Thursday 15 March 2018

Decision day

Last month, I wrote about CAMRA’s Revitalisation proposals in a post entitled Stick to the knitting, and expressed a considerable degree of scepticism about the project. I said: “We haven’t had sight of the precise wording of the motions yet. But my feeling is that I will be strongly inclined to vote against the main thrust of the revitalisation project. If you care about the protection of our beer, brewing and pub heritage, I would urge you to do likewise.”

The latest issue of What’s Brewing has now landed on my doormat complete with the full text of the ten Special Resolutions. Now, I don’t propose to bore the general readership with the fine detail – if you’re a member of CAMRA you’ll have the information anyway. Some of them have more merit than others, but I have to say my conclusion is just to vote the “straight ticket” and oppose the lot, as a general rejection of the principles of Revitalisation. Some might criticise this as a “scorched earth” policy, but all it does is to retain the status quo. Hopefully, if the proposals don’t pass, it will give the leadership the opportunity to formulate something that clarifies the organisation’s aims and objectives without needlessly antagonising substantial sections of the membership.

A further problem is that the proposals have been presented in a totally one-sided way, with no opportunity for any arguments against them to be circulated to the general membership. Surely this goes completely against the spirit of democracy. Would this be remotely acceptable for a national referendum on a major political issue?

As I said before, the exercise has created a considerable amount of ill-feeling, with harsh words being exchanged on CAMRA’s Discourse forum and bats being taken home. It is proving extremely divisive, and the risk is that, whatever the outcome, it will leave the organisation permanently diminished. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the whole thing represents pandering to a British craft beer lobby that initially set itself up in opposition to the perceived out-of-touch and old-fashioned attitude of CAMRA. And, at a time when real ale is under threat from multiple directions, shouldn’t the organisation be focusing on its core purpose rather than “embracing” competitor products?

But we will have to wait and see how events unfold in Coventry on Saturday 21 April before we know what the end result is.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

The last straw?

In recent months, there has been a steady procession of pub operators announcing that they were phasing out the use of plastic straws, the latest being the Deltic Group. The reason given is that, heeding the message of programmes like “Blue Planet”, it will reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans and harming aquatic wildlife. However, it has to be questioned how much effect it’s going to have. I’d guess the overwhelming majority of plastic straws used in pubs in the UK end up in landfill, not in the sea. Plus 90% of all the plastic waste in the oceans originates from just ten rivers in Asia and Africa. It’s not to say it isn’t worth doing, but realistically it will be literally a drop in the ocean.

There is an obvious alternative in the form of paper straws. However, presumably there’s a disadvantage that they become soggy after a while. Are they really any more likely to end up in the recycling, particularly if they’re treated with chemicals to make them more durable? And one pub found out that, what they gained on the swings, they lost on the roundabouts:

It’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s an element of snobbery in the campaign against straws. Straws are used by the scummy plebs when eating at McDonald’s or slurping giant cartons of Coke in the cinema; they’re not for sophisticated people like us.

Is putting waste into landfill all that bad anyway? In his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg shows how the entire production of waste in the USA in the 21st century could be accommodated in a landfill that covered just 26% of a single county in Oklahoma, or one twelve-thousandth of the total area of the country. It’s far more manageable than is often claimed. Of course waste should be recycled if it’s practical to do so, but single-use plastics have brought us major advances in convenience and hygiene that shouldn’t be breezily dismissed. Wanting to make everything recyclable is very much a First World indulgence.

The conclusion must be that dropping plastic straws is really just a piece of easy environmental virtue-signalling rather than something that is really going to make a significant difference. If pub operators want to take a serious look at their environmental impact across the board, shouldn’t they be considering stopping shipping water (which is pretty much what beer is) all the way across the Atlantic and abandoning single-use containers for draught beer?

Thursday 8 March 2018

Eat what you're told

Earlier this week, Public Health England came up with a quite jawdropping list of foods they intend to target as part of a campaign to reduce calorie consumption by 20% by 2024. It covers the greater part of most people’s diets, including such notorious junk food items as fish, rice and pasta. And, if manufacturers don’t make changes “voluntarily”, they will press for legislation.

The whole thing is filleted here with his usual aplomb by Christopher Snowdon, an article well worth reading in detail. He makes the point that there are only three ways to achieve this objective – reformulation, switching to lower-calorie alternatives and reducing portion size. But there’s a limit to how far you can change recipes while still retaining palatability, and how can you actually reformulate fish or chicken? Where “diet” items are offered alongside standard ones, they often achieve only a small takeup, leaving smaller portions as in many cases the only option.

It is difficult to find the words to describe how demented this policy is. Imagine a Soviet commissar, drunk on power and vodka, who had been driven mad after contracting syphilis. Even he would not issue an edict like this. It is off the scale of anything the ‘public health’ lobby has tried before. It represents the final severing of the thread that once connected Public Health England to the real world.
Yes, of course we should be provided with nutritional information about the food we eat and, where possible, offered a choice of portion sizes. But this is taking matters much further, and treating people not as intelligent, empowered citizens but as dim-witted dupes whose diet needs to be controlled from on high for their own good. It’s an unprecedented intrusion into the minutiae of people’s everyday lives.
All those who claimed that the tobacco control template was never going to be extended into other areas have now been left with egg on their faces, although hopefully not too much. It just never seems to stop.

It’s also a reminder that, when it comes to lifestyle bullying, it makes little difference which set of politicians you vote for. What is for certain, though, is that in the coming years our food is going to become less appetising and more expensive, and come in smaller portions. And you do have to wonder whether this will lead on to another attempt to reduce the strength of alcoholic drinks and normalise smaller measures.

Friday 2 March 2018

Och aye, what a nice crocodile!

The introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland is now less than two months away. The policy has provoked a huge amount of controversy, but it has attracted a perhaps surprising supporter in the form of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the trade body for pubs, clubs and bars in the country. They have been happily regurgitating all the familiar tropes of the anti-drink lobby on Twitter.

But, as I have explained in the past, all of these claims are, at best, highly exaggerated and misleading.

Selling alcohol at pocket-money prices is a largely meaningless statement, and carries a somewhat offensive insinuation that it is routinely being sold to children. We already have the fourth most expensive alcohol prices in Europe. How high would it need to go before it wasn’t being sold at “pocket-money prices”?

While it is true that it is possible to buy some very cheap beers for less per litre than some very expensive brands of bottled water, as a generalised statement alcohol is cheaper than water is not far short of an outright lie. In my local Tesco, I can buy two litres of fizzy water for 17p. I’d really like to know where I can get beer cheaper than that. It’s about as accurate and meaningful as saying you can buy cars cheaper than pedal cycles.

And the claim that supermarkets are routinely selling alcohol as a loss-leader doesn’t stand up to analysis. I’m not saying it doesn’t ever happen, but it simply makes no economic sense to sell something that makes up a substantial proportion of a shopping basket at a loss. There may be very little margin in those discounted slabs of Carling, but they’re not selling them for less than they paid for them.

The SLTA’s support for MUP might be understandable, if self-serving, if they actually stood to gain from it. But it won’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs, and if the price of a can of Carling goes up from 60p to 90p it’s not exactly going to encourage anyone to spend £3.50 on a pint in the pub. Indeed, as Christopher Snowdon argues here, it could even lead to people spending less in pubs if they need to reallocate a fixed budget for spending on alcohol.

Plus, much off-trade alcohol consumption is not readily transferable to pubs anyway. The pensioner enjoying a nightcap of whisky, the family sharing a bottle of wine with their Sunday lunch, or the group of friends cracking open a few cans with their back-garden barbecue aren’t going to suddenly rush down to the pub if it costs more. It’s simply a question of making the everyday pleasures of ordinary people on limited budgets that bit less affordable.

The SLTA’s stance comes across as a nihilistic dog-in-the-manger attitude, taking the view that they have suffered, so why shouldn’t other parts of the drinks trade be made to suffer too? It’s certainly true that the Scottish on-trade has been hit very hard in recent years by the smoking ban and the reduction of the drink-drive limit. But they mounted a pretty feeble opposition to both measures, so in a sense have only themselves to blame. Taking it out on others, though, will achieve no more than a pointless venting of rage. Surely all parts of the drinks trade should take a united stand against the neo-Prohibitionists rather than allowing them to play divide and rule and being treated as useful idiots.

It should also be remembered that the study by the University of Sheffield used to support the policy actually concludes that the most “beneficial” results would come from setting differential minimum prices for on- and off-trades, with that for pubs and bars more than twice as high. Any advantage gained from minimum pricing could turn out to be short-lived, as the spotlight turns to on-trade pricing. And, when the guns of the neo-Prohibitionists are retargeted on the on-trade, the SLTA are likely to find themselves with very little sympathy from a Scottish public who they have been keen to see charged much more for their modest pleasures.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” And the SLTA are getting very pally with an extremely dangerous reptile. Their stance is one of contemptible hypocrisy and, given that they are vanishingly unlikely to derive any benefit from minimum pricing, utterly delusional.