Chris Rogers: How we got Philip Hammond to freeze spirits duty
We secured the freeze not by attacking the chancellor but through careful and considered political engagement
The politics of this year’s Budget were hardly conducive to even a freeze in excise duty on alcohol, including much-loved UK produced spirits like Scotch Whisky and gin. The Chancellor had to meet the Prime Minister’s commitment of an extra £20bn to the NHS. He had to meet her pledges, made at the Conservative Party conference, not only that the age of austerity was over but that duty on fuel would be frozen for a ninth consecutive year. And he had to make the public finances stack up in the last Budget before Brexit when the outcome of negotiations – and their impact on the economy - are anything but certain.
With those considerations in mind, it would seem a no-brainer to increase duty which, after all, is already baked into the public finances. In political terms, getting a freeze in duty was the equivalent of pushing a boulder up a mountain. And yet spirits duty was frozen by the Chancellor thanks to a concerted and comprehensive campaign on behalf of the Scotch Whisky Association and its member companies that include, to name but a few, Diageo, Pernod-Ricard, Bacardi and Edrington.
How did we get the boulder to the summit? We secured the freeze not by attacking the Chancellor but through careful and considered political engagement, focusing on a positive narrative about backing our national champions.
It was a campaign that articulated two important points. The first was that there were robust economic arguments for continuing to freeze duty. HMRC’s own figures showed the freeze announced by the Chancellor had beaten Treasury projections for revenue, delivering £183m between February and September than in the same period in 2017.
The second point was the importance of the Government backing winning industries such as Scotch in the last Budget before Brexit – recognising the billions contributed by the industry to UK exports, the number of tourists it attracts and the 40,000 jobs it maintains across the country.
With those arguments we mobilised politicians from across the country and political spectrum. A parliamentary briefing event we held was attended by more than 30 MPs, including two Secretaries of State. Supportive MPs stood up to back the industry with questions to Treasury ministers, and even in Prime Minister’s Questions. Dozens confirmed their support for our campaign on social media. A Twitter video with MPs putting messages for a freeze in an empty bottle of Scotch for the Chancellor was watched by more than 24,000 people within 48 hours.
Those public expressions of support were backed by regular coverage in the media – including a call to protect Scotch within a Sun leader column, and an op-ed in Red Box by the Scotch Whisky Association’s Chief Executive. We also worked with the Association to utilise polling they had conducted to demonstrate the industry’s importance to the population and how a freeze would show that Westminster was supporting Scotland. And we developed a series of campaign animations to demonstrate the current tax burden on Scotch, the number of jobs supported by the industry, its contribution as the leading UK food and drink exports, and the number of tourists it brings into the UK.
This body of engagement, supplemented by regular briefings to Secretaries of State and special advisors across government, made the positive case that freezing spirits duty was politically astute and supported the public finances. As a result, we can raise a glass to tax on spirits not going up this year and congratulate the Chancellor for making the right decision to back British winners in his last Budget before Brexit.
Chris Rogers is an associate director at iNHouse Communications.