Being in government has forced the Liberal Democrats to decide whether they are liberal in the British sense of the word, or in the American, statist sense. Nick Clegg leans towards the latter, which is why he wants the state to regulate of the press. But Jeremy Browne, the Home Office minister, is emerging as a genuine Manchester-style liberal. In the Mail on Sunday today, he has come out against the illiberal strategy for the minimum pricing of alcohol. He can’t speak himself, but ‘friends of Mr Browne’ have this to say:
‘Jeremy’s view is that the thug who has downed nine cans of lager is hardly going to think, “Oh dear, I can’t afford a tenth because of minimum pricing. I think I’ll go home to bed instead of starting a brawl.”’
We can add to this that it will only be the poor who are affected by the policy. Very few in parliament will be buying £11 vodka bottles; households whose budgets cannot stretch to Smirnoff will be the ones hit. If Labour was in any way on the wavelength of the people it purports to represent, it would have lambasted the government for a ‘let them drink Bolly’ approach: and one that doesn’t even work. As research from the Adam Smith Institute showed last week, the policy itself is based on flawed research, and there is no solid evidence that it will help at all.
In recent years, we have witnessed the lobotomy of politics summed up by the following argument: ‘X is the problem, Y is a solution, let’s do Y and those who oppose Y are wicked.’ This conclusion is reached without anyone asking about the extent to which Y would remedy X.
So it is with booze. Dominic Lawson has a brilliant column in the Sunday Times today where he cites Damian Green, policing minister, saying
‘the streets of our major cities on Friday and Saturday nights are a living hell… and the police are left to clear up the mess.’
Welcome to Britain, Mr Green, where we’ve been boozing for centuries – and generations of policymakers have not managed to change it since the first anti-boozing Act was passed in 1607. The scenes that Hogarth depicted in Gin Lane in 1751 may have evolved over time: today it’s more about Nottingham pavements being Jackson Pollocked at 2am. (Which they wouldn’t be, if all the clubs didnt close way before folk wanted to go home).
It is a problem. But there is no empirical evidence suggesting minimum alcohol pricing would have any impact on it. What higher booze prices ill do is make life more expensive and miserable for those who are suffering enough already.