Matthew Norman: These acts of state-sponsored piracy

The true attitude to maintaining revenue on fags and booze is plain: we want the money, sod the law
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In dealings with uniformed officials at national points of entry and exit, the lure of facetiousness is always worth resisting. Anyone who ever had a few on a 747 into New York, and answered the old US immigration form question about whether the intention of the visit was to overthrow the American government by writing: "sole purpose of trip", will know this.

In dealings with uniformed officials at national points of entry and exit, the lure of facetiousness is always worth resisting. Anyone who ever had a few on a 747 into New York, and answered the old US immigration form question about whether the intention of the visit was to overthrow the American government by writing: "sole purpose of trip", will know this.

I know it myself. As a smart alecky pubescent, I enjoyed a lively exchange with El Al security at Heathrow. "Do you have any connection with the Arab world?" was the gist of the enquiry. "None at all," was the verbatim reply, "unless you count the fact that Yasser Arafat is my brother-in-law". The ensuing half hour is one I don't expect to forget. However, with questions of international terrorism, it is easy to sympathise with an aggressive overreaction to this kind of flippancy.

When the issue concerns a small consignment of foreign-brewed lager, it becomes less so. This week, on the day the European Commission finally began legal action against this country to prevent abuses of power against "booze cruisers", a friend of mine told me about a friend of his who was stopped by UK Customs on the French side of the Channel Tunnel. In the back of his car - I say "his car", but as we'll see that is questionable - were 45 cases of Stella Artois, along with a less than grotesque amount of rolling tobacco.

According to EU law, there is nothing remotely dodgy about taking such amounts across any of its borders, but the ever charming boys and girls at HM Customs & Excise, working for the Treasury, take a different view. So this chap was taken to an office, where he was told that the penalty for "smuggling" is a fine or a maximum sentence of seven year's in jug. "In that case," he said, "I'll do the seven years."

Whether it was the jokey response that got them going is unclear. It might well have been the incident that followed. After being stuck in this lavatory-free office for ages while they checked the records - records which revealed that long ago he did a stretch for cannabis importation - the man became desperate, and nipped outside for a pee. Not long after he was spotted voiding his bladder in the open air, Customs seized not only the Stella and the Golden Virginia but the car itself.

Four months later, they still have it, and have every right to sell it off and keep the dosh if they choose.

Given the "friend of a friend" tone to this anecdote, not to mention its inherent absurdity, it must carry the pungent aroma of urban myth. Is it really credible, you may be asking, that a car worth thousands could be seized, without any trial, over a maximum saving of a few hundred quid? As confirmed by the exchange of letters before me, between the man and his daughter on the one side and, on the other, S Gray, Operation Manager, Detection South, No 1 Control Building, Dover (HM Customs and Excise, Law Enforcement), it most certainly is.

Replying on 3 August 2004 to a letter sent on 26 June - and it gives a flavour of the autonomous arrogance for which our customs officials are so well loved that it went unanswered for six weeks - Mr Gray dwells upon the urination. He refutes claims that the complainant mentioned a prostate problem until caught taking the leak, and that he had previously asked for the loo. "If you had, the facilities would have been made available to you. The officers, male and female, who witnessed this act," Mr Gray goes on, "found your behaviour offensive and disgusting."

Perhaps they did. It's quite possible that the males have never stood in a urinal, and that the females are getting professional help for post-traumatic stress caused by the sight of a man relieving himself against a garage wall. However, although we might wonder whether people who have led such sheltered lives are suited to a career that brings them into contact with hardened "smugglers" and even more dangerous criminals, their sensibilities are not the issue.

With Guantanamo inmates awaiting secret trials at US military courts, it feels melodramatic to describe such a case as an abuse of human rights. So let us merely agree that it is, at the very least, a flagrant breach of natural justice. In a case brought two years ago on similar facts, the High Court held that Customs was wrongly reversing the burden of proof. More mature readers may remember all that pre-Blunkett, lefty liberal nonsense about "innocent until proven guilty". Requiring someone to prove that anything over the Treasury's declared limits - 110 litres of beer, 90 of wine, ten of spirits, and 3,200 cigarettes - is for private consumption evidently offends against that.

Possibly even older than the presumption of innocence is the desire of rulers to levy duty on alcohol. In 1763, to fund a permanent army in America, the government of John Stuart, the Earl of Bute, created a cider tax that didn't go down brilliantly in the scrumpy-loving West Country. People burnt effigies of the Prime Minister, Bute, and rioted. That same year he was driven from office and the tax repealed. So well did the government learn the lesson of that fiasco that, just two years later, the government introduced the Stamp Tax in America that did so much to kickstart the War of Independence.

These days, while the Treasury's avarice remains as rampant as ever it was, it usually attempts to disguise it. The "liberalisation" of the gaming laws is a transparently cynical attempt to cloak a regressive, working-class tax in the garments of recreational merriment.

However, when it comes to fighting to maintain the revenue from fags and booze, it can barely be bothered with any pretence. Admittedly, whenever the EU bares its fists on the matter, the Government sends some obscure junior minister to deliver some specious gibberish, unworthy of UKIP, about resisting wicked EU attempts to harmonise taxes. But the true attitude is plain: we want the money, sod the law - and if it requires vindictive thugs imbued with the powers of a police force in one of the less enchanting African dictatorships to prevent UK subjects exercising their right to pay less for their vices, so be it.

Some of these people must be villains, most are White Van Folk anyway, and if the odd middle-class house- wife from Sevenoaks loses her 4x4 for a while, we'll just have to put up with the odd tirade from the Daily Mail about that.

Now that Brussels has finally launched its action, raising the prospect of a scrap between EU trade commissioner elect Peter Mandelson and his old chum the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, it is hinted that the seizing of cars over a couple of cases of Famous Grouse and a few dozen cartons of Silk Cut for a family wedding will cease.

Believe that or not, such a climb down would be too little much too late. What decency requires isn't a vague and grudging hint from unnamed sources that the Treasury will start to behave itself. It is the sight of the Chancellor on his knees, or better still in the stocks, apologising for giving the finger to the law of the land and of the Continent, and begging forgiveness for having sanctioned these acts of state-sponsored piracy.