A feature of battles between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives is that both try to claim they are better guardians of rural areas than the other. Both have large support out in the sticks, and thus speak from a position of strength, even if they represent different interests and policies.
So why on earth were Tory MPs last week voting against a plan to scrap the alcohol tax escalator? This was a measure that would have given a boost to the country pub, that staple of rural (and urban) life that was struggling even before the credit crunch knocked the glass out of its hand.
The pub has been hit by a double-whammy of people having less money to spend on non-essentials, and the ban on smoking in public places.
The smoking ban is an improvement that would have come sooner or later anyway, but one of its side-effects has been to endanger the life of the local pub – it has made pubs nicer places to drink in but has left many with fewer drinkers enjoying these nicer places. Nationwide, more than 2000 pubs have closed in the past year, while beer sales dropped by 8.2% in the first quarter of 2009.
And it’s likely to get worse, after the Chancellor introduced the alcohol tax escalator in his budget – a measure which sees alcohol duty go up 2% above inflation every year.
So a group of Lib Dem MPs tabled a motion calling for the escalator to be dropped. It was supported by 62 MPs, 49 of them Lib Dems. It was opposed by 311 MPs, almost all of them Labour and Conservative.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling for people to drink more alcohol. Much havoc has been wrought by people drinking too much and at inappropriate times, and the ‘everything in moderation’ philosophy applies to drinking. But pubs are part of the fabric of community life, often bringing people together in ways that might not otherwise happen, especially since the demise of village shops and community facilities.
Tax escalators are good if your idea is to wean people’s dependence off something. But if we want to wean people off pubs, then we will be left with a pub-less landscape. That’s not something I want to see.