The price of a pint is stretching the working man's wallet too far. The results of excessive taxation are plain to see, with more and more pubs closing down and replaced by flats, a convenience store or an Islamic centre. These metamorphoses are a sign of the times: the rising population (with particular growth of largely teetotal Muslim communities), and the shift from neighbourhood fraternity to an atomised society.Cans of lager on the supermarket shelves are a third of the price of a pint served at the bar. But to regard beer as just another commodity is missing the point. The pub is woven into our social fabric, and if we neglect this unique British institution, we lose something much more than a drinking venue. Research by psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar at Oxford shows that local pub regulars have higher quality of life than weekend customers of town centre bars. The pub is our social forum, but for how much longer?
While the middle class think nothing of the tax on a glass of wine in the restaurant or a bottle from Waitose, the duty on beer is deterring the clientele who make street-corner pubs viable. If we are to save pubs, the tax regime must be overhauled. Instead of thin gruel from Philip Hammond's budgets, pussyfooting with a penny up or down depending on the electoral cycle, substantial relief is needed to the cost of a pint. The odds may be stacked against a government policy revision for cheaper beer, but Brexit offers an opportunity.
The EU has been a major factor in an excise system that is hostile to ale. Back in 1984, Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont was forced by the European Court to bring UK policy on alcohol duty into line with Brussels, which prevents member states from giving favourable conditions to their own products. Back then, most beer drunk in Britain was home-produced, but this was steadily shifting from casks to the carbonated kegs of the multinational conglomerates such as InBev. Instead of a local bitter, the younger generations were drinking Stella Artois, Beck's, or Corona with a twist of lime.
So VAT was not really giving British brewers an advantage. But the EU told Westminster that its taxman was taking too much from wine and not enough from beer. They must be equalised, not least to protect the interests of French, Spanish and German vineyards. Consequently, Lawson cut 16p off a bottle of wine and added 3p to a pint. Alongside broader social patterns, this tax turnaround was a factor in beer consumption falling as wine soared.
Landlords struggle against an unfair price differential with the off-licence market in beer, wine and spirits. Some in the trade have jumped on the bandwagon for minimum beer pricing, believing that this will level the playing-field. But this is folly, because siding with the Nanny State is like feeding a crocodile in the hope that it will eat you last. England seems likely to follow Scotland in controlling alcohol prices, and once this starts, it will continue until the zealots have their way. Consider the target of this particular 'sin tax': working-class men. There's little sympathy for them in our political establishment, with its blatant snobbery and penchant for wasting taxpayers' money on pet projects.
The EU cannot be blamed for the excessively high price at the hand-pump. The UK taxes beer more than every other country in Europe except Finland. In 2017 the average duty per pint was 53p, but that was on a supposedly average price of £3.33. Apart from Wetherspoon pubs, there are few places south of the Watford Gap where you can purchase a pint for that price. In my neck of the woods it's up to £4, and in central London over a fiver. Meanwhile the Germans pay merely 4p tax on a pilsner.
Our government listens too much to ideological lobbies that demonise alcohol in any measure. The chief medical officer reduced the maximum health limit for men to the same as women (14 units), but this was not scientifically justified: research shows that moderate drinking is more protective against various medical conditions than abstinence. Of course, heavy drinking is problematic, but the addicted minority does not imbibe for social purpose and is less likely to frequent the inn. Articles in popular media praise young people for turning away from alcohol, but what are they doing instead? Mostly fixating on their mobile phones, while some prefer illicit substances much more dangerous than beer. The pub is a moderated environment: safer as well as more social.
As our politicians are no friends of the pub, how will leaving the EU help? The solution is not to artificially raise beer prices in Lidl, but a reversal of the European tax regime. Taxing beer and wine equally is a regressive duty that punishes the less affluent, and is partly responsible for the dramatic decline in pubs across our land. We need a fresh start after Brexit, replacing Ebeneezer Hammond with a chancellor who knows the value of the tavern to our culture (ergo the economy). A cut of 50p on a pint would be possible by shifting the tax burden on to wine and liqueur.
Those who prefer the grape to the grain need not be too worried by my proposal, because post-Brexit trade deals should reduce the cost of wines from the southern hemisphere. Currently a Kiwi sauvignon blanc costs about £2 more than a similar French product, due to EU tariffs. We could all take a leaf out of Wetherspoon chief Tim Martin's book, and buy from anywhere that spites the bullies in Brussels.
Come next March, a root-and-branch reform of our VAT system should be initiated. Freed from the EU bureaucrats, we must then put the sword to our own Puritans. Let's look forward to a cheaper round, as we rejuvenate our British identity and cultural assets. Cheers!