Orders please: the Westminster Barliament is open

Wow, what an election that proved to be over there in Britain.  I had an eerie feeling that it could prove to be ’92 all over again for Labour.  In certain areas it was even worse. While they retain control of every former mining area, they ‘lost’ Scotland. The SNP, the real surprising force, now occupies the third party spot, previously held by the Liberal Democrats in Westminster.  And with 56 out of a total of 59 seats, they are the undisputed party of Scotland.  Whereas UKIP and the Green Party received 15% of the popular vote, they only managed one MP each.  In an election full of surprises, few expected the Conservatives to win an outright majority. However, this could prove to be a pyrrhic victory. Without the Lib Dem crutch, they could find themselves at the mercy of their Eurosceptic wing.

Two pints for two-terms as Prime Minister - David Cameron returns with a single party government
Two pints for two-terms as Prime Minister – David Cameron returns with a single party government

Last month, I featured a piece on what the election could do for beer (British general election 2015: political pint scoring).  Now in its aftermath it is time to look at what is likely to happen.  The Queen’s Speech to parliament contained few bills that would have direct impact on the British beer industry. This is hardly surprising, as the Tories wish to remain silent on the issue of Minimum Unit Pricing, for the time being at least. It could be back on the agenda pending the outcome of the legal challenge to the Scottish equivalent.

Harriet Harman is acting leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party. She is pictured alongside Lib Dem Danny Alexander, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of the big names to lose
Harriet Harman is acting leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party. She is pictured alongside Lib Dem Danny Alexander, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of the big names to lose

In a move that will boost consumer demand generally but will spill over to beer, the Treasury will not increase income tax rates, VAT and national insurance before 2020 at the earliest (i.e. not before the next general election, providing it goes full-term). What is unknown is whether George Osbourne will reduce excise duty for a fourth consecutive time. There is a second 2015 budget scheduled for July 8. But this emergency budget is likely to focus on measures to reduce the deficit. We may have to wait until Budget 2016 before seeing any additional moves on excise.  Britain needs to address the legacy of the duty escalator, which caused excise to increase by 42% between 2008 and 2012.

Back as Chancellor, will George Osborne continue work to reverse the "beer tax"?
Back as Chancellor, will George Osborne continue work to reverse the “beer tax”?

The British political scene is marked by “buzzword” overkill.  This could be observed when the British monarch confirmed that her government will be doing the hokey cokey on the Brussels dancefloor in the lead up to an “in-out referendum” to be held by the end of 2017. Speculation is mounting that it is likely to be held sometime in the autumn of next year. Cameron won’t want this issue to completely dominate the national agenda and the longer it drags on, the less stable his government could be. The deal he will seek to do with Brussels will focus primarily on regulatory issues and possible opt-outs. These discussions and the subsequent referendum may attract a negative sentiment towards British imports across the EU, but this is likely to be over-stated.  What is likely to happen is that more sectors of the British economy will publicly acknowledge the importance of the EU for their business. The brewing industry could well be one of them. While its practitioners may not agree with all aspects of labelling regulation, a move on the origins, ingredients and ownership issues would be supported by the likes of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). So too would dealing with certain issues as part of the EU-US trade deal, the Trans-Atlantic Investment Partnership.

Nigel Farage of UKIP and "pint-op" fame lost his election bid and can look forward to more beers in Brussels and Strasbourg
Nigel Farage of UKIP and “pint-op” fame lost his election bid. He can look forward to more beers in Brussels and Strasbourg

A new Enterprise Bill will be introduced to Parliament with the objective of cutting £10bn worth of red tape. We can expect to see plenty of bizarre regulations appearing over the coming months to illustrate the types of reforms that will be introduced, such as the removal of fines for “No Smoking” signs being the wrong size or in the wrong font. The main beneficiaries of this bill will be small businesses, which includes virtually all breweries in Britain. Business rates are to be reformed and a Small Business Conciliation Service will be introduced. This will be a low-cost mechanism for solving disputes (e.g. payments) and could bring benefits to the supply-chain dependent industry that is brewing. Energy costs are also likely to be addressed but as part of a separate bill.

Devolution is back on the agenda, with added powers promised for Scotland and Wales.  Expect to hear a lot about “metro regions” and the “northern powerhouse” (buzzword overkill?) as regional administration is reformed and new directly-elected mayors introduced. Pub goers can expect more integrated public transport across cities and not just London, apparently. Holyrood has recently agreed to commission a study into the tied-pub sector in Scotland to provide evidence on what changes need to occur. However, it remains to be seen whether any changes can be introduced ahead of next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections.

New MPs can look forward to enjoying one of eight bars in Westminster
New MPs can look forward to enjoying one of eight bars in Westminster

CAMRA ran an effective campaign in the run-up to the general election and sought pledges from candidates to “support well-run community pubs”, “promote Britain’s 1,300 breweries” and “represent pub goers and beer drinkers”. Over 10,000 of its members contacted their local candidates to support these issues. The organisation received pledges from 1,162 candidates, of whom 211 were returned to Parliament. This means 32.5% of the MPs in Westminster have committed to supporting the beer industry. As the table below shows, this support is spread right across the board, with less than a third of the ruling Conservative Party pledging their commitment to beer. Oddly, UKIP’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell didn’t sign up to the campaign. This is in spite of UKIP incorporating these priorities in its manifesto, along with other issues close to CAMRA’s heart. Perhaps he had enough of Nigel Farage’s endless “pint-ops” for Britain?

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But it’s early days and naturally it’s difficult to predict with any great certainty what the political landscape will look like next year let alone in five years’ time. What will happen to the likes of Nigel Farage? Will he finally be allowed to resign as UKIP’s leader? Obviously, alcohol will continue to be linked to health and crime policies by all parties. Regardless, I think “pint-ops” will be here to stay and the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group will have some new faces.

Grilling the property rights of the Irish red ale

With the weather showing signs of summer and then not again, BBQ season is upon us. When I say BBQ, I mean grilling in the truest context and not slow roasting for 24 hours or longer. Lighting a BBQ can make it seem that way though. Think of all the hours of enjoyment standing over it trying to get the coals to catch fire. It’s made all worse by people sitting around watching and remarking on your every move. Comments such “did you use lighter fluid?” or the “quick fire bag of coal is brilliant” hitting you like accusatory daggers. Then eventually it lights, there may be an uneven heat across the grill requiring the frantic shuffling of burgers or whatnot around so they don’t burn too quickly. At least having beer on hand can take some of the edge off of the hassle of cooking al fresco.

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Yesterday, I had an excuse to work through a whole range of red ales (sadly Bay Ale from Galway Ale had disappeared from the fridge by the time I got there). It’s interesting putting different reds, like other beer styles, together to compare variations. Red ale is much maligned by the craft drinker, all too easily dismissed as one-dimensional or worse. For someone who was a fan of Writer’s Red (aka Rebel Red) by Franciscan Well and who drank it by the pitcher full in The Gingerman, I will always have a fondness for the style. At times I have acted in a manner that can only be described as quite frankly a bizarre sense of patriotism in standing up for the style to some CAMRA members all too quick to tell you what they think of it – it’s too gassy, too sweet etc.

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The style as we know it mightn’t be that old nor originating here but there’s no doubt that it has become associated with us. Classic reds may have similar flavour profiles to dry roasted peanuts, some may be too heavy on the caramel and others draw on bitterness for their identity. Who knows what the future holds for this style? It would perhaps be a stretch to see an attempt to adopt a Geographical Indicator status for the Irish red. The road is  certainly open under the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) for more products to adopt such status. Imagine, the likes of George Killian’s Irish Red having to alter its name. This is notwithstanding its very own identity crisis being marketed one time as an Irish red ale and now as a premium lager.

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It’s unlikely the Irish beer industry would look to adopt a GI for the Irish Red Ale. The industry doesn’t act like that, well not yet anyway. Of course, property rights have been a feature of the beer industry. Marketing rights have been a key driver so too has been use of proprietary productin techniques along with informal IP protection techniques. Look at the Trappist breweries distinguishing them from other abbey beers. However, as the market becomes more competitive, more friction can be expected. Thankfully a lot of this can be resolved through dialogue and in cases where it looks like such an approach will fail, public outcry has so far convinced brewers to keep things out of court. It won’t always be like that however. We’re already seeing whiskey producers refining the definition of what is Irish whiskey. Will Irish cream liquor be next?

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Brewers are already making moves to protect what can be called “Irish”, a measure to stop “crafty” imports from the UK and elsewhere. They clearly want to prevent the somewhat duplicitous nature of labelling á la Irish smoked salmon v smoked Irish salmon happening here. A logo is but one small step. A GI for red ale may achieve little too. Beer styles are often products of many places. You may have to be fairly brazen to claim ownership of a beer style either collectively or individually. Look what Anchor Brewing did with “steam beer”, although it was important for lambic producers.  I’d settle for a redoubling of the efforts to market craft beer and the people behind them by Government. This would match the enthusiasm of the brewers and consumers. Additionally, we have to give brewers the support to protect their IP, which dare I say it may include their brand, beer name and logos etc.

All of this may seem a fairly long train of thought but that’s what you get when you BBQ. Plenty of time to muse about all and sundry. At least I had a few red ales to keep me company.