Labour are quite right to stand up to Liam Donaldson on Booze. Lib Dems prove rather illiberal.

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on March 16, 2009
Posted Under: Drinking,Puritanism

Liam Donaldson – the UK’s Chief Medical Officer for the past decade – is something the crusader. The smoking ban , which he describes as his ‘greatest achievement’, does not appear to have satiated his appetite for reshaping our lifestyles. Thus he is unveiling plans to set a minimum price for alcohol of 50 pence per unit.

To my shock, the Labour government – which up until now has pursued an obsessively paternalistic agenda – has taken the right approach to these ridiculous proposals. Gordon brown has come out and said that he is unwilling to punish the vast majority of responsible drinkers, not least during a recession. Indeed it is well known that the booze tax like the tobacco tax hits the poor hardest. Meanwhile the Lib Dems, to their discredit, have said that they support an end to ‘pocket-money priced’ alcohol. I am imagining that the likes of Clegg and Huhne might have a different conception of ‘pocket-money prices’ from the great mass of society.

Aware that boozing is, in most circumstances, considered a personal choice, Liam Donaldson has defended his proposals by pushing the concept of ‘passive drinking’. ‘England’, he says, ‘has a drink problem and the whole of society bears the burden. The quality of life of families and in cities and towns up and down the country is being eroded by the effects of excessive drinking.’ There is so much one can say here. Does he imagine that the quality of life enjoyed by families will be improved by eroding their real incomes through higher alcohol prices? Meanwhile, I simply don’t believe that alcohol causes anti-social behaviour in the way many people reckon it does. Yes the two often go together on a Saturday night in Swindon, but, as anyone with a background in social sciences understand, Correlation is by no means necessarily indicative of causation. I am sure my fellow Third Estaters will back me up when I say that the student culture at Cambridge is characterised by massive amounts of boozing, but that violence and the threat of violence is absent like it is nowhere else.

More generally the notion of ‘passive drinking’, as something comparable to passive smoking, is simply ridiculous. Smoking – as a chemical process, in and of itself – has the capacity to physically harm those other than the smoker. Drinking on the hand does not. Unlike tobacco, when I drink alcohol, it does not seem into the bodies of those around me. Rather it is generally thought to be associated with certain kinds of behaviour which may harm others. Needless to say, if you start punishing activities because they might be associated with other activities, you effectively have a mandate to police every individual choice or decision no matter how personal.

Sometimes the way in which a person constructs a sentence can offer a real insight into they think. Consider the following comment that Liam Donaldson made to the times a couple of years back:

“The first thing you see when you walk into a supermarket is a wall of cigarette packets, we need to do something about that, and let’s get the cigarette out of Kate Moss’s mouth.”

“Let us (presumably society) get that cigarette of Kate Mosses mouth”!!! While I object to the idiotic expectation that celebrities should be role models, it is not so much the sentiment that I mind here. Rather it is the way in which it is expressed which fills me with discomfort. Liam Donaldson could, of course, have said ‘let’s get Kate Moss to stop smoking. But instead, Kate’s body is presented as a passive object, with which society should interfere. In fact Kate – in her entirety – doesn’t even get a mention. It is sufficient to simply state what we – society – need to do to her mouth. We are, then, dealing with a man who very way of thinking runs counter to any notion of autonomy over one’s own body.

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Reader Comments

The Lib Dems have a large number of real ale geeks among their ranks. Real Ale from a bottle is not the same as real ale from the cask. Supermarket loss-leading on booze is killing pubs, and thus depriving real ale geeks of outlets to obtain properly served real ale.

I submit that this is the reason why the Lib Dems are supporting minimum pricing.

Written By Jennie on March 16th, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

This definitely makes sense. Certainly, as this example shows, the free operation of the market does not necessarily equate to choice. However, the real ale enthusiasts – like the healthy eating enthusiasts – should be aware that choices also belong to people like me who enjoy a refreshing, thirst quenching can of stella over the murky authenticity of real english ale, and have definite preference for being able to enjoy the former as cheaply as possible.

Written By Reuben on March 16th, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

It’s a tough one. Minimum pricing shouldn’t affect the licensed trade in terms of pubs and bars, only the supermarkets.

Also, to compare the situation to “hitting the poorest, hardest” as with cigarettes is a little blurry, cigarettes being an “acceptable” addiction and having a few cans in front of the football not classing as an addiction at all.

The real argument here is that those “poor” people shouldn’t be able to pick up alcohol that cheaply while elements such as pubs that are arguably a social good when it comes to the attitudes and environments of drinking responsibly cannot push their prices much lower.

I generally don’t agree with Donaldson, but on this one I think he’s got a case…as flawed as he’s managed to make it.

Written By Lee Griffin on March 17th, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

Lee, even on the basis of these minimum prices, a can of beer from the shop will be a good couple of quid cheaper than a pint of beer in a london pub. There are numerous reasons why people would be unwilling to pay over the odds for the latter. For one, most pubs, in reality, dont even come close to those fine establishments which inhabit the nostalgic english imagination. Secondly, you can smoke and drink in your own home. Thirdly – and you alluded to this – you can if you choose get a bunch of mates around and drink irresponsibly without fear of being thrown out. On occassion this can be fantastic fun.

Written By Reuben on March 17th, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

Ingenious thinking Jennie, but I fear you’re wrong here regarding the reason. It’s almost certainly the elfansafety public-sector element in the party that are backing Donaldson’s well-meaning but ridiculous idea, rather than the real ale lobby (though knowing just how puritanical some of our local CAMRAnauts can be it’s hard to tell; sparking up in front of some of them brings forth in them a similar reaction that garlic does to vampires).

I’m with Reuben on this, though he’s welcome to keep his Stella. IMHO Donaldson and those of his meddlesome ilk can go and get stuffed; policies like his are killing the licensed trade.

Written By TEZ BURKE on March 17th, 2009 @ 9:27 pm