Rural: These men have the bottle to challenge beer taxes

A rural rebellion is taking place among the drinking classes. Richard D North reports.
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This isn't exactly the Peasants' Revolt, and the affluent master brewer Stewart Neame of Shepherd Neame, Faversham, hardly brings the socialist John Ball - "the Mad Priest" - to mind. Still, six centuries after Wat Tyler got the countrymen of Kent to march on London, Mr Neame - who may go down as the Mad Brewer for his pains - is leading a yeoman rebellion which may benefit the beer drinkers. They'll be paying more for some of their ale, it's true - but it'll more likely be decent English beer in a decent local.

The cause is popular among fellow members of the Independent Family Brewers of Britain (IFBB). The Hook Norton brewery, near Banbury, owned for five generations by one family, and perhaps the most picturesque in the country, is amongst many helping to fund it.

Mr Neame's revolt will surface in the High Court on 17 and 18 December, when he uses the judicial review process to challenge the Government's declared intention to raise the duty on beer and wine by 3 per cent, in line with inflation, due to come in on 1 January 1998. It is the latest of a series of taxation blows that have vastly increased the differential between French liquor duty and ours.

Rural Kent was always only a semi-detached part of the South-east, and never shared all its affluence. At least, though, it had the economic hum of Dover, but now even that is proving a drawback. At first glance, the "crime" Mr Neame is complaining about looks victimless. Middle-income Britain piles into its Volvo estates to pick up pre-Christmas wine bargains in Calais, and lesser mortals are nipping over in the Mondeo for tubby little bottles of French lager. There is, of course, something absurd, let alone unecological, about hordes of people driving miles - many of them heavily laden - to milk a bureaucratic nonsense. But most people feel they are getting something for nothing, and cry "Vive la differential!" with the rest.

The cheapness of French beer has attracted real crime as well, however. Two men currently face charges for attempted murder by shooting in Dover. Young dole-scrounging "runners" from Merseyside, Clydeside and Tyneside import a new criminality from inner cities, as well as hand-rolling tobacco, and bootleg beer, in white vans from Calais.

The wider crime is economic, claims the trade. Mr Neame's mostly rural brewing colleagues mostly manage to keep the wolf from the door: their sometimes murky, often gutsy and nearly always gasless product is fashionable, and they have developed export markets. But they argue that their situation is serious, not least because many of them own pubs, too. "I'm just an embattled businessman who is losing one quarter of my pub trade to the French," says Mr Neame. "In Kent one pint in three comes from Calais. Everyone has a stock of French beer in their garage. Even my relatives give me French stuff at barbecues." He says 45 of his pubs have had to close because of the differential, though he has bought others to replace them.

Hook Norton, up in north Oxfordshire, where the loss is claimed to be more like one pint in 20, shares the complaint. James Clarke, the firm's 26-year-old "second brewer" to his MD and chief brewer father, David, says: "Our production peaked in 1993 and has seen a slight decline since then. We think the duty differential must have something to do with it." The firm still uses an ancient steam engine for most of its power. In other areas, though, there has been some modernisation - stainless steel came in to supplement older wooden vats (or "tuns"), during the post-Seventies, and now halted, expansion.

Only the most imaginative pub-keeping, such as practised in their Butcher's Arms in King's Sutton, near Banbury, with its curry nights and a chintzier feel than of old, keeps Hook Norton's inn-keepers busy. Its new style is part of a wider trend. The Wellington pub, in Wellington, Herefordshire, typifies the best of it: a moribund Edwardian pub, it has since July been newly themed as a restaurant-pub more rustic-looking than a Country Living cover. Village people have been flocking in droves. Spit and sawdust is no longer attractive, even to dedicated country-lovers.

But such pubs have to contend everywhere with cut-price booze. It was one thing to see their trade suppressed by the high duties which for decades made pubs and off-licences a Treasury milch-cow. At least then, no one could escape the imposts. But the UK signed up to Maastricht and the Single Market was introduced in 1993. New rules came in which, in effect, allowed anyone to bring in almost any quantity of beer, wine and spirits provided it was for personal or family use (including large get-togethers such as weddings). Mr Neame says that at this point, harmonisation of duties became crucial.

"The Government claims that a 1992 Council of Ministers agreement means that countries must only agree to impose a minimum duty, and that was low," he says. "I'm saying the Treaty of Rome makes it illegal to make a bad matter worse; our duty is already out of line, and shouldn't be made more so."

"Even though the French doubled their excise rate last year, it is a sixth of Britain's. However, the trade isn't arguing for equalising duty. We need to set in train a downward trend in British duties," says Peter Lewis, director of the Wine and Spirit Association. "We just do not know how much excise must be reduced to make it no longer viable to go across to Calais, but let's have a programme which would halve the duty differential within five years, and travel along that path until the cross-border shopping eases, and then hold it there."

The beer trade, and in particular the pub trade, had for years been perceived as a mature industry which videos, drink-driving laws, and the death of working-class culture had put into decline anyway. But it is at least an overwhelmingly British sector of the economy. The Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association suggested in a memorandum to the Treasury this July that Britain's economy and tax revenues are damaged far more by the present differentials than they would be by a reduced rate of duty. The figures are, of course, vehemently disputed, with Customs and Excise replying that high taxation makes good health as well as economic sense. The Treasury's settled view will be available to ministers by the end of the year, following a consultation process and review. For now, and in court next week the line is likely to be repeated, the Government insists that its right to levy taxation is paramount.