Moralistic gesture politics

What has David Cameron been drinking? Michael Copestake takes a look

Friday March 23 saw David Cameron announce, on behalf of his Conservative-led coalition government, that its forthcoming legislative programme would include measures for a minimum price on alcoholic drinks on a per-unit basis.

Make no mistake: this measure is not based upon any kind of scientifically founded expectation that consumption will be reduced. It will not address the reasons why so many people drink quite so much. It will achieve almost nothing in terms of its effects, except irritating drinkers in proportion to their poverty - the minimum price will mean nothing to the more comfortably off. The whole thing will, however, enhance the standing of the Tories among certain parts of its voting constituency - those who enjoy a good moral panic and approve of measures claiming to set the feckless onto the straight and narrow. But is alcohol at 40p per unit up to the job? Or is the whole thing pure cynicism?

Over the whole recent past (and the not so recent past - one is reminded of Hogarth’s famous Gin Lane and Beer Street images) there has been an almost continuous campaign against excessive drinking, particularly among youth. If it is not those brightly coloured alcopops aimed at the juvenile drinker with a sweet tooth, then it is the ‘24-hour drinking’ that was supposed to bring about the end of western civilisation as we know it. This is not to say that alcohol is not a real problem for many who may become addicted, who drink so heavily as to damage their health, or who suffer or cause alcohol-related injuries (and take up the time of paramedics and hospital workers as a result). But the point is that minimum pricing will not affect any of this one iota. The new measure manages to tick the box for ineffectual public health gesture politics as well as for reactionary moral hysteria.

Justifying his new policy, David Cameron says: “Binge drinking isn’t some fringe issue: it accounts for half of all alcohol consumed in this country. The crime and violence it causes drains resources in our hospitals, generates mayhem on our streets and spreads fear in our communities.” But we should not forget the flurry of recent newspaper stories exposing the ‘silent crisis’ of ‘middle class binge drinkers’, who are apt to sit on their sofas and drink far more wine than is good for them. Unless they are paying £3.99 a bottle or less, I am afraid this ‘silent crisis’ will continue unabated.

Alcohol consumption has actually been declining for around a decade now (after increasing steadily from at least the mid-1960s), and the biggest decline, believe it or not, has been amongst the young.[1] Indeed, what kicked off the drinking boom from the 1960s onwards was that most middle class of alcoholic beverages, wine. In fact those who drink to excess are most commonly those with the most disposable income, so in a sense there is a connection between the price of alcohol and its consumption. It is just that the new measure will not affect most of those who drink to excess, precisely because they can already afford it. As usual it will punish the poorest sections of the working class.

The drinks that will be most affected in terms of increased price are the low-quality, high-alcohol-volume ‘white’ ciders and high-strength beers that are most associated with alcoholics, teenagers drinking in parks and others for whom an immediate jolt of potent alcohol is the only redeeming feature of such a beverage. As we all know, those who suffer from a substance addiction are more likely to become involved in crime in order to continue their habit when the price of that substance goes up. This is seen most clearly in relation to illegal drugs, particularly heroin and crack cocaine, where the failure of, say, a poppy harvest in some distant part of the world translates into higher rates of crime in the core countries. So not only will the health of sensitive sections of the population be either marginally affected or not affected at all, but we can predict that the proposed measure will lead to an increase in crime.

But that is exactly the opposite of what Cameron claims. According to the government, “The 40p a unit minimum price could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 9,000 fewer alcohol-related deaths over the next decade.”[2] That would represent a 5% reduction, but the problem is that the figures have evidently been plucked from thin air. It is true that a reduction in alcohol consumption would be likely to produce a reduction in crime, but, for the reasons already stated, the measure will almost certainly not result in a drop in consumption.

The idea that these measure will cut down ‘binge drinking’ via inhibiting the ‘pre-loading’ of drinks is also flawed. If people can afford to go to a bar or club, having ‘pre-loaded’ by drinking beforehand, it seems unlikely that they will not be able to afford the new minimum price of 40p per unit - alcohol bought in supermarkets and corner shops will remain far cheaper than in pubs and other venues where it is sold for immediate consumption.

Another problem is that, compared to price trends in other commodities, the tendency has been for alcohol to be totally overpriced (not least when you consider the proportion that is taken by tax duty), to the point that there is already a flourishing underground industry in ‘fake’ or imitation alcohol brands, increasingly sold in bottles with very sophisticated reproductions of the graphics and appearance of prestigious manufacturers. It is not exactly unknown for such drinks to contain all manner of contaminants - including methyl alcohol, which can cause blindness.

The manufacturers of a well-known beverage famously proclaimed it was able to refresh the parts that other drinks could not reach. However, the new law will not only reach all the wrong parts, but the result will be far from refreshing, continuing to penalise the least well-off and having, at best, an absolutely marginal effect on the problems it claims to be tackling.

Yet again the ruling class has demonstrated its total bankruptcy in the face of the social problems its own system creates.


1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12397254.

2. www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/mar/23/coalition-minimum-alcohol-price-40p.