As we head inexorably into the festive season we should find ourselves in a spirit of good cheer – what better time to get off to the pub and let our hair down (well, not me, obviously, but those of you who have hair). Well, sorry to put a downer on your burgeoning Christmas spirit, but as usual it seems that the world conspires against us happy go lucky drinkers.
Bad news is something that we drinkers have been getting increasingly used to recently as you can see from my many pubs & drinking blogs, and I held out little hope that things would improve under the new government. It seems that I was right to be sceptical as over the past couple of days I have been confronted with no less than three news items which have threatened to put me off my beer.
Each of these items would normally warrant a blog/rant of its own, but as, like busses, they have all appeared at once, I have lumped them all together under one űber-rant, so apologies in advance for the fact that this blog goes on a bit.
The first item, about as welcome as a pair of socks for Christmas when you’d asked for a bike, is news that The Treasury Moves to Tax Higher Strength Beers. As is often the way, this is packaged as something that is For Our Own Good, because of course nanny knows best. It is not just to get more money into the Treasury in these cash-straightened times. Oh, no.
The plan is to put extra tax on beers above 7.5% ABV and reduce duty on those beers below 2.8% ABV. To be honest I don’t really care about this, but I also don’t see the point. The aim, presumably, is to encourage more sensible drinking by making it financially more conducive to drink weak beer, but it won’t work.
I am not aware of any beers with an ABV as low as 2.8%: this is like going back to the restrictive days of the First World War. I am not against creating beers of this strength if they can be made drinkable: I like mild, a weak session beer is good at lunchtime and it is also something that you can drink more confidently if driving (more of which later). However, if the target market for the policy is young binge drinkers, they are not going to buy it.
We have seen from history in the 1960s and 1970s when the market was flooded with weak, pissy, faux continental lager that people were all too keen to abandon it once something more drinkable and ‘reassuringly expensive’ came along. Young binge drinkers drink to get drunk and would sooner buy fewer, more expensive drinks to get the job done than drink a weak beer all night with no effect. Were these policy makers never young?
As for the higher tax, there are few drinkable beers above 7.5% and they already sell at a premium. It is nice to occasionally have a small, strong beer, especially at Christmas, and it would be a shame if this made them untenably expensive. The plan is, presumably, to hit drinks such as that perennial piss-head’s favourite, the 9% ABV Carlsberg Special Brew, so on that score it may have some success. What it will mostly do, though, is bring about an increase in 7.4% ABV beers.
And this is where my concern lies. It is as inevitable as a turkey sandwich on Boxing Day that before too long that 7.5% threshold will be reduced, and it’s where it will ultimately end up that concerns me most.
The second item is even more of a bah-humbug to the festive spirit: The Telegraph reports that under the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill published yesterday, councils have been given the power to impose a ‘late-night levy’ of up to £4,500 on venues that open past midnight. This moves to diminish one of the few good pub-related things to come out of the last government, the 24-hour drinking laws implemented in 2005.
At least this is more honest about being about raising revenue. The charges are to ‘help police alcohol-fuelled disorder’. Is that sensible? The point of the 24-hour licence was to spread out closing time, avoiding everyone being out on the street at the same time and therefore reducing trouble. Okay, so the jury is still out on how well this has worked, depending on which statistics you choose to believe, but moving back to everyone being chucked out at midnight sounds like a retrograde step.
Most pubs and bars only use their right to open 24 hours on odd occasions anyway, and they provide a welcome alternative to nightclubs for the more discerning drinker. These may well abandon late night opening, as the Telegraph predicts, making the night-time scene more impoverished, but it will not affect nightclubs, so anyone intent on night-time disorder will just head there instead.
Finally, I end my rant on that oldest of old chestnuts, drink driving limits. Today Sky News reports that the House of Commons Transport Committee has suggested that the drink-drive limit should be cut to “effectively zero”.
I have blogged before about the proposals to reduce the limit from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to just 50mg (see Driven to Drink by Drink Driving Plans and A Life Saving 30mg? ), but this new proposal suggests the limit should be reduced to just 20mg. This makes that 2.8% beer look a little on the strong side!
Having already blogged extensively on the subject you may think I have nothing more to say about drink drive limits, but you’d be wrong. You see, I have thought about it some more and decided that tightening the limits may in fact have a negative impact on drink driving. Let me explain.
First of all, I should make it clear that I am opposed to drink driving. Driving when you have genuinely drunk enough to impair your senses is dangerous and irresponsible. Most reasonable people agree with this statement. Those who do cause accidents and deaths through drink driving are usually many times over the limit and we can therefore assume that they would ignore the limit whatever it is set at.
We will therefore concentrate on the reasonable majority. Since the introduction of a drink-drive limit in 1965, drink driving has steadily gone from a common-place activity to something seriously frowned upon. If you are caught drink-driving few people have any sympathy; if you kill or injure someone due to driving whilst drunk you are likely to be shunned by friends and family.
Compare and contrast that attitude with what happens if you get caught speeding. In most instances the reaction you will get here, unless you were being particularly reckless, is far more sympathetic. Most of us break the speed limit at least some of the time and do not feel particularly like criminals for doing so.
Why is this? Speeding can kill just a surely as drink-driving. The reason, I think, is that whereas we consider the current drink-driving levels to be reasonably fair and sensible, speed limits are widely regarded as overly cautious and unnecessary.
So, what happens if we reduce drink-drive laws to levels that most sensible people feel to be overly cautious and unnecessary?
I suggest that many drivers will decide to have a pint anyway and risk it. It has no impact on their ability to drive and they would have to be remarkably unlucky to get caught. But then some people, even those who currently wouldn’t dream of driving over the limit, may think their driving wouldn’t actually be adversely effected after two pints. The risk of being stopped remains equally small and if they are stopped they’d be over the limit anyway, so might just as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, as they say…
And so, with one piece of legislation you remove the demonization of drink driving and encourage people to take greater risks with other people’s lives than they do currently. Surely the sensible thing is just to work on enforcing existing laws.
So that’s it; my three rants are over. If you’ve managed to make it this far, thanks for staying with me. Have a good festive season: drink at least one inappropriately strong ale and find a pub that stays open past midnight to drink it in, but DON’T drink and drive.