By Graham Holter
I have a friend called Sam who is nowhere near as worried as I am about climate change. I don’t think he disputes that it’s a problem. He may even agree that it’s a huge problem. But his feeling is that eventually someone will deal with it and make it go away. Cheerfully, he jumps on long-haul flights, turns on the patio heater, and zips up and down the motorway to enjoy the comforts of his second home.
What would Sam be doing if he ran a wine business right now? No doubt he would be alarmed by the government’s duty review which, if implemented, would see 70% of all wines taxed at a higher rate than currently, in a fiendishly complicated sliding-scale system so time-consuming and costly that it’s likely to deter some producers from bothering with the UK at all.
But maybe, he would conclude, that’s for others to worry about, people with more clout and more time on their hands. A solution will doubtless come along, just as it did with VI-1 forms, and meanwhile we can all keep concentrating on buying and selling lovely wines.
We don’t yet know whether Liz Truss will be our next prime minister, or Rishi Sunak, the proud architect of the duty reform proposals. We do know that the government has paused a final decision on their implementation, at least until the autumn. Maybe the plans will be quietly shelved, especially if the Wine & Spirit Trade Association continues to make a convincing case, with the help of indies like Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants, and Matt Hennings of Hennings in West Sussex, whose excellent recent social media video on the subject is worth watching and sharing.
BBPA members have taken a look at the Sunak blueprint and responded: bring it on
But the WSTA is not the only drinks industry body lobbying the government. The British Beer & Pub Association has also been banging drums and, rather unhelpfully, it’s on the other side of the argument. Its members have taken a look at the Sunak blueprint and responded: bring it on.
The BBPA’s position is based on naked protectionism. Its members are spooked by rising wine sales and a decline in beer drinking, trends that accelerated during Covid restrictions. In 2020, it reports, beer accounted for 33% of alcohol consumption, down from 37% in 2019. Wine’s share rose from 31% to 33%. Who’s benefiting from higher wine consumption? Not the pubs.
Many who represent publicans have a slightly creepy tendency to talk about licensees as guardians of public morality. Their assertion is that people need supervision if they choose to drink alcohol – supervision that only the nation’s noble landlords can provide. Off-trade sales have always been demonised by sections of the beery end of the on-trade, and if their arguments were confined to white cider-fuelled mayhem it would be easier to sympathise. But the BBPA is also gunning for the wine trade.
Chief executive Emma McClarkin said – presumably with a straight face: “When people visit the pub they primarily drink beer, which on average is 4.2% abv, the lowest strength alcohol category, and so ideal for moderate consumption. It is great to see the Chancellor recognise this and promote lower strength alcohol drinks with his changes to the UK alcohol duty regime.”
So, inconveniently for all those involved in wine importing and retailing who can see that Sunak’s idea is a catastrophic error, increasing business costs, adding new levels of bureaucracy and reducing consumer choice, it’s not possible to claim that everybody in the UK drinks industry is opposed to the plan. Far from it.
We can sit back and wait for common sense to prevail, or for the WSTA to persuade Treasury grandees that duty reform, in its current incarnation, will badly damage a section of the economy that has been a success story for several decades. Maybe something will turn up. But maybe it won’t. It’s time to email our MPs, again.