So there was a budget yesterday and beer tax went up. That is a bit like saying I went swimming yesterday and got wet – beer tax always goes up in the budget, there is a certain inevitability about it.
Alcohol is seen as a soft touch for tax increases. In a hangover from the puritanical temperance movement of the eighteenth century, following the gin craze – Hogarth and all that – alcohol has been demonized to the point where politicians feel happy to tax us until it hurts whilst claiming that it is not only for our own good, but for the good of society at large: we shouldn’t complain, we should be grateful.
However, this year’s tax increase comes after a concerted campaign to stop it. This was reported in the Gloucester Citizen last week where, amongst others, they had comments from both Alan Stephens, chairman of Gloucester CAMRA, and Justin Hudson, owner of Butlers Venue Bar in Eastgate Street, Gloucester, which readers of my earlier blogs may recognise as my least favourite pub in the city.
Now here are two people that you might imagine don’t see eye to eye on many things. One is a tireless campaigner for the preservation of real ale; the other seems to gauge the quality of alcohol by its ability to glow in the dark. Nonetheless, in this article they were agreed on one thing: putting up the price of a pint is going to have a devastating effect on pubs.
With the government looking to make up an eye-wateringly unimaginable budget deficit of more than £150 billion it was inconceivable that beer tax would not increase. In fact we probably should be thankfully that it only did so by 2% rather than the inexcusable 18% last year. But does this signify the end of the British pub as we know it?
The pubs are undoubtedly having a tough time at the moment: the recession, the smoking ban and changed social habits are all hitting them hard. A lot of pubs have closed down – reportedly a record 39 per week. These are indeed sad times.
However, at the weekend I carried out another tour around the pubs of Gloucester, taking in Barton and Tredworth (bringing my official research total to 31 if anyone’s keeping count). This is not a wealthy area: situated on the south-east of the city it is a multi-racial, working class area with its recent origins in the industrial revolution. You may therefore think that these pubs would be hard hit both by the financial crisis and the smoking ban, but from what I saw this is not true.
Pretty much all of the pubs that we went into were busy. The reason for this, I think, is that unlike many of the centre pubs, which have a passing clientele or cater specifically for the financially sensitive and fickle youth market, these are community pubs. They nearly all have darts teams, skittles teams or football teams – sometimes all three. Everyone in the pubs seem to know each other and know the bar staff, some of whom have been there a long time: 14 years for Wendy and Mike at the Golden Heart (congratulations to the pub’s Sunday football team, Porky’s, for their 7-0 win against Leonard Stanley on Sunday, by the way) and an amazing 24 years for Lyn at The Great Western.
Here the community feels an ownership of the pub – it is an extension to their own homes. They may need to cut back a bit, but they are not going to desert their local. Tredworth and Barton are not unique, I have come across others: specifically Baker Street and the Whitesmiths on Southgate Street and the Pig Inn the City on Westgate Street. All frequently busy with regulars whilst other pubs stand empty.
So the moral is: stick with tradition, don’t blindly follow trends, and leave the landlords to run the pub unmolested by pub chain or brewery rules and fads.
P.S. Today is St George’s Day, so go out and celebrate with a proper English pint in a proper English pub!