Brown's beer: Raise a glass to George Osborne for cutting beer duty!

Beer guru Pete Brown says the Budget is the day that kicking pubs stopped

It takes a lot for me, a committed socialist and Labour Party supporter (obviously they aren’t the same thing) to say this.

The words won’t come easy, and I’m happy I’m a writer because I don’t think I could say them out loud, but…

Thank you, George Osborne.

Thank you for finally scrapping the nasty, punitive, job destroying, pub-closing beer duty escalator, which for the last five years has increased the tax on a pint of beer by the rate of inflation plus an additional two per cent.

In beer circles, Osborne is already being hailed as the saviour of pubs. He’s not that – the 1p cut in beer duty will not do much to solve the existing pain pubs are feeling. But he has agreed to stop kicking beer and pubs repeatedly and violently in the bollocks. And that is still worthy of celebration.

The 1p cut, coming on top of the news about the duty escalator’s demise, was a welcome surprise. But beer duty has still gone up by over 40% since 2008. We must celebrate the fact that it won’t be going up any further in the near future. The damage being done to Britain’s pubs by the government will stop accelerating.

But it’s still there. The tax on our beer still remains among the highest in Europe. The UK consumes 13% of all the beer in Europe and pays 40% of all the tax on beer in Europe. That huge tax rise will never be reversed. But if the duty escalator had remained in place, that ludicrous statistic would have worsened, and Britain would ultimately have achieved the highest duty rates on beer in the whole of Europe.

While it’s important to remember that, this is still a day to raise a celebratory pint.

The case against the duty escalator was watertight, and at times it felt as though the persistent kicking of beer was pure sadism. 6000 pubs have closed for good since the escalator was implemented by the last Labour government. The volume of beer being drunk in the UK has plummeted. The average price of a pint in London is now pretty much around the £4 barrier. Beer – which for centuries has been an everyday small pleasure – is approaching a point where even those with a bit of money think twice about going to the pub.

Over the last year, an industry notorious for a bewildering number of trade bodies, who scrap and argue like the various Judean People’s Popular Fronts in The Life of Brian, have worked together to inspire a wide ranging public campaign.

One seasoned industry veteran explained to me that such protest was often futile, because people see tax on booze like that on cigarettes – a sin tax, that we don’t like but don’t feel able to argue against.

But beer in moderation is good for you. And beer keeps pubs alive. And pubs are more than drink shops – they are community hubs, drop-in centres, break rooms, havens, common rooms, retreats, public meeting rooms, society and club headquarters, party venues, family meal venues, stand up comedy and live music venues, buildings of historical note, tourist attractions, and so much more.  Destroy beer, and you destroy all this.

As beer sales plummeted, the amount of tax the government was raising fell short of targets. The supposed inelasticity of demand for beer proved false. And even if the duty was raising revenue, the damage it was doing to pubs, killing jobs and forcing out of business people who spent their money in their communities, surely outweighed the effect of the revenue.

And so the campaign against the escalator slowly creaked into gear. For the last year, its focus was on gaining 100,000 signatures on an e-petition that would have forced a parliamentary debate on the issue. It seemed to take forever: petitions against last year’s pasty tax, or against giving the Virgin Trains northwestern franchise to the wretched First Great Western, sped past and reached the total in a few weeks as the duty escalator protest rumbled on.

But finally it got there, and in November, beer got it’s parliamentary debate. The MPs attending voted unanimously for a review of the escalator. The Treasury flatly refused, and gave every indication of ignoring the growing weight of opinion.

But the debate did something important: it brought the issue to broader attention. Even those who have little sympathy for the beer industry started to see the injustice of the astonishing rise in duty, and the damage it was ultimately having on our social fabric. Even the Daily Mail said it was a bad thing. And when tabloid papers, particularly The Sun, got behind the issue, suddenly it felt like there was hope.

The Sun has of course already taken credit for today’s decision, and their impact cannot be overstated.

But this is a victory for the British Beer and Pub Association, the Campaign for Real Ale, Hobgoblin beer, which put so much energy into driving the petition, and all the other industry trade bodies, magazines, punters and landlords who campaigned.

It’s also a slap in the face for the many more people who could not be bothered to sign the petition, who said ‘What’s the point? These things never work.’

Objective commentators point out that this wasn’t the ‘beer duty escalator’ at all, but simply the ‘duty escalator’, applying to all alcohol. The fact that other alcohol duty has gone up today while beer’s has been cut proves that it is the beer industry that made its case clearly and persuasively. That the chancellor has singled out beer for help against all other drinks is astonishing.

So what next?

The beer and pub industry has been blaming the duty escalator for its woes for the last five years. It has undoubtedly cost thousands of jobs and closed thousands of pubs. Now, the fightback has to start.

Everyone who cares about the beer and the pub should go tonight to raise a celebratory pint. And no – not on Sunday when the 1p cut comes into effect – but now, to show solidarity and support for the beleaguered pub.

And publicans need to do their bit too. Beer is going to remain far more expensive in pubs than in supermarkets. Publicans need to give everyone today a warm welcome, and remind them why pubs are worth saving in the first place.

Today is the day the kicking stopped. That wonderful relief you get when something painful stops happening feels wonderful for a while. But starting now, there’s now a lot of healing to do.

Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week. Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time.

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