Forsyth backs Scots' call to cut tax on whisky

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Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, is throwing his full weight as a Cabinet minister behind the concerted campaign of the Scotch whisky industry to persuade Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, to reduce excise duty on spirits.

His determination to lobby the Treasury for a relaxation of the tax regime for whisky is the latest in a lengthening series of signs that he wants to be seen as "Scotland's man in the Cabinet" despite his fiercely Thatcherite credentials.

Mr Forsyth has recently held private and unpublicised talks with Scotch whisky producers at which he gave them a sympathetic hearing and indicated his willingness to help advance their case with Mr Clarke.

The whisky producers' campaign was given new impetus last year when the drinks lobby reacted with fury to Mr Clarke decision last December to raise four per cent on alcoholic drinks across the board in the emergency mini-budget precipitated by the government's defeat over VAT on fuel.

The move added 26p to the UK price of a bottle of whisky - Scotland's biggest net export product.

The Scotch Whisky Association last month produced figures showing that instead of gaining pounds 25m in spirits duty, the December increase saw the total of spirits receipts reduced in the first six months of this year by pounds 60m-pounds 37m of it in duty from Scotch - as a result of falling sales.

Producers argue that the reduction in domestic sales have been increased by the growth in cross channel and duty free purchases in the EU.

Mr Forsyth's private support for the industry - which claims to sustain more than 70,000 jobs in distilling and related industries -follows a charm offensive in Scotland in which he has startled interest groups by his willingness to meet them.

Mr Forsyth, who is defending the ultra-marginal seat of Stirling has launched a concerted effort to reconnect the Tories to the Scottish political mainstream against a background of their unenviable poll ratings which have slumped from 26 to 12 per cent since the general election.

In a distinctly un-Thatcherite move, Mr Forsyth has also promised help for the Scottish film industry.

He recently had dinner with Mel Gibson, the star of Braveheart - the general release film about the life of the patriot William Wallace, which the Scottish National Party has "adopted" for its own propaganda - to seek his advice.