Beware Labour’s dangerous message on cheap alcohol
James Purnell is betraying the public good by attacking the Chief Medical Officer’s proposals for curbing alcohol abuse
I can never see the smug, lipless face and carefully cultivated blond tresses of Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell - let alone read his name in print - without wanting to bodily remove him from the greasy pole he's so intent on shinning up. There seems little the man will say that isn't for the express reason of furthering his career.
Take alcohol, for example. It's not that Purnell displays any more liking for intoxication - legal or otherwise - than the rest of his Westminster colleagues, it's simply that Purnell and booze go hand-in-hand, cavorting across the grey fields of contemporary public health policy.
It was Purnell who introduced 24-hour drinking to our sozzled land, and by golly, he's not about to let go of the idea that it's a - 'hic' - good thing. This alone explains why he has been first among the equally tipsy Labour ministers who've lurched to criticise Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, for daring to suggest that there should be minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Britain.
To address Britain’s booze problem we need to have a cultural changeAccording to Purnell, the troublesome doctor has exceeded his remit, by trespassing on economic policy, while Government control of commodity pricing may be, in a free market, of doubtful legality. Wow! I knew those New Labourites were unreconstructed free-marketeers, who all sat on the invisible right hand of the Great Golden Calf of Capitalism, but this is ridiculous slavishness.
After all, there are plenty of commodity markets that the Government sees fit to fix - illegal drugs springs readily to mind, although the net effect of their interdiction is only to have made the prices of cocaine and heroin fall, in real terms, for year upon year.
But Purnell has heavyweight support on his side, for up comes saturnine Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, to wheedle that now is not the time to burden impoverished Britons with extra booze expenditure - with £40k per household currently down the drain, we all need a little lubrication.
Humph! This looks like a re-tread of all the 'poor proles' rhetoric that floated in the breeze when the smoking ban was tabled. 'It's their only pleasure,' such seigniors contended, 'who are we to take it away from them?'
But hang on a minute, Donaldson is entirely clear-sighted about minimum unit pricing; he knows it isn't a 'magic bullet' for Britain's booze problem (a doubling in consumption since the 1960s, an exponential increase in liver disease - particularly among the young).
For that, he says, we need a cultural change. However, in the absence of a collective willingness to address the problem, minimum unit pricing is the next best thing.
This country has always had a very schizoid attitude towards alcohol
He's right, there is an undeniable correlation between alcohol price and alcohol consumption, and the net effect of minimum pricing would be to increase the price - and so restrict the availability - of precisely the budget liquors (the alcopops, the extra-strength lagers, the turpentine vodkas) favoured by - 'hic' - alcoholics and the kind of yoof who rampage up and down the pedestrian precincts of our miserable clone towns, like Calibans enraged by their reflections in the plate glass of bankrupt chain retailers.
Such a scheme has worked perfectly well in Canada - and that alone is probably why so many middle-class pundits, who'd rather be struck by lightning than be seen with a can of White Lightning in their hand - are quick to condemn it.
There's a kind of schizoid attitude to drinking in this country. On the one hand we bemoan our drunk and disorderly nation, but on the other hand we cling resolutely to the idea that - like the shameless people we so manifestly are - we know how to paaarty!
The one thing we dread above all is being boring - like, presumably, Canada - and so we cling to the notion, which is usually abandoned upon maturity by all but the most gauche of teenagers, that without a drink we're in danger of being a bore.
Sadly, in my experience, it's the drunks who are really tedious, while it's only others similarly affected who find them remotely amusing. Perhaps I need a stiff one - then I might begin to find James Purnell a dreadfully amusing and insightful chap. ·
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