Why do people take the ferry to France to buy cheap drink? Obviously, it’s to save money – though not even the Yuletide change that the day-trippers trousered the day I accompanied them explained the glow in their cheeks, or the roistering of our homeward journey across the English main. Less obviously, but only just, the booze-cruises are also about over-indulgence, greed, and in some cases outright criminality. As much as 40 per cent of the beer driven into Britain in returning mini-vans is sold on illegally, according to a study by the admittedly parti pris brewers Whitbread.
The Channel is the frontline of Britain’s current battle over Europe, in more senses than one. There’s a Briton behind the counter of most of the cut-price liquor malls and marts in Calais, concerns such as Champagne Charlies (sic) and EastEnders (prop. Dave West). EastEnders knocks out pallets of beer at savagely reduced prices from two or three premises. Dave’s vague about the precise number, but they’re located a can-of-Stone’s throw from the ferry terminal.
By nature and occupation, men like Dave are Eurosceptics. You can see why journalists taking a holiday from Bill Cash MP have wanted to play up the Frog-baiter and allround Continental-botherer in Dave, the most celebrated back-street vintner in Northern France. It’s fair to say that he is proud of his roots. A naive cartoon on his wall shows Dave’s head mounted on a bulldog’s body. And he blithely conducts his business in sterling, indifferent to the native coin. He fears closer integration with our European partners, along the lines of the harmonisation of alcohol duty – something Kenneth Clarke alluded to when making his Budget speech at the first time of asking. Bang would go Dave’s percentage on ESP lager, and the matchlessly marqued Wappenbrau, which he sells for as little as £3.70 for a case of 24 bottles. He is shifting 180,000 pints of beer a week, and motoring backwards and forwards between his franchises and outlets in an elegant, if regrettably German, saloon.
In the shadow of a power-generating plant, Britons are stocking up at one of Dave’s warehouses, to the seasonal accompaniment of a roaring brazier. Ask these people to name the boldest champion of their interests in Europe and they won’t mention anyone with patrician vowels or a bespoke Tory constituency. The Little Englander derring-do of men like Dave does more to stir the passions than MPs who sit on their hands in a vote on funding for Brussels. The other wing of the Conservative Party – which was in government at the time of going to press – is even less popular. It’s worth pausing a moment to remark on how odd this would seem to the proverbial Channel-hopping Martian. In the struggle which has divided our legislators, drinkers ought by rights to be on the side of the Europhiles. I write before the Chancellor’s second mini-Budget, but if he reaches agreement with his fellow finance ministers, the tax we pay on alcohol will come down. (This new entente cordiale could hardly mean levies going up over there, since the British are almost alone in racking up duty). In the long run, No 11 could save tipplers even more money than the cash-and-carries of Calais.