A parting of the ways is often a small and silent step after years of falling out. It can happen over something that appears so trivial that your friends will be baffled unless they understand the path you have already trodden. But nevertheless the bags are packed and nothing will be the same again.
I have come to a parting of the ways with the Coalition government on the apparently small decision not to adopt a minimum price of alcohol. Those of you who know me may be surprised that I ever had any sympathy with this administration, but I hope I have given given the lads from the Burlingham Club a fair crack of the whip.
On the great matter of the day, I accept that austerity has been required. I have disliked some of the ways that the government has tackled deficit reduction. But neither the Labour Party not the Liberal party has a radically different way of mending the economy. There is a lamentable paralysis of economic thinking among our politicians and we may have to accept a bitter pill. Like my gout tablets, it is probably a lifetime prescription.
I disagree with the Prime Minister’s decision to arm the rebels in Syria because I do not believe we should interfere in the business of other countries. But the last Labour government did just the same. I reach with resignation for my Bob Dylan CD and play again his willowing rendition of “when will they ever learn?”
I have been dismayed that the Prime Minister has not accepted the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry despite having pledged to do so. He has been dragged reluctantly into accepting a royal charter after some undignified late night dealing. Where will he ever find a high court judge willing to chair an inquiry again?
I am not enamoured with David Cameron’s style. There is too much of a Friday afternoon feeling about the way policies are announced and decisions made. But that is a matter of taste. You do not come to a parting of the ways because your partner leaves the top off the toothpaste tube.
In all these respects, the government has acted just as you would expect the Conservatives to do, when tempered by their Liberal partners. But there has until now been a strand in the Cameron make up, which some may call reckless, prepared to take a bold and liberal stand. He has championed gay marriage and has supported Teresa May’s attempts to reform the police.
Cameron had seemed determined to tackle the problem of alcohol abuse. Only last year he pledged in the foreword to the Government’s alcohol strategy to introduce a minimum unit price. “ I know this won’t be universally popular “ he wrote “ but the responsibility of being in government isn’t always doing the popular thing.”
George Osborne was however doing the popular thing when he cancelled the 3p increase on beer and scrapped the mechanism by which these increases are calculated. He even took a penny off beer to prop up the pub trade and show his empathy with the pasty eaters. To be fair, in his budget speech the Chancellor told us that the ministers “were still looking at plans to stop the biggest discounts of cheap alcohol at retailers”. But no one denies there has been a u turn.
In the meantime, on holiday in the Lake District, I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I picked up a pack eights bottles of the excellent Jennings bitter for £8 at an upmarket supermarket.
So why has Dave chickened out? There are supposed to be problems about falling revenue and dubious legality but it is much more likely that our man has been got at by the powerful lobby of drinks producers and retailers who have always been close to the heart of a Conservative government. They have been aided and abetted by the libertarian elements in both the Conservative and Liberal parties, including some powerful ministers, who believe that we should be allowed to drink ourselves to death if we wish to do so. No nanny state in any circumstances.
Professor Steven Field, newly appointed deputy head of the NHS, estimates that a minimum price of 50p a unit will save 1000 premature deaths a year. Police chiefs in the North East claim that half of all violent crime and more than a third of domestic abuse is linked to alcohol and have asked the Home Secretary to think again. Local authority leaders, in another demonstration of their new friendship, have written too, as the North East suffers some of the highest levels of alcohol harm.
Why does this announcement, sneaked out from Downing Street and then confirmed in parliament at the beginning of a busy week, bring me to a heart sinking realisation that I cannot support this government?
I was once a crusader in this cause and am in no doubt that pricing is the major contributor to alcohol consumption and that higher levels of drinking lead to more alcohol related illness and crime. It is still a cause close to my heart though the careful reader will surmise from the references above to beer and gout that I enjoy the stuff myself.
That’s the trouble. Unlike cigarette smoking, alcohol is not an outright evil but its effect on our society is the great challenge of this era, comparable to opium in the 19th century.
Politicians are often remembered for the small initiatives they took outside of their party policies. As time goes by, Harold Wilson is better remembered for setting up the Open University than for, in his famous catchphrase, “harnessing the white heat of technology”.
One of most influential decisions of the last Labour government was to ban smoking in public places. There was no political kudos for introducing the legislation which was controversial at the time but is taken for granted these days.
I hope David Cameron listened to Justin Welby’s sermon at his inauguration in Canterbury on Thursday, in a service that embraced the world and challenged us all. Have faith in your convictions, the Archbishop told us; the courage to walk on the water will banish fear.
But after the U turn on alcohol pricing, Ed Miliband can ask whether David Cameron could organise anything in a brewery. If the Prime Minister has lost his courage, then it is time for a parting of the ways.
George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene shepherdsdene.co.uk