HC Deb 21 June 1926 vol 197 cc124-33

Section three, Sub-section (2), of the Finance Act, 1920, shall have effect as if for the words "nineteen hundred and twenty," in line three, "nineteen hundred and twenty-six" were substituted, and as if for the words "three pounds twelve shillings and sixpence," in lines six and seven, "two pounds" were subsituted.—[Mr. Macquisten.

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The object of the Clause is to reduce the duty on whisky from 72s. 6d. to £2. The present duty is grotesque and prohibitive. I am advised that when a man asks for a glass of whisky he receives one pennyworth of whisky and pays about ls. 4d. or ls. 5d. duty. That is grotesque and prohibitive. It is a very unfair duty and is something in the nature of class taxation. I am as much opposed to class taxation as I am to class legislation. The last gigantic increase in this class of taxation was imposed during the War. There has been a tremendous falling off in consumption as the result of this taxation. It has dropped to about one-third of its former dimensions. That fact has caused a great deal of annoyance to certain classes of the community, including people of small means, temperate people who were in the habit of taking a little of this product of Scotland. It has not affected the distilling interests, because their great trade profits are made on their export trade to the United States and various parts of the British Empire. People of comparatively small means find this taxation prohibitive.

Prohibition is one thing, and it is straightforward; we all know what it means, but prohibition by taxation is not a very honest thing. If I believed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would lose money by the adoption of my suggestion, I would not propose it, because money is needed, but I do not think he will lose any money. There has been a progressive falling off in the consumption of alcohol clue to high taxation, and this particular taxation has brought about au enormous decrease. That is what generally comes from high taxation of this kind. When prohibitive taxation was put upon champagne and cigars in the time of the Coalition Government, the consumption fell so enormously that the Chancellor of the Exchequer at that time had no hesitation in saying that the tax had defeated its purpose. There was such a falling off in revenue that the taxation was at once reduced in order to restore the income of the Government. Precisely the same result might be expected here. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is not here in the position of a moralist. It is his duty to collect revenue, and I decline to accept the view that was put before the House on behalf of the Treasury when I made this proposal last year, that it would result in a loss of revenue, which was grotesquely put at £9,000,000. I am satisfied from what l know, and vast numbers of people are of the same opinion, that this lowering of the Duty would result in greater consumption being restored, and in the natural increase of revenue to the Exchequer.

The danger of this high taxation is that it is leading to evil courses. In certain towns there is a great consumption of methylated spirits and other noxious compounds. In some districts there is a demand for a concoction called Spanish Red Wine, on which the duty is 10s. per proof gallon of alcohol, as compared with a taxation of 72s. 6d. on whisky made in our own country. A habit is growing up of buying large quantities of this Spanish Red Wine and mixing it with methylated spirits, with a result very damaging to those who consume it. If this penal and grostesque taxation, which only hits those who have not an adequate supply of wordly goods, is to continue, there can be no doubt that the same results will accrue as accrued in the United States. There will be an immense increase of illicit distillation. That is already going on, not for sale, but for personal consumption. In the United States there are hundreds and thousands of small stills. I am assured, by those who are experts, that there is no simpler operation than manufacturing some form of alcohol. With a little yeast, some sugar, a kettle, a short pipe and a sink, anyone can make alcohol. That is already being done, and the result of this high taxation will be that it will increase.

There is nothing better calculated to bring about this illicit manufacture than the present penal system of taxation. People do not need to make alcohol out of barley or anything of that kind. It can be made simply of sugar, and it will be so made in the future in increasing quantities with a deterioration of the Revenue, and a deterioration of the compound. It is a hardship that this penal taxation should continue to be inflicted. It is a hardship on those who want to use this in moderation. And, after all, 10,000 people in this country to one do use it in moderation, and always have. It is a hardship on them, and causes a great deal of discontent. It is a form of class taxation which causes a great deal of feeling. It is a hardship on the farmer who grows the grain, and it is a hardship on those districts where a considerable portion of the population are employed in this particular industry. It is not fair that one part of the community which uses this commodity should be taxed to a very high extent, while others who, for various reasons, use none of this should escape all taxation. Those who make use of this commodity are bearing an undue burden. This commodity does them no harm, but the present system of taxation is at too high a figure, and it is unjust and will mean a loss of revenue. But if whisky were reduced from 12s. 6d. to 7s. 6d. a bottle, then I contend that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would lose no money, but he would give a great deal of contentment to people of moderate tastes.


No one would dispute the fact that the taxation of whisky and spirits generally is at a very high level indeed. I can see the effects of this by merely looking at the returns of consumption. In 1913 we consumed 31,844,000 gallons of ruin, brandy and other imported spirits, and home-made spirits. The figures for 1925 (excluding the Irish Free State) fell to 14,381,000 gallons. To-day, although on the whole it may be said that the consuming power of the country has not diminished in general since the pre-war period, the consumption of spirits has fallen to one-half. There are also other statistics which could be found at the proper time and place to show that there have been very notable reductions in crimes of drunkenness and disease arising out of drunkenness. No doubt there have been increases in the consumption of sugar and in other directions which have occupied the spending of the people. High as is the taxation of spirits at the present time, I am not in a position to meet my hon. Friend. Of course I must admit that in some respects there are disadvantages apart from the disadvantages to the Revenue. There is the growth in the consumption of heavy wines. There is, however, a certain case which can be made out undoubtedly on behalf of our famous national British product, whisky, as against some of these imported substitutes, the intoxicating effect of which is probably greater, having regard to the fact, I am informed, that, whisky is frequently or commonly used in a diluted state.

My hon. Friend is asking me to face a loss of revenue of about £13,000,000 in the present year, and £13,500,000 in a full year on the basis of an increase of 20 per cent. in consumption following the reduction of the tax. Even allowing for a 20 per cent. increase in consumption there is a loss to Revenue of £13,000,000 this year and £13,500,000 next year. If we extended this to the whole of the spirit group, and to imported spirits as well as home-made, even if I were to allow for a 25 per cent. increase of consumption over this large area, the loss of revenue would approximate to £15,000,000 per year. My hon. Friend comes forward and says that if we give to this highly-taxed class of His Majesty's subjects the reduction, it will be found that in their gratitude for the relief, they will consume on a scale so much larger that the Revenue will suffer in no respect. That, I under- stand, was the crux of his argument. Has my hon. Friend made any calculation of the extent to which the gratitude of the whisky drinkers would have to be expressed in the form of increased consumption to enable me to secure the revenue on which I am counting this year? No less than a 70 per cent. increase would be required in the consumption of whisky and of spirits generally to enable the same revenue to be reached as we are now counting on, on the basis of the Amendment of my hon. Friend. I feel quite sure that if I were to accept this Amendment, I should be embarking upon a very questionable course which would lead me into serious embarrassments in many directions. I believe there is no part of that course which would be more certain than that, if I accepted this Amendment, there would be a very heavy loss to the Revenue, and one which I am not in a position at the present time to contemplate or risk.


It is never easy for an ordinary plain Scot—perhaps a Chancellor of the Exchequer would say a whisky-drinking Scot—to speak in this House at any time and in any circumstances, but it becomes very much more difficult when such a man is called upon to follow the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to reply.to those arguments which he has put with his customary skill and ability. In putting forward this Amendment I do not think there was in the minds of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) and myself a feeling that those who in Scotland live the natural, normal life of a Scottish man, would, out of sheer gratitude to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, proceed to drink more whisky than was good for them in order that the Exchequer might not suffer. But this I will say, that in the old days before the War, when there was a better quality whisky, and when people were not thinking that horrible stuff called methylated spirits, because it is cheaper than whisky, in those halcyon days before the War, when the ordinary working man on his small wages could go out on a Saturday afternoon to a football match, have a glass of whisky with his friend and go to a show at night, and do it all within two half crowns, to-clay if he goes out, he finds that the cost of a little pleasure of that kind is not only doubled, but it has gone up by seven or eight times as much. The effect of this tax has not assisted any reduction in the cost of living; on the contrary, the cost of living to the ordinary man in our country has been tremendously enhanced. We who support this Amendment do not do so because we are peculiarly or personally interested in the licensed trade, but we represent in this House an industry that has shown itself, wherever it exists, certainly in the North and West of Scotland, to consist of law-abiding and ordinary decent people who have given much less trouble to the authorities than people in many other industries which are regarded as more reputable and respectable than the whisky trade.

These people need the protection which this House can give them. The Chancellor of the Exchequer put forward the argument that this great fall in the consumption of spirits marked a rise in the moral tone of the people by making it more difficult to obtain that which so many people want. I contend that such a rise in the moral tone of the people can only be obtained honestly by measures other than those which impose upon that section of the people a far heavier burden of Empire than the rest of the community is called upon to bear. It is a dishonest method of bringing forward piecemeal prohibition by endeavouring to force upon the ordinary people of the country a higher price for citizenship in Great Britain than is paid by those who belong to that section of the community who do not drink. I number among my very valued personal acquaintances and dear friends a great many teetotallers, and I would just like to say to them that they have lost a great deal of the light of life, and I have never been carried home, nor have I ever appeared before the bar of a police court. I am living, as millions of my fellow countrymen are living, the life of an ordinary citizen, and we take that which gives us pleasure and which gladdens the heart of man. I have tried it both ways. You never know a man while he remains a strict teetotaller. You never know where you are with him, and yet here comes the Chancellor of the Exchequer year after year piling these heavy burdens upon true men. What says our national bard about this glorious beverage of ours? He says: There's naething like the honest nappie, Whar'll ye e'er see men sae happy, Or women sonsy, saft, an' sappy 'Tween morn and morn, As them wha like to tak the drippy In glass or horn I I think if so[...]e of our Scottish friends would translate that to our English friends they would find that there is nothing like whisky for making us happy and contented. Let me add that there was nothing like red revolution in Russia until vodka was abolished, although it may be true that there have been fewer trials and convictions for drunkenness since the glorious raising of more revenue and lessening of drinking since the taxation came. This is a subject which, I know, is not often given much time in this House. One single other clinching verse from the bard who really made whisky the subject of many of his lays:

8.0 P.M.

Scotland, my auld, respected Mither! Tho' whyles ye moistify your leather, Till whare ye sit, on craps o'heather, Ye tine your dam; Freedom and whisky gang thegither! Tak' aff your dram! I have much pleasure in supporting the Clause.


It is something of a hold enterprise to take part in a Debate after so happy a contribution as the one we have just listened to. The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Templeton) and his colleague the hon. and learned Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) quite frankly confessed that they were concerned for the distillers.


There is a great number of distilleries in my own constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Templeton), but I have, personally, no interest in whisky—except as a consumer.


The hon. and learned Member was quite frankly speaking in the interests of the distilling trade. In their efforts to make out a case for the reduction of the tax on whisky they had to resort to the customary arguments, which I believe will be found, if carefully examined, to cancel out one another. For example, we were assured by the hon. and learned Member for Argyll that if the heavy tax remains it is bound to lead, as he tells us it is leading, to illicit distillation in the slum tenements of Glasgow and in other Scottish slums. If it is possible, owing to the construction of the drains and so on, to get round the law in that way, why, in the world, do people buy that terrible stuff, methylated spirits, even with the new poison material put into it? I suggest that you cannot have it both ways. If it is possible to create comparatively good whisky through the sink, why is the other method employed? I suggest that all these stories about illicit distilleries and the extent to which people are drinking methylated spirits are very much exaggerated. The story has again been repeated about America having a great increase of illicit distillation since the prohibition laws came into effect. It is well known that in America before the prohibition laws came in illicit distillation was carried on to a very great extent, and there has been no very considerable modification as the result of the introduction of these laws.

My main complaint against the case of the hon. Gentlemen is that they have argued that there is a hardship inflicted on certain elements of the community by the continuance of this heavy tax. The hon. and learned Member for Argyll referred to the farmers, who he said would be growing more barley or potatoes or whatever they make their whisky from. That may be so, but there will be an increase in other sorts of activities besides agricultural if there is much of an increase in whisky drinking. If there is an increase of 70 per cent., which the Chancellor of the Exchequer confessed was necessary in order to give a revenue as large as obtaining now, I suggest that there will be more work in the Law Courts, the lunatic asylums, and in local administration generally if this increase goes forward to the extent that they suggest. It is because we have seen a decrease in the general consumption of liquor that there has been a general improvement in the public morale and a falling off of cases in the police courts and the building up of the better types of the community, and we feel that any decrease in the revenue will be more than made up by the results of decent conditions of life adopted throughout the country. I hope, therefore, that we shall continue to lay the heavy tax on liquors of this kind. Taxation has not only the purpose of bringing revenue for public ends; it has many other purposes. Through taxation public habits have been very largely changed, and changed for the better. It will be the general admission of hon. Members in this House who come from Scotland, and do not feel themselves so much concerned about the distilling trade, that any change that has taken place in the direction of less whisky drinking in Scotland has led to a general improvement.


I do not propose to go at length into detail to answer what fell from the hon. Members opposite who have made themselves responsible for this Clause. I shall just refer to one or two statements. In regard to the multiplication of illicit distilleries, I have examined, State by State in the United States of America the prosecutions and the offences for illicit distilling, and it is in the wet States that we find these offences of illicit distilling, and the States that have long continued wet are the feeders of the illicit trade. In Glasgow the prosecutions for illicit distilling are, without exception, in those districts most fed with public houses and where public houses most abound. In regard to methylated spirits, certainly it is a great evil, but the hon. and learned Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) will admit that the deaths that result from methylated spirits are infinitesimal—one or two here and there—as compared with the thousands and tens of thousands of deaths that are due to liquor. Dr. Norman Kerr set out to prove that it was a great exaggeration to say that over 60,000 people a year died from drink, but when he had finished his investigations, after having set out to prove that 60,000 was an exaggeration, he said that it was an under-estimate and that the figure should be over 120,000. I readily grant that there has been a great improvement in Scotland, and in England too, and that the numbers might be revised to-day, but I think it will be admitted in that regard that there is no comparison and nothing to be alarmed about at the suggestion of an increase in illicit distillation or indulgence in methylated spirits compared with the vast harm that would come from an increase in drinking. My main object in rising however is to redeem the name of our Scottish bard, the national bard of Scotland. People quote freely from Robert Burns as if Freedom and whisky gang thegither was about all he wrote. I wish they would study the letters of Robert. Burns. I will give a reference to the teaching of Robert Burns in this regard. Three times over in his letters he condemns what he calls the savage hospitality of his country that deals so freely in intoxicating liquor"— the savage hospitality that in our no-licence movement in Scotland we are seeking to curtail. Burns in one of his letters to Robert Ainslie calls himself a poor wretch who has been guilty of the sin of drunkenness. When he had taken to excess he insulted Mrs Riddell of Woodley Park, and next day wrote to her his most humble apology: Madam, my errors, though great, were involuntary. An intoxicated man is the vilest of beasts. In an entry in his "Common Place Book" he warns every young man from what lie calls a devil's dear-bought experience. He warns every young man whose eyes shall ever light in after-time on Ids pages to shun his example in this regard, and for that end to keep up 0 warm regular intercourse with the Deity. I think these quotations do something to redeem the honour of the national poet of Scotland, and to show how slight and superficial is the acquaintance of the hon. Members opposite with the works of the national poet of their country.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.