In the past few days, there has been considerable discussion in the media over claims by the British Medical Association and other anti-drink campaigners that the government were unduly influenced by industry lobbyists in rejecting proposals for minimum alcohol pricing. To some extent this just looks like a case of sour grapes that they didn’t get their way – and weren’t they engaged in vigorous lobbying too for their pet project? But the whole thing rests on two very questionable assumptions.
The first is that any kind of industry lobbying is somehow illegitimate in the first place. Obviously it is the role of government to try to balance conflicting interests and it certainly should not allow policy to be dictated by industry or indeed any other interest group. But to say that an industry that employs a million people, gives pleasure to millions more and contributes billions every year to the Exchequer has no right even to be heard when there are legislative proposals that are likely to severely affect it is a singularly extreme view. It seems to assume that industry per se is some kind of exploitative parasite on the body politic rather than what actually makes up the economy and funds government in the first place.
Second, as argued in this particularly appalling piece in the Guardian, minimum pricing was some kind of no-brainer policy that enjoyed overwhelming public support until it was derailed by the big bad brewers and distillers. However, in fact it never gained more than a relatively small minority of support in opinion polls, and it is too often lazily assumed that anyone opposing any kind of regulatory proposal – in many other fields beyond alcohol policy – is actually a paid industry shill rather than someone who has examined the issues for themselves and reached a different conclusion.
In reality, rather than rolling over as claimed in the face of industry bullying, surely the government took a long hard look at the plan and decided it was simply bad policy. It did not command public support, it would be ineffective in achieving its claimed objectives, it would unfairly target the less well off, it would lead to an increase in alcohol smuggling and illegal distilling and, at the end of the day, it was almost certainly illegal anyway under EU law.
The whole thing is very effectively deconstructed by Chris Snowdon here.