Thursday 20 March 2014

An everyday story of booze and bingo


So we had a budget. We get one every year to great fanfare accompanied by every single pundit on everything issuing their 'budget review' or similar. No one sane human being can begin to comprehend the scale of gobbledegook production that is responding to the budget mere moments after the Chancellor of the Exchequer sits down.

Many years ago, in the days when I had a proper job in the private sector, we used to prop the office telly up in the board room, drag a few clients in and watch the budget. As the thing closed, we'd realise that the detail we needed wasn't in the great man's actual speech (there was always something somewhere in the darker recesses of the budget documentation about tax free limits on friendly society bonds or some bizarre but important tweak to postal regulations).

Now because this was in the days before the wild west of the web arrived, the next event was the arrival of a thick, badly printed and poorly proof-read analysis from either a bank or a big accountancy firm. This involved the firm's experts (I know they were experts because they told me so) restating what the Chancellor said only using longer words and maybe some graphs - or "charts" as they call them. All this being accompanied by urging us to take advantage of the expensive services of the bank, accountancy firm or consultancy.

Meanwhile the world returned to normal. The newspapers ran their headlines, crafting them to meet the expected tone of the rag in question all filtered through the tribal preferences of whoever was running the show at that time. The rest of us headed out to stock up on cigars, whisky and petrol ahead of the imminent deadline when, 'ping', all the prices would go up.

Budgets matter because people notice them. For once the apathetic Brit sits up and takes notice. Perhaps even talks to another person about how this political event impacts on their lives. More importantly, some time soon, the budget decision will really affect them - a few more pounds of take home pay, perhaps a more expensive shopping basket at the supermarket or maybe a little more saving and a little less taxing.

But understand this, it's not the headlines that are driving all this but the actual changes made in the budget. Cutting the duty on beer by a couple of pennies might not make any difference to what we pay but it might mean that your local doesn't close. And the same goes for bingo - for sure, it'll be a little cheaper for the punter but the real win is that the bingo halls stay open, carry on providing entertainment (and jobs) in places where those things are limited.

So when middle-class people who don't go to pubs and wouldn't be seen dead in a bingo hall accuse the chancellor of 'patronising' the working-classes by cutting taxes on beer and bingo, they miss the point entirely. And even worse when they dredge through 1984 to find the quote about beer and gambling as social control they just show contempt for people whose lives don't revolve around making grand (but still witty, ever so witty) statements about politics while paying £8 for a small bottle of achingly trendy craft beer.

And the irony of accusing the government of 'social control' when cutting those booze and bingo taxes becomes stark when the big deal in the budget - reforming pensions - is discussed. Here's where the real contempt that those good thinking 'progressives' have for ordinary people comes gushing out - "you can't trust people to spend their own money sensibly" explains one especially smug Labour advisor while others tweet that people are bad at making long-term decisions.

If making it a little easier or cheaper to drink or gamble is social control then, compared to forcing people to invest their money in a specific, government-approved manner, it's a peculiarly liberating form of social control. And one I'm quite happy with! I know I'm supposed to nod sagely at the comparing of 'booze and bingo' to 'bread and circuses' (although Juvenal's quote does start with 'now no-one buys our votes any more') but these are examples of the little pleasures that, for most people, are what makes life something other than a drudge.

For the three-and-a-half million or so bingo players and about twenty-five million beer drinkers yesterday's budget will have been cheering - not so cheering as to change much about their lives (although raising the tax threshold will have helped too) but worth a smile and a cynical 'thanks, George'.

The proof will be in the cooking and eating. But so far the budget looks OK for ordinary folk and less good for the arrogant folk who think they know better.

Cheers George!



Anonymous said...

And yet..... a 1p reduction in Beer Duty will never appear in the drinkers' pockets, it's just too trivial for anyone to be bothered changing all the labelling, auto-tills etc. And the drinkers won't expect to see it either. It just drops onto the bottom-line of the pubs (who admittedly need all the help they can get after the smoking ban).

In truth, the 1p reduction was just a bit of populist puff, which will change nothing but generates the odd friendly headline for a day or two. That's budget politics.

Adam said...

Hm. You make a fair point about the importance of helping struggling businesses to survive, but I question whether cutting beer & bingo tax is the most efficient way to achieve that.

Business rates, anyone? Employers' NIC?

Stewart Cowan said...

Well said, Anonymous. If the Government cared about socialising, they'd have reversed Labour's smoking discrimination and if they cared about business, they'd get rid of Labour's Climate Change Act 2008.

Truth is, they're as bad as each other and none deserves credit.

Anonymous said...

Stewart Cowan...

Which is why, of course, we're all voting UKIP as the only ones prepared to stand up for common sense.