Comment: Alcohol pricing could lead to stricter border controls

By Tom Henri

Last week the government announced it is setting the minimum price per unit of alcohol at 45p.  Much has been written about the potential effectiveness of this policy on reducing problematic and binge drinking. Other than the stated aims of this policy, I believe there are some rather troubling broader issues. Framing binge culture in nationalistic terms is the thin end of a draconian wedge.

As the aims of the policy are to reduce the consumption of cheap beverages, it is fair to assume that it is impoverished drinkers who are going to bear the brunt of the increase is alcohol costs. Minimum per unit pricing will not affect the price of expensive, and therefore exclusive, beverages, but the cost of cheap supermarket and off-licence sold drinks will no doubt increase. As one of the stated aims of the policy is to reduce binge drinking, there is an assumption behind this policy that binge drinking is a malaise of the poor, that the better-off do not engage in such behaviour, or if they do, there are no negative social or public health consequences.

Historically, whenever governments have tried to control the sale of alcohol, there has been another group of beneficiaries other than the alcohol industry. The raising of the price of low cost alcoholic beverages is likely to have a significant impact on the profitability of alcohol smuggling.  According to HM Revenues and Customs, the alcohol smuggling industry costs the treasury £1.2 billion per year in unpaid duties and much of the business of alcohol trafficking is controlled by organised criminals. This begs the question: why would the government want to introduce a policy which is going to benefit those engaged in the illegal alcohol trade?

In order to get near to an answer to this question, we need to think about the relationship between the moral panic of binge drinking and the rhetoric of British nationalism. Just consider the terms in which we talk about problematic drinking in the UK. From Tony Blair referring to binge drinking as the "new British disease", to TV shows called Booze Britain, to David Cameron remarking that excessive drinking is "a national problem", the popular notion of the behaviour of the British is rather unpleasantly alcohol-fuelled.

Despite the evidence that alcohol consumption has been falling for several years,  we continue to rally around the flag to voice our concerns about alcohol in a way that we do not for any other commodity.

The reason for this is that there is a massive internal contradiction at the heart of attempts to manage the consumption of alcohol. The regulation of personal consumption is rather out-of-sorts with the underlying political ideology of the age. By deploying the rhetoric of nationalism and therefore the health of the nation, politicians can neatly sidestep this internal contradiction.

Focusing on a perceived national problem (and let's not forget, the nation is a evocative idea, people will wilfully die for their country) of disordered drinking allows the government to enforce regulation without appearing at odds with their underlying political ideology.  By raising the spectre of the nation-state and applying it to notions of national deficiency, the government can differentiate alcohol as distinct from other commodities in special need or control and management.

So on one hand, this policy evokes the idea of nationality as a vehicle to deploy the regulation of individuals in the UK. On the other hand it provides incentives for increasing criminal activities at the borders of the nation – smuggling.

The current UK government is keen to maintain or indeed strengthen the nation's borders.  However, border control is an area of public policy that is fraught with contradictions.  Politicians of many persuasions wish to be seen to highly manage and regulate borders to counterbalance popular fears about immigration. Yet to over-control borders would have profound effects on the economic wellbeing of the country. So for those invested in making border control policy, this requires a balancing act utilising a range of policy devices to retool this balance from time-to-time.

The policy of minimum alcohol price per unit has the potential to become one of these devices. Consider hypothetically that at some point in the future there is a perceived need to reinforce border controls, for example an increase in people entering the UK to seek asylum. If that were to happen, the evidence of increased alcohol smuggling could provide the basis for the securing of the border.

Fears about loss of revenue to the Treasury, increasing crime and continued access to cheap alcohol could be used as a precursor to shore up the borders of Fortress Britain. In the masquerade of border control policy, any increase in smuggling as a result of the minimum alcohol price policy is a useful disguise with which to fortify the nation.

Tom Henri studied sociology, social policy and social work at the University of Southampton.  He then worked as a social worker and a social work educator before taking up a lectureship at Goldsmiths, University of London.

His paper, ‘The Borders of Booze Britain:  Alcohol control and nationality’ is forthcoming in the Journal of Contemporary Social Science.

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