Darling adds to misery for brewers and publicanswith yet another increase in the duty on beer
That familiar cry from the football terraces aimed at beleaguered managers -- “You don't know what you're doing” -- should also be roared at Chancellor Alistair Darling.
He seems hell-bent on destroying pub and breweries. Along with Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, Darling repeatedly proclaims his support for small businesses. But where pubs are concerned, he seem determined to ruin even more of them. You don't recognise pubs as small businesses, Chancellor? I have news for you: they are the elephant in the room.
Brewing and pub retailing employ close to one million people. They are one of our last major industries and retailers. Why do you want to drive them into oblivion, forcing large numbers on to the dole queue, Chancellor?
On the morning of the Pre-Budget Report, I spoke to a City expert, a man who knows everything worth knowing about government fiscal policy. “Do tell me,” I pleaded, “he's not going to increase duty on beer again?” “Of course not,” the sage replied, “the decrease in VAT will support pubs.”
It's the kind of support the rope gives the hanging man. Out from left field, as the Americans say, came another unheralded, 8% rise in excise duty. The VAT increase is a short-term measure. It will go up again. Excise duty is locked into an escalator that will see a further increase every year. Every which-way, pubs are kicked in the groan and, while they're writhing on the ground, kicked again for good measure. Five pubs are closing every day, Chancellor: how many more do you want to see go under?
But then it got worse. It so happens that Brown and Darling are Scots and, surprise, surprise, the Scotch whisky industry got on the blower, threatened to burn its collective kilt and demanded a rethink on the duty levied on the juice of the barley.
And, lo and behold, Darling turned turtle and halved the increase on duty on whisky to 4 per cent.
While I'm in Scottish mode, I recall the witches in Macbeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” For wicked, read alcopops. By reducing the duty of whisky, Darling had also to cut it by the same amount for all spirits. And spirits include alcopops. Perhaps I've missed something along the way, but isn't the government worried about binge drinking and, in particular, young people drinking themselves into early graves by consuming these vile, sweet, noxious liquids known as alcopops?
Research shows that young women who over-indulge in alcopops run the risk of stacking up serious health problems. The dangers include giving birth to deformed babies. No matter: it's vital to keep the Shock Jocks happy. So cut the duty on whisky and, way-hey, watch the sales of alcopops rocket. Surprisingly, I haven't heard a squeak of protest from Alcohol Concern.
Government attitudes to beer, brewing and pubs in 2008 almost defy belief. Never has an industry been so attacked, battered and holed below the water line. Pubs give pleasure to millions on a daily basis. They attract visitors and tourists. They provide employment for many thousands. So what do the wiseacres in Westminster do? Introduce so many barriers to trade that running a pub in England is about as much fun as watching England play rugby.
It would be a mistake to think the Conservatives offer anything better. They are scarcely good friends of brewing and pubs. Remember the Monopolies Commission report of 1989 and the Beer Orders that flowed from it?
Remember the “pubs for breweries” swaps nodded through by such geniuses as Michael Heseltine and Peter Lilley? The result today are the giant pub companies that treat pubs like supermarkets or petrol stations. They call customers “traffic”, want to shovel them in and out of pubs as fast as possible, and offer them a simple choice of over-priced beers sourced from global brewers who sell their products at less than the cost of production.
Both the major political parties treat brewers as convenient milch cows. Hammer them, suck them dry, place every possible tax barrier in the way of them earning a decent living and, along the way, levy such crippling rates of duty on beer that even the most dedicated pub lover is forced into the unloving arms of the pile 'em high supermarkets.
But at the moment we are saddled with Brown and his scurvy crew. As a result of upbringing, inclination and social class, I voted Labour all my life, but never again.
I apologise for dragging politics into the pages of the Morning Advertiser but these are exceptional times. This is being written shortly after armed police, members of the counter-terrorism squad, arrested an Opposition MP, invaded parliament and took way his documents and computers.
Please don't tell us, Ms Smith and Mr Straw, that you knew nothing about this. You have lied to us before and you will lie to us again.
The last time I can recall armed men invading parliament was when Oliver Cromwell dispersed the Rump Parliament in 1653. His words of anger and derision aimed at the assembled politicians echo down the years and today more than adequately serve notice on the present government:
“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
*This article first appeared in the Morning Advertiser 4 December 2008.