Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 2008
Setting on-trade against off is a false opposition that damages the whole drinks trade
I HAVE SEEN a few comments recently suggesting that the on and off-trades are locked in a titanic battle for the soul of the British drinker. However, for the vast majority of people who enjoy drinking alcohol, their experience will include both drinking it on licensed premises and at home. They may well like visiting pubs from time to time, but may also have a bottle of wine with dinner, or a beer while watching the television, or maybe a few bottles with a barbecue. They have a reasonable expectation that they should be able to buy alcohol for consumption at home in conveniently located outlets offering a good range and competitive prices. Surely this is a false opposition, and in reality the on and off-trades are complementary aspects of the same business.
While the primary aim of “Opening Times” has always been to promote pubs and cask beer, it has also often included features on quality bottled beers to drink at home, and any attempt to discourage this shows a failure to understand how people live their lives today. The attitudes that “I do all my drinking in the pub” and “we never have drink in the house” belong to the 1950s, not the 21st century. The message must be that drinking in the pub is more special, not that drinking at home is bad.
It cannot be denied that there are problems in the off-trade such as below-cost selling and underage sales that need to be dealt with. And I’m not convinced it’s desirable to give a licence to every two-bit corner shop where supervision is likely to be more lax than in a larger or more specialised outlet. But those problems can be addressed, and do not mean that the off-trade as such is an intrinsically bad business. And most of the adults you see indulging in offensive drunken behaviour in the streets will have been drinking in pubs and clubs, not at home, so it cannot be said that the on-trade does not have its problems too.
The attempt to drive a wedge between on and off trade is really a dishonest tactic by the neo-prohibitionists who are opposed to the drinks trade in its entirety, but cunningly seek to attack its weakest points. It would be short-sighted and hypocritical for anyone concerned about the future of pubs to welcome significant curbs on the ability of people to buy alcohol for home consumption, because those restrictions will inevitably end up hitting pubs as well.
Scottish plans to prevent under-21s buying alcohol in the off-trade are one of the most direct attacks on drinkers’ liberties so far
OF COURSE the most prominent example of this tendency is the proposal by the Scottish government to increase the minimum age for buying alcohol in the off trade from 18 to 21, which may seem superficially tempting to some who think it might give a boost to pubs. However, even if it does lead some people to drink in pubs who otherwise would have done so at home, it’s hard to see that filling pubs with young people intent on getting drunk as cheaply as possible is going to improve the image of the trade. It is also very doubtful whether it will solve the problems it is claimed to address: it will simply drive them underground and transfer the trade from legitimate outlets to black marketeers.
But, regardless of the practicalities, the proposal is objectionable in principle. Alcohol is a legal product, and 18 is regarded as the age of majority for pretty much all practical purposes, so it is a direct attack on the liberties of adults. Can it really be right that a soldier who has been putting his life on the line in Afghanistan returns home to Scotland and is not allowed to buy a bottle of beer to unwind in his own living room?