Comment - Beer - Feeling Down on the Up Escalator
It's time for a little bit of politics, ladies & gentlemen. Pete Brown takes a look at the success - or not - of a petition in the UK against rising alcohol duty.
The past few weeks have proved a strange time to be living in a democracy.
In the US, a fringe of extreme Republicans reacted to Barack Obama’s victory in a democratic election by calling for revolution. Why? Because they say Obama is both a Communist and a Muslim, and they hate these, partly because they, er, call for revolution against western democracies.
In the UK, we’ve had a far duller showcase of the democratic process, but one that genuinely undermines my faith in politics. And, if Donald Trump is going to call for armed uprising, then maybe someone in the UK - with better hair and a more realistic sense of their own importance - should do the same.
On 1 November the British Parliament had a debate on the duty escalator that pushes up the price of alcohol in the UK by inflation plus 2% every year. The impact on beer has been a 42% increase in duty in just four years. It’s undeniable that the escalator has been a major contributor to the tide of plummeting beer consumption and relentless pub closures across the country.
The parliamentary debate resulted in the 100 MPs who attended calling unanimously for a review of the duty escalator.
It took the Treasury department a matter of hours to respond that they will do no such thing.
The debate was triggered by an e-petition on the issue reaching the required 100,000 signatures online. The current Government e-petition website was launched in July 2011 with the aim of "building confidence" and "greater engagement" in MPs’ work. If you get 100,000 signatures, on any issue that is not "offensive or libellous", you get a parliamentary debate.
Which the Government can then choose to completely ignore.
The funny thing is, no one appeared too surprised by the decision. When you look closely, there was never going to be a dramatic change of direction. The debate motion did not ask for the escalator to be abolished, simply for it to be reviewed. This wording made it very easy for MPs to endorse, because the Treasury could then simply say: “We reviewed it, as requested, and we’ve decided to keep it.” And, everyone would have been satisfied that the process of listening to the people had been followed.
That the Treasury wouldn’t even play along, preferring to refuse to do as 100,000 citizens and 100 MPs had asked, is particularly insulting.
The gathering of 100,000 signatures may seem like an impressive achievement. But, it is surprising that it took as long as eight months of campaigning to hit the magic number.
Over 1m jobs depend either directly or indirectly on the pub and beer industries in the UK. That means that, even if every signatory belongs to this group, less than one in ten people whose jobs depend on beer chose to protest against something that is killing their livelihood.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), meanwhile, has over 130,000 members. CAMRA has worked tirelessly to get people to sign, but the petition still stands at considerably less than the number of people who actually pay money every year to declare their allegiance to an organisation that fights for the great British pub and pint.
By contrast, an e-petition on road-pricing gained over 1.5m signatures, and it took no time at all for an e-petition against badger culling to pass the required 100,000 mark. In each case, this prompted a response from Government before there was even time to call a debate.
So why did it take eight months to persuade enough people into signing a petition against beer?
Privately, senior figures within the industry admit that the British public views taxes on alcohol as ‘sin' taxes. They don’t like it, but they expect pleasures to be taxed, and they put up with it.
Yet, the escalator has never been presented as a sin tax – it’s always been positioned purely as a revenue-raising exercise.
And, if it is a sin, shouldn’t all sinners be taxed equally? The extraordinary statistic that, within the European Union, the UK drinks 13% of all the beer and pays 40% of all the duty on beer, is an injustice that, if communicated more effectively than it has been up to now, should create a genuine sense of protest among drinkers.
The fight goes on, though. It’s actually quite stirring that an industry that can be brilliant at defeatism is not taking this as the end of the issue, but is instead announcing what happens next.
And as others have pointed out, the debate led to an unprecedented level of mainstream media coverage about the devastating effect of the duty escalator, just about all of which was sympathetic to the industry.
We probably won't ever see an armed uprising. But, we might just start to see a level of genuine public engagement that hits the required threshold to make politicians worry about their popularity.
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