Last Friday saw the welcome abandonment of two unpopular and illiberal government proposals in one day – minimum alcohol pricing and plain tobacco packaging.
Naturally this led to howls of outrage from the Righteous – Dick Puddlecote described them as whining like a 747 approaching Heathrow – and attempts to paint this as a triumph of corporate lobbying. However, in reality it was a victory for ordinary people over a powerful and well-funded health lobby that seeks to dictate ever more closely how we live our lives.
The alcohol industry was in any case divided over minimum pricing, with some companies like Greene King actually supporting the plan. Indeed, in a sense it would just have the result of transferring money from consumers’ pockets to Diageo and AB InBev. But, although the health lobby continued to claim it would not affect ordinary, moderate drinkers, the statistic that a 45p/unit minimum price would hit over 70% of off-trade alcohol units and thus affect a vast number of mainstream voters started to register with the politicians. Not to mention the fact that it’s almost certainly illegal anyway under EU competition law.
It’s certainly true that the tobacco industry did lobby strongly against plain packaging, but their main reason was not that it would cut consumption but that it would involve the effective confiscation of trademarks and brands built up at great expense over many years. There’s no evidence that it would reduce smoking rates, and it’s entirely possible that it could even lead to an increase as customers switch to the cheapest brands and the effective price falls.
But, in total, there were 665,989 responses to the government consultation on the proposals, of whom 427,888, or 64%, were opposed. That’s not something that could be achieved just by organised campaigning by lobby groups – it’s a genuine surge of grass-roots opinion.
All the government have done is to say they need to wait and assess the evidence from Australia before proceeding with the plan. Surely the health lobby wouldn’t want policies implemented on gut feel without any sound evidence base. Would they?
While both decisions have been criticised by the Labour Party, is there any guarantee that Labour would have implemented them if in office? And is it a good idea for the supposed champions of the working man and woman to go into the general election looking like the party that stamps on ordinary people's pleasures?
It will also be amusing to watch Salmond go ahead with his declared intention of trying to implement these policies North of the Border. I foresee a lot of egg on that smug face.
There is an important lesson to be learned from this, that there is nothing inevitable about the advancing tide of Healthist social control, and if you stand up and be counted and put your case across, these measures can be stopped. You may not win every battle, or even most of the battles, but every defeat you inflict creates another chink in the armour. And, even if something is just shelved for the time being, there is every chance that priorities will move on to something else and it will never happen. History is littered with ideas that at one time were regarded as part of the inexorable march of “progress” but are now buried deep in the long grass.