Picture the three following scenes: The sun setting over an English apple orchard, a down-and-out drinking from a can on a park bench and students merry-making on vast quantities of Bulmers. Sure, apart from the first one, they may not be the most attractive or healthy activities, but by gum they are British traditions. And they are all under threat following the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s new Budget.
Alistair Darling has announced that the Government will be increasing the duty on cider by 10% above inflation this year. Other controversial inclusions in the Budget are a 1% above inflation rise on tobacco duty (followed by 2% year on year) and a 2% above inflation rise on the duty on beers, wine and spirits (to be repeated every year until 2013). But it is the particular hike on the price of cider which has sparked national outrage.
The announcement no doubt will cause inhabitants of the West Country and town centre tramps alike to put down their beloved tipple and whip out their calculators to deduce exactly how much this rise will affect them. They are bound to splutter on their Scrumpy when they discover that a bottle of cider will now set them back by an extra 9p and a litre by an extra 5p. Higher strength beverages, such as cider brandy, will inevitably face a particularly high increase due to their already premium nature.”
So why has the Chancellor launched a specific vendetta on this apple-juice based beverage? Darling defends the policy by explaining that cider has previously been under-taxed compared to other drinks, and that this Budget is merely correcting the anomaly. He has also expressed a hope that the price rise will deter drinkers from abusing high-strength alcoholic drinks.
Undoubtedly cider has suffered from a bad reputation of late, due to connotations of certain brands (White Lightning, in particular) with anti-social behaviour. Cider’s low cost and high-alcohol content has made it the drink of choice among underage drinkers, Jeremy Kyle guests and those of no fixed abode. It is no surprise that the Royal College of Physicians has welcomed the move.
But the Government is surely hopelessly optimistic if they believe that raising the cost of cider will somehow immediately lead to the cessation of the negative health and social consequences of alcohol consumption.
Moreover, the damage to Britain’s cider industry could be acute. Cider makers have argued that the decision will lead to a lost investment in the rural economy and threaten England’s apple orchards. The fact is that the Government’s policy is deeply tactical.
Faced with fighting a General Election when the country is barely out of a recession, the Government had to find a way to increase revenue whilst alienating as few voters as possible. Cider makers and drinkers are not an electorally important group to Labour, as the West Country is solidly Liberal Democrat. And as for cider’s infamous underage and student aficionados, they are notoriously disengaged from politics.
However, Alistair Darling may be concerned to learn that he has now made a new political enemy in the form of “I Am a Cider Drinker” band The Wurzels. Discussing the Chancellor, they said: “We’ll tell him something, he won’t be the Darling bud of our May. We would like to offer our 50 years of experience of cider drinking and of playing within a cider community to the government in an advisory capacity…And the public can be assured that we would obviously register our interests in cider before any lobbying commenced.”