Who thought of health warnings on wine?
And there I was – all set to blame Brussels. As soon as I heard there was some loony plan to put health warnings on wine bottles, my Eurosceptic aero engines began to rev and whirr.
I knew where the culprits must be, and the all-purpose vertical take-off Euro-rant began to throb on the launching pad. Could they really be serious?
Were we really going to have labels on wine bottles, warning the consumer that the contents might make him drunk? It was insane, and there was only one type of bureaucrat – or so I instinctively thought – who would dare to promote such lunacy.
As I prepared my continental bombing raid, I could see my target in my imagination.
That’s right: it was some Swedish divorcee health commissioner, sitting in her velour slacks in her taupe-coloured office in the Breydel building, Brussels; and I could just imagine the imperious set of her jaw as she put down her glass of Badoit and prepared to Mont Blanc her initials under the EU edict that alcohol was henceforward to be clearly labelled as a poison; and in my rage I reached for another lunchtime glass of Mazis-Chambertin 2000, to fortify myself for the rigours of composing my column, and I can tell you that it was with all bomb bays fully loaded that I arrived at my desk; and I was on the very point of launching the great Brussels-busting task force when I paused.
I had a spasm of journalistic scruple. I picked up the phone. I made a couple of calls to check that this bêtise was indeed the product of the European Alcohol Action Programme, launched in 2005; and after about an hour’s research I sat back in a state of amazement.
No, my friends, I must be honest, and I must tell you that this piece of nonsense was not generated in Brussels. It is entirely home grown.
It is the British Department of Health, in Whitehall, that wants a new label on every bottle of wine and every other alcoholic beverage, with a load of baloney about the risks to unborn children (not very great, frankly), the need to drink “responsibly”, the websites of various “drink awareness” organisations, and a load of bunkum about the piffling number of “units” the Government thinks a man and a woman can drink “responsibly” every week.
The whole project has been personally invented and pushed by Caroline Flint, a junior health minister, and you may reasonably be asking yourself why.
Why now? For well over 45 centuries the human race has been squeezing grapes and fermenting the juice into anything between seven and 15 per cent alcohol, and so producing the ecstatic drink that has been as sacred to every pagan religion as it is to Christianity.
As a great French historian has pointed out, the vineyards of France are perhaps the single greatest cultural legacy of the Roman empire, and it is now more than two millennia since people in Britain first became aware of the intoxicating powers of wine.
In all that time, no government in history has yet thought the people so moronic that they needed to be told, on the bottle, that wine could go to your head; and Flint’s proposed act of desecration is all the more shameful and baffling when you consider – in your state of agreeable post-prandial rapture – that a bottle of wine is really a thing of quiet beauty.
For hundreds of years, the play of light on the glass and the liquid has entranced the eye of our greatest painters, from Caravaggio to Manet. Think of all those bottles twinkling away behind the bar girl in the Folies-Bergeres; think of that Van Gogh still life – the bottle, the bread, the cheese.
That’s what we want: simplicity, elegance – not some plodding Flintogram plastered all over the thing and telling you that wine is potentially bad for your health.
Does she really imagine that her ghastly “message” will make a fluid ounce of difference to the total quantity of alcohol consumed by the British people? Will it remove a single splash of vomit from our pavements? Will it deter a single bladdered ladette from hoisting another one away?
Of course not. It will simply add to the costs of the wine producers and bottlers; the gummy Flintolabels will make wine bottles more expensive to recycle, and apart from anything else, I can’t see how a British-only system of health warnings on alcoholic beverages can be in conformity with the principles of the EU single market.
If Flint tries to force this on the British drinks industry, it strikes me that she could easily face a legal challenge for introducing an impediment to the free circulation of goods. Yes, folks, we could be in the absurd position of having to go to Brussels to protect us against the nannying and bullying of the Labour Government.
But of course the junior health minister doesn’t care about any of these practical questions, any more than she cares about the negligible impact her Flinty health warnings will have on our drinking habits. It is nothing to do with health, or alcoholism, or binge-drinking, and everything to do with the terrible deformations of democratic politics.
She is a junior minister anxious to make a name for herself, and she has seen that there could be no more powerful way of asserting her own existence than stamping her mark, like the signature of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, on every bottle we buy. It is all about Caroline Flint, and it has very little to do with the drinkers of Britain and their problems.
I am told that the drinks industry is in two minds. Some say capitulate and agree to the “voluntary” code; some say fight and force Flint to try to bring forward legislation.
I say fight, fight, fight. Fight against these insulting, ugly and otiose labels.
Oblige Flint to bring her plans to Parliament, so we can fight for common sense against the tide of infantilising elf and safety madness, and when we have won we can help her to drown her sorrows in the time-honoured British way – and our potations will be equally responsible, or irresponsible, whatever it says on the label.