Monday, 15 September 2014

If Scotland goes independent

What would change for beer drinkers, if Scotland were to vote on Thursday to become independent?

I’ll give the answer first of all: we don’t know, but – I suspect – not really very much.

For the question on Thursday is on the general principle of independence, not the details. As long as it’s not yet cut and dried what currency we’ll use, then the type of thing that would affect beer, such as rates of beer duty or fuel costs, are still a long way from being certain.

I read somewhere that duty harmonisation was one of the long-term goals of the EU. We don’t seem to be making much progress in that respect – the Germans would not stand for the pittance they pay in beer tax going up, and the neo-prohibitionists of Britain will not dream of cutting it. However, I do think it’s unlikely that actual duty rates would differ very much. Other factors are another matter entirely.

We do already have a more restrictive licensing regime in Scotland. As I understand it, in England and Wales the presumption is that you apply for a licence and you will get it – unless there is a good reason not to grant it. In Scotland, would-be licensees have to argue why they should be granted one in front of an often reluctant licensing board; in some areas the board has agreed a “no new licences” policy. I know of at least one microbrewery which is unable to open a tasting room at the brewery for this reason.

The SNP government has enacted several measures in Scotland such as banning multi-buy promotions of alcohol (e.g. three bottles of wine for a tenner or four bottles of beer for a fiver), and is at the forefront of trying to introduce minimum pricing. These are devolved matters and we have them whether Scotland becomes independent or not. It’s worth noting that Westminster would also like to do these things, but has just found it politically difficult.

Currently I can buy London microbrewery beer in Glasgow for pretty much the same money as at the brewery. If I want Belgian beer, I can expect to pay two or three times what it costs in Belgium. Out of self-interest, I wouldn’t like to see the price of English beer rocket, so let’s examine why Belgian beer is so much more expensive by the time it gets here. Basically the beer duty is vastly lower in Belgium. Once it arrives in the UK, it becomes liable for UK duty, and because much of it is above 7.5%, also attracts the higher rate for strong beer.

I asked several brewers and beer sellers what they thought would be the effects of independence on beer. In general, all – like most businesses – took a “wait and see” attitude. None made melodramatic claims that they would be forced to stop trading in Scotland. I suspect that most businesses who make public statements either for or against independence are really doing it due to the existing political affiliations of their owners. For that reason, I didn’t ask brewers who I already knew were personally Yes or No.

A substantial brewer with a presence in both countries made a cautiously PR-friendly statement that they were committed to their businesses in both, and were sure they had the flexibility to cope with any variations in different markets. 

The preservation of the existing reduced rate of duty is very important to the smallest brewers, and Dave Whyte of Demon Brew has written to the Scottish Government to call for assurances that this will continue.
While the current Scottish Government may be quite anti-alcohol on a social policy level, one brewer had praise for its support of the food and drink sector; the fact of independence might well enhance the brand “Scotland” in export markets.  

One thing we can say for definite: there will be more paperwork. Not necessarily an excessive amount, but in cross-border trade, beer duty will have to be paid to two different revenue authorities. It’s hardly an insurmountable obstacle, and surely professionally-run businesses should be able to automate such routine tasks.

It should not affect individual breweries too much, as (as far as I am aware) most beer trade between Scotland and England already goes through wholesalers. Unsurprisingly, the beer distributors I spoke to were rather less enthusiastic than the brewers – probably because they will be the ones who end up doing the additional paperwork. 

This is a very theoretical view I am putting forward here, of course: in the short term there may be a shortage of wholesalers who are set up with the appropriate know-how and registrations. One wholesaler I spoke to said that frankly there are too many unknowns, and that beer would the least of our worries if there should be a crisis of confidence in Scotland.

At the CAMRA AGM in May, chairman Colin Valentine, a Scot, was asked what the potential implications for CAMRA would be, if Scotland went independent. His answer was that they hadn’t given it much consideration and that in the event of a Yes vote, the process of independence would take at least eighteen months, which would be enough time to sort out anything that needed sorting out.

At the time the opinion polls showed a double-digit lead for No in the referendum campaign, so the prospect of a Yes seemed far more remote than it does now. The position remains the same – there will be an issue at the time there is an issue.

CAMRA is in a reasonably easy position. It’s not a bank like RBS or Lloyds with any great regulatory framework to service.

One branch officer thought the structure might have to change and have the Scottish branches grouped across Scotland, rather than together with Northern Ireland as they are now. (I confess I cannot see the reasoning for this unless the organisation were to split.)

There will of course be technical and financial questions – it may be that CAMRA in Scotland would need its own financial arrangements, especially if it ends up with a different currency. Transferring funds between Scottish branches and St Albans might have implications for the current tax efficient CAMRA practice. In principle I don’t see why this should be any great problem – other businesses set up registered offices and subsidiary companies all the time, and CAMRA need not be any different.

However, if there is a popular backlash against the Scots down south, we might see some ugly letters in What’s Brewing. I have seen one post on an unofficial forum which assumed that all Scottish pubs and breweries would be deleted from the Good Beer Guide and the space redistributed to the English and Welsh CAMRA branches.

I doubt it will come to that. CAMRA is a voluntary organisation, not an asset of the UK to be fought over or divided up, and there is no major political or technical reason it cannot operate in two countries.

A quick aside. One of the misconceptions surrounding the referendum is the idea that it has come about as a result of a rise in Scottish nationalism, or that we dislike English people more than we used to. Media elsewhere might represent it such, but this is a misleading interpretation.

It is misleading because the electoral success of the Scottish National Party does not in fact reflect a shift to nationalist ideology among voters. Scots have continued to vote for pretty much the same sort of social-democratic mixed-economy policies they have supported for the last fifty years. It’s just that this particular political space has been vacated by the Labour Party, and the SNP has filled the gap, hoovering up former Labour voters.

Why is this particular insight relevant to beer? Well, it’s because I want to argue that recent years have not seen a growth of national chauvinism with regard to beer either. In fact, when it comes to beer I think the reverse is true.


Even though the brewery has gone and the brand is now owned by Wells & Youngs of Bedfordshire,  beer brands like McEwan’s are seen as iconically Scottish. It wasn’t always thus.

The ideology of earlier times can be well seen in this McEwan’s advert. The kilted Scottish soldier shares a pint with the English redcoat, but both are standing in front of the Union Flag. The old McEwan’s globe logo itself reminds every drinker of the Empire, on which the sun supposedly never set. Indeed, in the nineteenth century McEwan’s had huge contracts with the British military, arguably contributing substantially to the brewery’s success and growth.

Tennent’s too was happy to ride on the coat-tails of the Empire, and at one point was the world’s leading exporter of bottled beer.

The development of modern Scottish nationalism since the 1940s is too much to go into here, and not enough to do with beer. Yet somehow by the 1970s the taken-for-granted Unionism had vanished from Scottish & Newcastle’s advertising. It was a time of confidence and record-breaking sales of beer, despite early signs of economic decline. S&N demolished the old Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh and built a vast new complex in its place to produce more and more Tartan Special and McEwan’s Export, believing the thirsty long-haired young men in denim who still poured in and out of the shipyards and steelworks every day would be there for ever.

OK, this is an extreme example, as it involves football, when all assumptions
of political common sense go out the window
If you think much of the culture of beer drinking is macho now, you should have seen Scotland in the 1970s. I am reminded of a throwaway Billy Connolly line from a routine about going to house parties: “You’d better get some Bacardi – there might be women there.” This is actually quite revealing: it tells us both that women didn’t drink beer, and that it was not unusual for a drinking party to be an all-male gathering.

One of the early activists of CAMRA in Scotland, Alan Watson, found it necessary to criticise Scottish chauvinism in beer in an early article in 1975:

‘It is ironic that it should be the Scots who make such a fetish of their ability to hold their drink, who should show least concern for the way that beer has been adulterated and weakened over recent years. As a nation we respond too quickly and uncritically to any appeal to our chauvinism e.g. “Tartan”, “Burns Special” and Piper Export, and knowing “for a fact” that Scottish beer IS stronger, are impervious to any objective evidence that in terms of specific gravity not one of the common keg beers sold in Scotland would be placed in the top twenty British beers.’ (Glasgow University Guardian, 13 March 1975).
No longer the beer of the Empire … but
every Scotsman knows McEwan’s is best,
says this 1972 advert

The tendency of Scots drinkers to dismiss English beer as not worth drinking was tempered by the limited availability of it. There was no guest beer system then, so sightings of English beer were few and far between. According to one CAMRA veteran, though, Draught Bass was so good that a blind eye was regularly taken to its country of origin.

The keg equivalent, Bass Special, did not fare so well. In the early 1980s Tennent Caledonian, then part of the vast Bass conglomerate, was trying to push Bass Special in its Scottish pubs. Eventually market researchs discovered that, to put it over-bluntly, the punters didn’t want English beer. The dilemma eventually led to the creation of Tennent’s Special as a home-grown brand for the Scottish market, announced in the brewery’s in-house paper:

“Tennent’s Special will eventually replace Bass Special, which research has shown as not the best brand name to attack effectively Younger’s Tartan Special, in what represents the largest sector of the Scottish Ale Market … the product itself, when researched ‘blind’, i.e. when the consumers were unaware which brand they were drinking, certainly measured up to the others in quality and consistency and, quite often, was rated as preferable.

“It was only when the consumers were told that they were drinking Bass Special that … [it] suddenly became ‘weak, flat, uninteresting, watery’ and, most nonsensical at all when one was measuring the effect on taste-buds, — ‘non-Scottish’! Almost chauvinism run riot showing that the problem basically has been psychological!” (Tennent’s Times, Autumn 1983).

While Scots and Englishmen still like to jovially insult each other’s beer, just as drinkers in the North and South of England do, it is difficult today to imagine a beer brand from outside Scotland meeting such consumer resistance here as is described above. What happened? Well, further concentration of the brewing industry happened.

The 1960s had seen most of the smaller Scottish breweries swallowed up into larger combines. “No fewer than ten of the above Scots firms have disappeared into the Bass Charrington maw, their breweries for the most part razed like Carthage,” raged Watson (Glasgow CAMRA, it seems to me, has always prided itself on a splendidly immoderate turn of phrase).

This continued until by the 1990s only a few Scottish-based breweries remained, with most beer marketing controlled by increasingly multinational companies. These were more interested in promoting huge multinational brands than the local brands they’d acquired.

All beer drinkers were forced to embrace a less regional beer culture. It would not be correct to say more homogeneous, for the number of brands and beers available mushroomed.

For drinkers of mainstream beers, the culture did not become British so much as global, with names like Drybrough and Alloa falling by the wayside in favour of Miller, Budweiser, Peroni, John Smiths, Heineken, Fosters, Stella Artois. It didn’t matter so much that they were nearly all brewed under licence in the UK. The point is that it became increasingly difficult for a would-be chauvinist to stick exclusively to Scottish beer.

Drinkers of CAMRA-approved real ale, on the other hand, began to see increasing numbers of English beers appearing to supplement the rather meagre choice available from the remaining Scottish breweries. Drinking English beer was often a necessity if you wanted any variety. So for real ale drinkers too, material reality intervened to make anti-English sentiment ridiculous.

It would be ridiculous anyway, as English-born members have contributed a huge amount to CAMRA in Scotland. The Scottish branches have a disproportionately large number of activists who learned to drink real ale in England, came north and fought for it here too. The brewing scene too owes a great deal to breweries owned and/or run by people who have come to Scotland from elsewhere.

Judging by the popularity of the likes of Oakham and Dark Star round here, an appreciation for English brewers’ art is not going to go away, whatever happens.

(Although I have promised not to name them, I am very grateful to all the people I spoke to for this post for their insights).