Rum deal

Drink - Victoria Moore on how to get caned in Barbados

"See that thread of blue smoke coming up between the trees," says the driver, pointing languorously towards the northerly horizon. From the back seat, I can just about make it out. "That's one of the three sugar refineries on the island. And the sugar cane, it's just about ready for harvesting. They'll start on Monday."

We are driving down a narrow lane away from the airport in Barbados. On each side, the sugar cane rises ten feet high, the demerara colour of its woody-looking base yielding to green leafy shoots higher up. When the first settlers landed in Barbados in 1627, sugar - or "white gold", as it came to be called because of the wealth it brought to the island - was in great demand in Europe. Sugar plantations flourished on Barbados's coral soil (the other Caribbean islands are volcanic). Today, sugar cane capable of producing 60,000 tonnes of sugar annually covers 30,000 acres of the island.

According to our driver, most of the sugar cane in Barbados is now harvested by machine. At the Mount Gay rum visitor centre in Bridgetown, the island's capital, they prefer to swaddle the local industry in a blanket of tradition by claiming that it is reaped predominantly by hand. But everyone agrees on one thing: sugar cane is the most important crop. Until the 1990s, when tourism and manufacturing surpassed it, the economy depended on sugar; that being the case, Barbadians are raised virtually from the cradle on the rum made from the island's sugar cane.

White rum, dark rum, golden rum. Rum punch, fruit daiquiris, rum and coke, pina colada, rum with coconut, rum with lime. Jerk chicken, rum cakes, bread-and-butter pudding. Rum was invented in Barbados and, in one guise or another, its thick, almost sweet, vanilla-wood-bitter-almond smell is never far away. It is said that the name of rum (originally called rumbullion) is related to the words "rumbustious" and "rumpus", both of which describe the behaviour of someone who has drunk too much of it.

Rum is made from molasses (or black treacle, if you prefer), a by-product when sugar is refined, which is fermented with yeast and naturally filtered rainwater. When distilled to a firewater of almost pure alcohol, it is as colourless and clear as morning dew. White rum, such as Bacardi, is made by diluting and blending this product. A golden hue comes from the white-oak barrels with charred insides in which it is aged. Often these barrels have been imported from Kentucky, where the bourbon-makers use them only once. Rum-makers are less fastidious and use them five or six times before selling them off at local markets, where the poorest Barbadians snap them up, fill them with water and leave to stand for as long as it takes (usually about three weeks) for the water to leech the last particles of rum out of the oak boards. Then the resultant "swish" is drunk as a kind of rum-lite.

It sounds revolting, but there's no accounting for taste. After all, while coloured rum is somewhat out of fashion in Britain, we do enjoy white rum mixed with coconut in the form of Malibu. Barbados is responsible for that, too: every drop of alcohol in Malibu, although bottled across the world, comes from this small island.

As far as I'm concerned, Malibu is one of the foulest drinks I have ever had the misfortune to taste; however, since it was launched in 1985, thousands, possibly millions, of Britons have not agreed with me. The manager of the visitor centre (a gaudy, plastic and concrete place) at the Malibu distillery in Barbados told me that only the Spanish consume more Malibu per person per year than the British. And watch out, because Malibu is test-marketing a sickly-sweet new drink: Malibu with lime. So far, only the Barbadians and the French are "privileged" to have it, but I can't think that we will go without for long.

It is a long way from the oak-aged rum, Old Brigand, that my taxi-driver confessed was his favourite, and from the "snaps" (shots) of rum that intersperse games of cards and dominoes in rum bars across the island. And thank goodness for that.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Democracy can be bad for you

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide