Wine - Roger Scruton tastes Canadian shyness

Canadians, I discover to my relief, are able to enjoy themselves these days

I am in Canada, in a flat, featureless town, in a hotel with the somehow shabby name of "Quality Suites", overlooking a multi-storey car park, an empty lot, a last row of condemned Victorian houses and, across the Detroit River, a lone Gothic church standing incongruously in the United States. Two anguished questions arise in such places: how can I avoid offending my hosts, and what will they give me to drink? These questions are particularly pressing in Canada, where identities are heavily defended, and where the memory of the temperance movement casts its shadow across the few permitted joys. Instinct tells me to be tentative and deferential, as I tread in my lecture on their liberal toes, and to be prepared to drink beer or worse with dinner, if such is the general will.

To my relief they are friendly and receptive, want to talk about architecture, pragmatism and the rights of animals, and they order bottle upon bottle of Canadian wine. I recall its embryonic versions from a visit 20 years ago, when I was trapped for two desperate months in a university where you couldn't open a window and where wine had to be bought from the government liquor store, whose only affordable brand was the lifeless Inniskillin. Things have improved since then. We are in a Victorian restaurant with a window that opens on to the street (admittedly a street of concrete buildings where no other window opens). The Canadian Pinot Blanc is a credit to the establishment - crisp, dry and tingling on the tongue, with a nice yeasty attack and a melancholy, long withdrawing roar down the tired oesophagus. Conversation becomes lighter as we proceed to the Pinot Noir and the Cabernet Sauvignon, both well-made wines, but with a kind of Canadian shyness that causes them to withhold their secrets as they work themselves quietly into the conversation.

I make a note to make a note of their provenance, this being a really great opportunity to provide our readers with a rare example of global expertise. But another bottle appears, and the conversation turns to politics, or is it pilitocs? At any rate, a frisson of controversy shakes the table, and I notice that my companions are mostly drinking beer. Surely it cannot be that I alone have drunk four bottles?

With mixed feelings I discover that my nearest neighbour, who has so far said little, has been quietly filling his glass and is about to burst into speech. Turning to me with an angry expression, he blurts out: "You were quite wrong." "About what?" I ask, alarmed that my come-uppance is about to come up. He stares long and hard. "Something you wrote once. About the Art of Fugue. But I forget what it was." He raises his glass, and we toast each other happily.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 15 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The worst man in the world?

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

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