The highlight of my year as a young teenager was undoubtedly Summer Camp. It was not really a camp at all. Public (that means private) schools bearing varying degrees of similarity to Hogwarts were hired for a fortnight and staffed by post-pubescent volunteer counselors, hand-picked by the ever-so-more-mature officers of our local youth club. With average pedagogic training approaching that of an apprentice lollipop man, the fact that nobody ever died was no fault of the organizers.
When, at the ripe old age of 21, my turn came around to be the big “I am”, I decided to play it super-tough. Making my grand entrance into the Dining Hall on the first evening (and being totally ignored by all the little runts in the process), I waited a few moments and then screamed for silence. In the words of Desmond Tutu at yesterday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela, you could “hear a pin drop”. Proceeding in the footsteps of all my illustrious predecessors, I laid down the rules for the next two weeks: no water-bombs; lights out at 11; no late night dormitory raids; no midnight feasts. Anyone caught committing one of these heinous crimes would be sent home on the Milk Train (I think I first heard that beauty at the age of 10).
By the time I sat down with the counselors late on the second night, I was in despair. “Why are they all so damned well-behaved? Nothing is happening! Don’t they know that they are SUPPOSED to disobey me? That is all the fun.”
That event nearly 35 years ago came back to me the other day on noticing that it was the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition in the United States. Although there were, undoubtedly, sound moral reasons why Prohibition was introduced in 1920 and equally sound moral reasons why it was abandoned in 1933, the underpinning of both was taxation. The introduction of a Federal Income Tax in 1913 enabled the miserable sods in Congress to rid the nation of the scourge of liquor as the said income tax compensated for excise duties on alcohol. In contrast, the effect of the Great Depression on revenue from income tax necessitated the topping up of the Treasury’s barrels.
Generations of politicians have publicly spoken of duty on alcohol as a Pigovian Tax or, more popularly, a Sin Tax – one that is designed to achieve socially desirable results ie a reduction in consumption. That, I am sure, is very moral and reeks of the old Temperance movements. Meanwhile, our elected elite know that they would be lost without liquor – excise taxes on alcoholic beverages in the UK, for example, are estimated to cover around a sixth of the costs of the National Health Service. And if you ever thought that they really wanted you to be on the wagon, remember that Finance Ministers often lower duties when economic conditions are ripe so as to encourage greater demand for the stuff. White man speaks with forked tongue.
In fact, excise duty on alcohol is a violently Regressive Tax – affecting the less well off far, far more than the top one per cent. There is, I am told, a limit to the number of beers one man can drink, whatever his station in life. And when was the last time you saw a toff walking into a pub and asking for a pint of Dom Perignon and a bag of Salt ‘n Vinegar crisps?
Come December each year, of course, the moral arguments are sent into hibernation. Drinking becomes a spiritual, even divine, experience. Indeed, around the middle of the month there is an acute feeling that companies and advisors in several European countries start to fade out , rather than break, for Christmas as alcohol levels start to rise above the eye-brows. I was rather amused talking to somebody in Ireland the other day when he assured me that Ireland keeps going until December 23rd – according to a survey I read recently, Ireland has the second highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world; on the other hand, maybe the Irish can hold their drink (ha, ha).
I was so successful avoiding fatalities in that camp, that they had me back the following year for an older clientele. Free with the public (private) school came an ancient 1950s bus, the Green Goddess, and its far more ancient driver, Jock. Now, if Jock had ever made it up Mount Olympus he would have teetered off pretty fast because he was in a recurring state of inebriation. In fact, whenever he took us anywhere, I put someone on Jock duty to make sure he didn’t make a bee-line for the local watering-hole. On one occasion, up in a Peak village, he managed to give his guard the slip. Finding the Green Goddess parked with two wheels up on the pavement outside the village pub I decided to ride shot-gun on the way back to the school, ready to grab the wheel at a split-second’s notice. When I informed him that he had just driven through a red light in the town of Buxton, he exclaimed something about going forth and multiplying and continued on his (and our) way singing Scottish ditties to himself as he went (and I sat with my eyes glued to the road ahead).
It was blatantly clear that Jock drank too much – he couldn’t function properly in his chosen profession (unless, of course, his chosen profession was ‘mass murderer’, although, come to think of it, he was useless at that, too). On the other hand, drink appeared to make him happy. It seemed, from the vantage point of my then immense 22 years experience, that Jock needed drink but he also needed brakes (on his too frequently raised right arm as well as the Green Goddess’s wheels). Perhaps the ‘social contract’ on alcohol that governments have with their electorates, is not so woozy after all.