Monday 31 December 2012

This new year, raise your glass to a Buy British campaign

A taste of English wine shows how we can put the sparkle back into home-grown products, writes Boris Johnson

I have drunk a prodigious quantity of wine over the past few decades without bothering to learn anything about the difference between one vintage and another. So when my hand passes along a row of bottles on a supermarket shelf, there is nothing scientific about the process of selection.

I tend to discount bottles that are obviously too cheap. And I am suspicious of the expensive stuff, since in my experience it never really tastes better than the stuff that costs about £5 or £6 less. So I tend to look for bottles that are in the middle of the price range and have a colourful label or zany vineyard – and if they offer the extra convenience of a screwcap, so much the better.

In the course of getting in some supplies the other day, I found myself pausing in front of a bottle that seemed to meet all my criteria: reasonably priced, bright label, screwcap, funky vineyard name.

Then I looked closer. Hello, hello, hello, I said to myself. This wine comes from England! I almost left it at that, and passed on to the adjacent offerings from other EU countries or the New World. And then my hand wavered back, as if of its own volition. An English wine – of the kind that the Romans grew, and briefly favoured; an English wine such as flourished here during the warm period of the Middle Ages.

Might it be time to try it? Most people of my generation have grown up thinking that there is something slightly bonkers about drinking English wine, like doing Morris dancing, or singing madrigals or getting down on your hands and knees in Essex churches and doing brass rubbings. But as I looked into its pinkish depths Рit claimed to be a ros̩ РI remembered reading some very flattering verdicts on this liquid.

Didn’t they do a blind tasting with a load of French oenophiles, in which the French unwittingly plumped for English sparkling wine over their own champagne? This was a British product, and even if the labourers who picked it almost certainly numbered some hard-working immigrants from Eastern Europe, to buy this bottle was surely in some sense a patriotic act. I would be supporting a British firm, helping its cash flow in a tough time; and as my fingers fastened around the neck of the bottle I was filled with a sense of mission.

Imagine if we all bought English wine, as well as British beef and British milk.Imagine if every government-funded function were refreshed with English wine, rather than Chilean cabernet sauvignon. Think of the boost for jobs and growth in the wine sector in this country. Think of the difference to the balance of trade – now about as bad as it has been in our lifetimes. Think of the difference to this country’s prospects if – ceteris paribus – we bought British.

You don’t have to tell me about previous Buy British campaigns, and how they ended in derision and dismay. There was the famous initiative launched in 1968 by five Surbiton secretaries. They were so worried about the state of the economy that they announced they would work an extra half day per week – gratis, all for the sake of boosting national output.

Within days, several national newspapers had taken up their cause. Every party leader endorsed them. The Duke of Edinburgh said it was the finest thing he had seen all year, and soon the entire nation was in the grip of a movement called “I’m Backing Britain”.

Among other acts of selfless supererogation, a disc jockey called Jimmy Savile volunteered to work for nine days, without pay, as a hospital porter at Leeds Infirmary. Then the saintly Robert Maxwell leapt on the bandwagon, going on The David Frost Show and calling on people to “Buy British”.

Then things began to go wrong. First the unions objected to the whole concept of unpaid labour. Then it turned out that the “I’m Backing Britain” T-shirts had been made in Portugal.

After that, someone had the temerity to point out that Maxwell’s Pergamon Press printed most of its stuff in Eastern Europe, and that much of his output consisted of hagiographical accounts of Soviet bloc dictators. The whole campaign was wound in general sneering and ignominy, and the poor Surbiton secretaries complained that they hadn’t been able to do any work anyway, because they had been so busy giving interviews to tub-thumping newspapers.

Yes, the last great Buy British movement was a fiasco, and yet I can’t help feeling that the idea still has great merit. I am not calling for tariffs or protection – far from it. I don’t want the Government to pick winners, and I don’t want the taxpayer to cough up for mad attempts at import substitution, such as Tony Benn’s Meriden Motorcycle Co-operative, or Lymeswold cheese – a brand that never recovered from being compared in flavour to banana toothpaste.

But it is surely common sense that if we collectively make more of an effort to buy goods and services where value has been added in this country (I say nothing about ownership), then we will be helping to boost employment, and helping to reduce the costs of welfare that we all fund in our taxes. All we need is to be more aware of what we produce – and when you dig into it, the answers are amazing. It is a pernicious myth that “we don’t make anything any more”.

We make just about everything you could imagine: clothes, toys, food, drink, household goods, consumer electronics, cars, planes, missiles. Check out the Buy British website. We forget that we are still the sixth largest manufacturer on earth. There are thousands and thousands of British firms that are struggling to compete in the global export market, and whose ambitions would certainly be helped by stronger domestic consumption.

You don’t have to be out of pocket; you don’t have to buy some shoddy domestic product rather than a snazzy imported one. But when there are two virtually identical products, and the only difference is not price but nationality – then it surely makes sense to Buy British. That’s my New Year’s Resolution, and I hope it will be yours as well.

The wine was terrific, by the way.

Luckily for the people of East Sussex, we don't have far to go

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