Booze tax? I'll drink to that...


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The Independent Online

Faced with open warfare from his own party on two fronts, regulation of the press and proposals to impose a minimum price per unit on booze, is Cameron in the last chance saloon? Of the two issues, booze is the one that he should make no compromise over whatsoever. Sadly, it sounds as if the Prime Minister is turning out to be made of balsa wood, not iron.

David Davies pompously pronounces that imposing a minimum price on alcohol would hit "the poor and pensioners having their one bottle of wine a week", claiming that retailers will pocket bigger profits, rather than the Treasury. Almost the entire medical profession is ranged with the PM against the drinks industry and backbench MPs, many of them paid by drinks lobby groups.

You'd think that imposing minimum pricing would infringe our human rights. Last week, I pointed out that it is our right to eat muck, drink buckets of booze, loaf about like slugs and commit ourselves to a shorter, more unhealthy time on earth if we choose. But it's also a doctor's right to tell the truth: too much booze shortens life. The cost to the NHS of unhealthy lifestyle choices must be funded by taxpayers, so the Government must ensure that extra money raised via minimum pricing (via a specially designed tax) gets channelled directly into the NHS.

The other group that will suffer if minimum pricing is not imposed is pubs. Drinking has shifted from taking place in a controlled environment, with specific licensing hours and a price structure, to something that takes place at home 24 hours a day, with alcohol bought at supermarkets, at heavily discounted prices. It's hardly a level playing field for retailers: pubs have to impose 20 per cent VAT on the food and drinks they sell, whereas supermarkets charge very little. Drinking in public, in pubs, restaurants and cafes, is vastly preferable to drinking alone at home, isn't it?

Only Tesco has backed minimum alcohol pricing – so why doesn't it take a lead and announce it is adopting it as part of its new "responsible" strategy, which it has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds promoting post-Horsegate? If the Prime Minister hasn't got the guts to fight this battle, maybe our leading retailer should take the moral high ground. Tesco has just bought the Giraffe restaurant chain, and plans to expand the restaurants into its stores, so it will have an opportunity to encourage sensible drinking at pub and restaurant prices. If Tesco really wants to rebrand itself, it'll stop selling booze so cheaply.

Cold comfort

I try to be nice to anyone serving me because I don't want to be known as a grumpy old woman. More importantly, an unflattering impression can really damage your career, as Mitt Romney found out. His presidential ambitions hit the buffers when a barman secretly filmed the Republican candidate at a fund-raising event for wealthy donors last year – the leaked footage contained the famous "47 per cent" statistic, the number of US citizens Mitt claimed were dependent on government handouts.

Suddenly Romney's "nice guy" credentials were toast. The barman has told journalists that he put his scoop online because he felt Romney ignored the staff, unlike Bill Clinton, who (on a previous visit) had made a special point of thanking them and posing for photos.

Sometimes though, hotel staff bear the brunt of my displeasure. I'm saying sorry to the staff at the Hilton hotel near Stratford-upon-Avon, where I spent one cold night last week – I don't entirely blame them for my miserable stay. Any hostelry that labels emery boards and shower hats as "luxury" items on the packaging has an inflated idea of itself. Luxury is a word that means so little these days, just like the notion of "service".

Arriving tired and cold, I could not understand the accent of the receptionist, and spelt out my name three times. My dinner arrived in the room cold, minus my glass of wine. My breakfast arrived 15 minutes early, consisting of a cold and hard poached egg swimming in a cereal bowl of cold water covered in cling film. The toast was wrapped in a napkin, but wasn't toasted. The heating was the same temperature whatever you tapped into the dial, which was located in semi-darkness by the door. I filled in the "How was it for you?!" form on departure and received a waffling emailed apology from the deputy manager, but no sweetener, such as a voucher, to make up for my lacklustre experience.

What is the point of putting staff on the front-line who have never stayed in a hotel? Mind you, I'm hoping they didn't film my cross face when I left.

Mind the gape

Suddenly it's fashionable for famous people to boast they use public transport, just like ordinary human beings. One of the new Pope's plus points, according to Vatican-watchers, is that he used to travel around Buenos Aires by bus. He reinforced his "street" credentials by stopping off at his hotel after his first day in the new job and actually paying his own bill!

Geri Halliwell made history last week by travelling on the underground for the first time in 17 years, and tweeting a picture of her journey to ensure we could share her excitement. She bravely managed the single stop between Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. Barely 24 hours after Geri's heroic expedition, Ed Miliband travelled with Tessa Jowell by Tube from Brixton to Westminster, and managed to "share" a joke with a fellow passenger.

Meanwhile, the cost of rail travel is rising so fast (an increase of 8.3 per cent in the last three months of 2012 on the same period the previous year), that soon the only people able to afford it will be the rich and famous. Commuters have seen the cost of many season tickets rise by more than 50 per cent in the past decade, but will George Osborne use the Budget to limit fare increases to the cost of inflation? I doubt it.

Chile up there

The world's largest telescope was unveiled last week, taking us one step nearer to understanding how the universe was formed. Made up of 66 dishes 12 metres in diameter, covering a 10-mile site, the Alma telescope sends images of galaxies formed 12 billion years ago – described as the astronomical equivalent of "switching on the lights on a Christmas tree". This amazing piece of equipment is 17,000 feet up in a remote area of Northern Chile, on the Chajnantor plateau in the Atacama Desert.

A few years ago I walked this lunar landscape, staying near the historic adobe settlement of San Pedro. The light is blinding, the air crystal clear, but breathing is difficult because of the lack of oxygen. Circling the vast desert are a series of extinct volcanoes. As I walked down a dried-out riverbed in the afternoon, hundreds of tiny bright yellow birds swooped around. I managed to crawl up one peak in spite of acute altitude sickness. I'll never forget that view – as unforgettable as any image from Alma.