymour Fitzgerald (Con, Horsham), a free trading Tory, described Gladstone’s treaty as “clumsy and objectionable”. And, like his Liberal opponents, he criticised the policy’s regressive nature, because “the wine duties chiefly pressed on the higher and opulent classes who could afford to indulge in such luxuries”. Supposing the Exchequer had to compensate for the loss in revenue with other taxes, where would it turn? Perhaps, said Seymour Fitzgerald, Gladstone would pick the pockets of simple tea drinkers?
The chancellor demurred. Contrary to the protests, the reason why the poor did not drink wine was precisely because the taxes were so prohibitive. “The duties”, said Gladstone, “stood like a wall of brass between the poor man and a glass of wine” – in a phrase, perhaps, that was the Victorian vision of New Labour’s inauspicious ‘café culture’.
In very different times, Gladstone sought to manipulate our drinking habits by making alcohol cheaper. Now we look at the consequences of cheap booze, and don’t like what we see. But it seems it is still the poorest that have to pay the price for society’s insobriety.