Was the Home Secretary Theresa May half-cut when she started ranting about alcohol in the House of Commons last week? The haste and suddenness of her intervention had the whiff of addled self-disgust about it, the self-pitying fervour of the alcoholic who is determined to get clean. As if she had been bingeing all morning on 36p tins of White Lightning, or something, and then felt overcome with regret and decided that henceforth no one should be able to afford the stuff, because it is an abomination, a poison despatched from the devil.
The obvious answer, I suppose, is no — she was perfectly sober. There were no immediate signs that she had soiled herself, or whispered reports that she had nutted an opponent in the lobby and been carted off by the Old Bill, or had simply collapsed in front of the Speaker’s chair, insisting to those who might help her that they were her best friend, my besht bloody friend in the world, I promish I’ll make you a minister etc, etc.
The suspicion is that, rather than being drunk out of her brainbox and unable to stand on her kitten heels, she was very soberly attempting to distract attention from the government’s latest wheeze — to squeeze pensioners until their pacemakers give up the ghost. The so-called granny tax, whereupon the government mugs grey-haired old ladies sitting hunched and starving in front of their two-bar electric fires and hands the money directly to advertising account executives earning more than £150,000 a year had played, astonishingly you might think, badly with the press and the public.
Some sort of corrective was required — and quickly, even on a Friday when there’s hardly anyone in the House. The government therefore attempted to dispel renewed intimations that it was toxic at heart by the expediency of making poor people pay more for their toxins. This is theft dressed up as concern and, of course, yet a further imposition upon a section of the population which, well short of the means of buying its way to the occasional dinner with Dave and Sam at the No. 10 flat, is forced instead to drink itself to oblivion for means of temporary escape from wretchedness.
This backfired, too, though for the most obvious of reasons. Of course, the supermarkets and the drinks industry cavilled. But so did the press, which boasts a historic and noble attachment to all kinds of alcohol, but especially cheap alcohol. And the public? It opened another six-pack from Morrisons, while it still could.
We may or may not have an alcohol problem in Britain. In terms of beer consumption per head, we lie at about sixth in the international league table, well below the likes of Germany and the Czech Republic and Australia. In wine consumption per head, we do not even make the Premier League. There has been the continual murmur, though, from the people who rule us, that we do not drink alcohol properly, like the French.
We do not, on the whole, sit in agreeable bistros and enjoy a nicely chilled bottle of white with our sea bass, while debating how best to surrender. Instead, we get bladdered on alcopops or Carlsberg and head off for a knee-trembler by the bins behind KFC. And so we have got this new derogation, binge-drinking, which is something the ghastly lower classes do. The word ‘binge’, as I recall, once meant going out on a long bender, perhaps for an entire weekend. Nowadays, it means buying alcohol cheaply and enjoying it. From what I can gather, it does not mean being dressed in a penguin suit and smashing windows and puking in the streets of Oxford with other members of the Bullingdon Club — that’s a totally different affliction, known these days as ‘high spirits’ or perhaps ‘youthful indiscretion’.
The term binge-drinking applies only to those of whom the government disapproves, and of course that does not mean itself. I have seen it stated that this new thing, ‘binge-drinking’, costs the taxpayer some £21 billion a year, largely as a consequence of costly treatment on the NHS for people whose livers are about to explode.
But I have not seen this figure broken down into the amounts occasioned by plebs paying the health costs of their six-pack addictions, and the middle classes guzzling bottle after bottle of sancerre. If those figures have not been produced then it seems a little presumptuous of the government to assume that this £21 billion is the fault of those who have a regrettably de trop taste in alcohol, or are too poor to afford the really good stuff.
All of this ignores the fact that almost everything which inflates the NHS bill is due to some or other form of errant behaviour — smoking, being stressed, driving a car, eating too much food, sitting down, running around on a football pitch while being outwardly very healthy, and so on. Following the government’s logic, almost everything could be taxed as a consequence of the bill which will be eventually presented to the taxpayer. Meanwhile, if the exercise is simply a naked grab for money dressed up as compassionate paternalism, then the middle classes should have been hit in the pocket, too.
The suspicion grows that the government — by which I mean the Conservatives, not those other saps — genuinely does not grasp for a single moment how ordinary people live their lives. Or perhaps does grasp it and thoroughly dislikes them. One of the two.