The U-Turn is a funny thing in politics. While they’re universally derided as a matter of routine by the opposition for showing weakness on the part of the Government, it’s harder to find so many members of the public who share the view that climbing down from a flawed policy is such a bad thing.
Of course, there are plenty of cases when perfectly good policy has been dropped by governments purely out of weakness and division within their parties, but as nice as it is when governments appear to run like well-oiled political machines, delivering every policy exactly as planned with impeccable determination so as to deliver a coherent package of policies, it’s difficult to justify forging ahead with legislation which is clearly and self-evidently bad.
In a rare display of humour and charisma from the Milibot, Ed’s opening salvo of PMQs yesterday asking “If there’s anything [the Prime Minister] could organize in a brewery” set the stage for the routine procedure of chastising the government for apparently dropping, or else postponing legislation on minimum per-unit (alcohol unit, that is) pricing on alcoholic beverages in the United Kingdom. The PM and colleagues hit back quickly to assure the commons and the public that they are still pursuing an end to supposedly cheap alcohol in the near future. A desperate attempt at appearing to retain control. But the truth is, I’ve seldom been so relieved as when I heard this abysmal legislation was sliding out of grasp.
I’ve talked before plenty enough about ‘lazy legislation’, most often under the last government, which seemed to see all problems, however complex as a simple matter of taking the offending articles out of reach of the untrustworthy public. Ban x, tax y, impose restrictions on z. I desperately hoped that a fresh, coalition government would be the perfect people to put an end to this haphazard, slapdash approach to politics and start doing the legwork on getting to the bottom of issues, rather than resorting to a superficial fix to the many deep and ingrained problems this country has.
Having personally been treated to a 12 month EU-funded drinking holiday across Europe (better known as an ERASMUS year of study abroad) last year, spending the year with fellow exchange students from all over the world, varying alcohol pricing and drinking cultures are something with which I’ve become intimately acquainted; for a little bit of rough, anecdotal background, the scandalously low prices for booze in the UK being touted on the news are figures like 60p for a can of lager, £2-3 for a big bottle of cider, and so on. Shocking, right? Well, no. While these may seem low to us, it’s only logical to compare to the rest of the world.
In Frankfurt, one of Germany’s most expensive cities and my home for last year, the cheapest half-litre bottle of Pilsner (the ubiquitous lager beer of Germany, and comparatively strong at at least 5-6%) you could find in a non-discounter (analogous to Tesco, Sainsbury’s, etc) would set you back around 30¢ (about 26p). To stump up for an upmarket, well-known brand like Becks or Schöfferhofer, you might have to go as high as 70¢, or 60p. Of course, if this was too much to bear, you could always go down the road to a discount supermarket like Penny Markt or Aldi, where a bargain six-pack of plastic bottles of lager would cost you around 1.49€, or £1.29. Of course, Germany is famous for beer, so this seems hardly surprising, but these kinds of relative prices are consistent with spirits, wine, and all kinds of similar concoctions. Drinks in bars were clearly somewhat more, but finding a club selling beer for 1-2€ was far from uncommon.
Remarkable as these seemed to myself and fellow Brits, these kinds of prices seemed even more astonishing to the Irish students, who were used to frankly exorbitant alcohol prices back home. Not so much however to the eastern Europeans who were apparently accustomed to even cheaper prices. To the French and other western European students, these were comparatively cheap, but nowhere near as amazing (and refreshing) as they were to the British.
Based on the notion of minimum-pricing legislation then, it follows that us Brits are fairly conservative drinkers, while the Germans are constantly wasted, the French aren’t far behind, and the Irish are as dry as nuns by comparison. …Wait, what?
Even based on crude stereotypes, we all know this is a thousand miles from the truth. While the Germans undoubtedly like a drink, the kind of responsible everyday drinking culture displayed by our western European counterparts in particular is constantly the envy of policymakers in the UK, where the idea of a casual glass of wine with dinner or a foaming wheat beer in the sunshine after work are a far cry from the binge drinking realities of home.  The simple fact of the matter is there is little to no clear relationship between crude prices and widespread alcohol problems across countries. Unhealthy drinking, like all forms of ingrained social malaise, comes down to a deep cultural problem.
Upping prices simply fails to address this. Firstly, setting a minimum unit price, which would only affect the cheapest, nastiest, strongest bottles of poison consumed only by the poorest in society makes the lazy and wrong assumption that excessive drinking is something that only affects the poor. This stands in direct contradiction to previous government health warnings and campaigns against routine overconsumption of alcohol among the middle classes. Furthermore, assuming that a marginal increase in price of cheap alcohol is a significant deterrent assumes that these few extra pence would be a real financial burden on those buying the booze. I don’t dispute this in the case of some of these products, but isn’t this rather more alarming? Why are people spending so much, and sometimes beyond their means, to get drunk? If this is true, penalizing these people is not a solution; we need to dig down through detailed research into why people are feeling it necessary or acceptable to drink so much, so often, and try and seek to change this aspect of our culture in the long term. What’s more, alcohol consumption per capita has been going up, rapidly over recent decades. Does this reflect falling drinks prices? Of course not, inflation has exceeded growth for much of this time, and alcohol duty has only been going one way as well.
This kind of nanny-statism is so much bigger a problem than simply not working in the majority of cases. Not only does it detract from any kind of more useful work on solving the underlying issue in society by simply patching the symptoms, but when this kind of legislation fails to have the desired effect or at least with the desired magnitude, as it almost universally does, these ineffective policies simply stay in law, piling up, one on top of the other. Socially, as we become swamped with laws restricting our day-to-day lives and purchases, people progressively begin to stop taking personal responsibility for protecting themselves and making healthy or sensible choices in life wherever a state mandated label, warning, or restriction is absent. “I can’t buy more than 16 Paracetamol at once, but I can buy a tonne and a half of Aspirin? Well that must be safe to consume in unlimited quantities, right?”
This kind of lazy, introverted, island mentality toward government has to stop. There are countries all over the world with similar and different experiences of the issues we face as a nation, all with different approaches and outcomes. It may not be quick or easy, or produce instant media coverage and instant results, but detailed sociological research is needed to solve complex sociological issues. Once we understand the root cause of issues, we can consider a model that works to solve this cause. Which just might turn out to be cheaper, better quality drinks, a lower drinking age for some drinks, and less state interference. Like Germany.
Owen Williams – Publicity and Media Officer 2013/14 While it’s not easy to find data on the bottom end of the market, the fantastic pintprice.com confirms this rough ranking of prices.  Nationmaster.com goes beyond the stereotypes but equally confirms statistically this logic to be bogus.