CentreForum’s ‘Liberal Villains of the Month’ – July 2012 – Theresa May & Lord (Sebastian) Coe

by Stephen Tall on July 23, 2012

Welcome to the first in our series — Liberal Villain of the Month — as chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. 

Each week we select a ‘Liberal Hero’, showcasing public figures who — regardless of party affiliation — help promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book: economic, personal, political and social liberalism. But along with the carrots, there is sometimes the need for a stick. ‘Liberal Villains’ identifies those who are doing their utmost to stick liberalism into a reverse gear. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Theresa May and the House of Commons health select committee

Home Secretary and 11 Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem MPs
Reason: for supporting a policy of minimum alcohol pricing that will boost retailers’ and producers’ profits by £850m pa at the expense of the public.

Alcohol consumption is declining. It is now at its lowest level in over a decade. Alcohol consumption hit a peak in the UK in 2004, since when it has FALLEN by 12%. And as the graph shows, this fall is true for both men and women, including men aged 16-24. The UK, despite our self-perception as a nation of boozers, is not even among the top 10 per capita alcohol consumers in Europe.

Yet the UK government is choosing this moment to impose a minimum pricing policy on alcohol which will indiscriminately hit both responsible and irresponsible drinkers alike and will hand over guaranteed extra profits to some of the biggest corporations in the country.

This is a classic case of the ‘something must be done’ fallacy of government. And, as so often, politicians like Theresa May are responding not to evidence but to the media agenda: Daily Mail pictures showing young women the worse-for-wear after a night on the town have much greater impact on public concern than dry statistics showing the reality. Instead of trying to understand better what it is currently that is driving the reduction in drinking — and then incentivising further such behaviour-changing inputs — the Government has alighted on an authoritarian lever to pull instead.

Indeed there is evidence that it by over-egging the problem, politicians and the media contribute to it through ‘social norming’, the assumption that if everyone else is binge-drinking then it’s better to join in than be the odd-one-out. But as a BBC report in February noted:

… publishing the facts can challenge this. Some student unions have begun putting up posters giving the real drinking statistics for students, which are on average often far lower than expected. Once the true figure is displayed, students tailor their drinking accordingly. In other words, it doesn’t do any good to hype up the problem.

There is a legitimate argument for increasing taxes on alcohol. Drinkers, like smokers, are price sensitive: the higher the price the less they are likely to consume. And the revenues raised offset the ‘negative externalities’ of the public spending needed to treat them in hospital. But minimum alcohol pricing simply transfers money direct to the drinks companies and retailers from consumers, with an IFS study showing it would produce an estimated £850m yearly windfall. And yes, some of those consumers hit will be irresponsible drinkers — but the vast majority will be ordinary members of the public who are moderate drinkers. So instead of targeting the behaviour of the few who are the problem, the Government has devised a policy which will catch everyone in its net.

Such actions are perhaps to be expected of a government minister in search of a headline. But parliamentary select committees should look beyond the headlines and scrutinise ministers’ use of powers. Instead the health select committee, chaired by Stephen Dorrell and with representatives from all three major parties, has endorsed minimum alcohol pricing. So our first Liberal Villains this month are Theresa May and those 11 MPs for supporting a policy which tackles a declining problem in the wrong way.

Dishonourable mention: Lord Coe, Chairman of London 2012 Organising Committee (Locog)

I’m not an Olympic-cynic. Regardless of the economic (de)merits of the £9bn cost of London hosting the 2012 games, now is the time — rather like accidentally ending up in a much more expensive restaurant than you intended — simply to soak up the atmosphere and resign yourself to enjoying it all. But that welcome does not extend to Sebastian Coe’s quite astonishingly blase capitulation to the Olympic sponsors’ assault on personal freedom.

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme last week, Lord Coe declared “No, you probably would not be walking in with a Pepsi T-shirt because Coca-Cola are our sponsors” — though, to be fair, he did have the grace to accept the public might be able to wear their own footwear: “Let’s sort of put some reality in this. You probably would be able to walk through with Nike trainers. Does that satisfy you?” Erm, not really m’Lord.

Locog was quickly forced to issue a clarifying statement: “any individual coming into our venues can wear any item of clothing, branded or otherwise … The only issue is if large groups come in together wearing clearly visible branding.”

London 2012 should be a celebration of the best Britain has to offer — that should include personal liberty, even if Lord Coe would prefer to sell it to the highest bidder.

* Stephen Tall has been Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice since 2007, and also writes at his own site, StephenTall.org. He tweets @stephentall. Please submit your nominations for future ‘Liberals of the Week’ to Stephen by email or via Twitter. You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and ‘Liberal Villains of the Month’ in due course) here.