Martin McKee: Booze and fags replace bread and circuses—selling Brexit to the people

For a government that claims to be doing everything possible to reach a deal with the European Union as it leaves it, the latest message from Her Majesty’s Treasury (Finance Ministry) left many scratching their heads. Forget the shortages of food and medicines. Ignore the job losses. We should instead rejoice because “Duty-free shopping with the EU is coming back, if we leave without a deal. People travelling to EU countries will be able to buy beer, spirits, wine and tobacco without duty being applied in the UK”.

There are, however, a few small practical problems. First, as long as the UK is a member of the EU, travellers can bring in as much alcohol and tobacco as they wish, as long as it is for personal use. Current guidance states that anyone bringing less that 110 litres of beer, 90 litres of wine, or 800 cigarettes will be assumed to be for personal use. Those bringing larger quantities will have to persuade customs officers that it is not for commercial use, but they may be able to do so. After Brexit there will be a strict limit of 16 litres of beer, 4 litres of wine, or 200 cigarettes. What is being presented as a gain for drinkers and smokers is actually a loss. 

Second, British travellers will be buying these products with pounds that are currently worth about 20% less than before the referendum.   

Third, the Treasury seems unaware that Parliament has passed a law requiring the Prime Minister to seek an extension to the UK’s membership if no deal can be reached. In other words, the no deal scenario promoted by the Treasury is illegal.

Fourth, successive governments have given prominence to tax increases on products harmful to health to reduce consumption. For example, Section 4.2 of the Tobacco Control Delivery Plan includes a commitment to “maintain a robust tax regime for tobacco”. Yet now the Treasury seems to be encouraging a measure that it believes would increase it (even if in practice this is unlikely, as noted above).

Finally, there are questions as to whether the promulgation by a government department of a message that is contrary to stated government policy, but aligned with the views of some backbench members of Parliament, is compatible with the independence of the civil service.

In summary, the Treasury is promoting a message that is misleading, involves an illegal act, and which is contrary to other government policies. It is little wonder that it attracted widespread derision.

Shortly after the Treasury tweeted its message, the government was forced to publish its planning assumptions for a No Deal Brexit, the Operation Yellowhammer document. This provided no surprises as it had already been leaked, although the published version had, rather clumsily, been labelled “Reasonable worst case”, which fitted with the narrative being promoted by ministers, while the leaked version was labelled “Base scenario”. It confirmed what most had deduced, that the leaked version had been prepared in early August and not, as claimed by ministers at the time, some weeks earlier. It is a catalogue of serious problems, affecting almost every aspect of life in the UK, and is virtually devoid of solutions. The government claims that the solutions exist, but somehow seem unable to produce them. It has even prorogued Parliament, a decision that the Scottish appeal court has ruled was expressly to avoid MPs pressing it for answers.  

This is not the first time when politicians have offered crumbs of comfort to divert the attention of a population facing severe threats. In the 2nd century AD the Roman poet Juvenal bemoaned how those in power in effect bought the votes of the poor by offering them “bread and circuses”. Today, in a country where reality TV has taken the role of the circuses, bread has been replaced by booze and fags. Otherwise little seems to have changed. The Treasury has long been seen as a home for the brightest and the best in the British state. If this tweet is in any way indicative of its current state, then the country is in even more trouble that we realise.

Martin McKee is professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.