Nanny can’t cure the UK’s alcohol price headache

 
Chris Snowdon
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THE era of big, bossy, state interference, top-down lever pulling is coming to an end.” So said David Cameron in 2008. Of all the hostages to fortune politicians take in their years in opposition, this has the makings of a classic. It’s hard to believe that less than two years have passed since the bright-eyed coalition promised to “tear through the statute book” as it threw intrusive and illiberal legislation on the bonfire.

Does anyone now remember the YourFreedom website which asked the public to nominate “unnecessary laws and regulations” for the scrap-heap? That project bit the dust when it transpired that the public wanted to repeal the drug laws and relax the smoking ban. The website now exists only in the National Archives, so future historians can marvel at the golden summer of 2010 when deregulation briefly seemed possible.

As we move towards summer 2012, normal service has very much been resumed. Far from scrapping illiberal laws, the government has launched two policies which will give it unprecedented powers over private enterprise. Plain packaging of cigarettes will allow bureaucrats to dictate the entirety of one product’s appearance, while minimum pricing of alcohol will allow the state to decide the “right” price of another.

It is a tribute to the astonishing influence of ASH, Alcohol Concern, the British Medical Association (BMA) et al. that neither of these policies was on the radar of even the most extreme public health groups five years ago. Traditionally, pressure groups had to campaign for decades before they persuaded legislators. Today, fundamental freedoms can be cast aside in what seems like the blink of an eye. And make no mistake, the freedom for manufacturers to sell their products at a price that suits them and suits their customers is fundamental.

Meanwhile, Cameron is talking about setting the minimum price at 40p a unit, a rate so low that only a trivial number of low-quality beverages will be affected. The idea that 50,000 crimes and 900 deaths a year will be prevented as a result of a regulation that affects virtually no one is patently absurd.

But does anyone seriously believe the minimum price will stay at 40p for long? A classic bait and switch is on its way. The BMA has long called for a 50p unit. In Scotland, there are already demands for 60p. The very fact that a 40p unit will do nothing will be used as justification for further action. At 45p, the price starts to bite. At 50p and above, those of us who earn less than a doctor or politician will assuredly lose out.

The 40p unit proposal is a Trojan horse. Once it becomes law, the temperance lobby will have a powerful weapon with which to incrementally raise prices. If 69p for a can of lager is “pocket money”, is not 89p or 99p also loose change? There is no correct price for alcohol. For the temperance lobby, the answer to the question of how much a drink should cost will always be “more”.

Chris Snowdon is an author and freelance journalist. His latest book is The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition Since 1800.