In the belief that it is the duty of a thoughtful periodical to identify new social trends as they appear, and offer some comment on them, I would like to draw attention to a new custom in southern England, that of 'popping over' to France for the day. This is now perfectly practical from anywhere southeast of a line through Nottingham, Derby, Birmingham and Bristol. Thanks to the motorway network, these towns and all places southeast of them, are now within cruising distance of the Channel ports and tunnel. In the weeks leading up to Christmas thousands of British drivers will be doing day trips to France.
How easy it is! Twenty-five years ago, inspired by some optimistic publicity by the ferry companies, I had the idea of going, from London, to Boulogne for lunch. I set off at 7 a.m., and counted myself lucky to get back at 1 a.m. It was not an experience to repeat. Now there are more ships, faster ships and - above all - le Shuttle, the train that takes your car through the Channel Tunnel. I do it, not frequently, but regularly. It is exactly two hundred miles from my front door in Somerset to the tunnel, and 180 of those miles are on motorway. Allowing an extra half-hour for the congestion west of London, the journey on the M4, M25, M26 and M20 sees me in France five hours after departure. Le Shuttle is one of the managerial marvels of our time. It works, it works fast, and is run with no fuss or bother. With no noise or vibration to blur it, a disembodied voice tells me that I am halfway to France and travelling at 85 mph - faster than my car ever goes under its own power. I am travelling with a day return ticket; le Shuttle has a variety of economy offers - mine costs me [pounds]35.
I have gone, of course, for the booze. At the French terminal, a vast and unprepossessing shopping mall is just across a hedge. One is not allowed through the hedge, but must drive two or three miles round following signs to 'Cite Europe'. Here, I park by a familiar name. 'It's a long way to come to Tesco', I say to a couple parking a British van. 'Not for us', they reply. 'We live in Kent, and it's a weekly day out for us.' I must stress that the drink is not duty-free; it has all paid tax - French tax, that is, which is good enough to allow one to take back a 'reasonable quantity' for one's own consumption. Enough for six month's personal drinking, plus a couple of Christmas parties, plus a few bottles as gifts to friends, can all be fitted into a modern saloon car - with a little ingenuity.
The shop is jammed. Every customer is English. The staff are all adequately bi-lingual, and both credit and Tesco's own loyalty cards are accepted. It sells nothing but drink, but even so it must be a jewel in Tesco's crown. Customers fall into three groups. First come those who do not drink wine much; they are excitedly picking individual bottles for their 'chariots', and getting in the way. Then there are relaxed, sun-tanned family groups, obviously on their way back from holiday, who have decided there is enough space left in the car for two or three cases before they board the train and return to the grip of HM's Customs and Excise. The third, and the largest, group are grimly dedicated to filling their chariots rapidly, paying and coming round again. This is hard physical work: to put cases in places one didn't know the car had - and then do it all again. One sweats, and wonders: is it worth it?
Is it worth it? Not half. It is hard to make exact comparisons, because there are so many wines, and so many vintages, that one rarely sees in England exactly what one bought in France, but roughly speaking [pounds]250 spent in Calais equals [pounds]600 in England. The only exact comparison I can make is Fitou - a good-quality everyday table wine - which is usually about [pounds]3.50 a bottle in England and FF12.90 - say [pounds]1.35 - in France. My rule is: don't buy the cheapest - it's not worth the car space; don't buy the most expensive - French ad valorem tax narrows the advantage, and a residual Puritan streak in me rebels at wine costing more than [pounds]10 a bottle. I keep to wines costing FF30 or 40 (about [pounds]3 or [pounds]4), and reflect that in England they would, indeed, cost [pounds]10 or [pounds]12 a bottle. The difference is all duty. I gather that the same differential exists for beer, and one may see trolley after trolley leaving the other wine warehouses in the Calais area laden with beer.
(One tip for anyone doing this for the first time. All French supermarkets nowadays require a ten-franc coin, returnable, to lay hands on a chariot. So do arrive at Calais with a coin in your pocket; otherwise you will waste a valuable half-hour just buying something in order to get change.)
Then it is time to stop, look around and think of lunch. Across the fields rises that Victorian red-brick horror, the Hotel de Ville of Calais. Is there an uglier public building in western Europe? Yes, perhaps, at Grantham in Lincolnshire: but the two together are sans pareil. Personally, I find time for a little regretful, ashamed musing; it was in these fields and little streets, where I am being so self-indulgent, that a modern Thermopylae took place. Brigadier Nicholson and the Rifle Brigade were lost here, almost to the last man, in May 1940 while stopping the onrush of Panzerkorps XIX along the coast; and not a mile from here he received the order from London reading: 'Every hour you continue to fight is of the greatest service to the BEF . . .', forbidding him to withdraw. And then I turn to the menu in one of the excellent restaurants in the food court, before going to the French supermarket, Carrefour to discharge my shopping list of groceries.
About the groceries I need only say that as I reached the check-out I thought: 'This lot would cost me the thick end of [pounds]80 in England'. (Piles of little tit-bits only obtainable in rather smart shops.) It cost me [pounds]28.
The week after my last trip I heard a radio discussion of this topic. Miss Dawn Primarolo, MP, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, dismissed the whole idea of people doing what I had done. Few did it, and loss to the revenue was trifling, compared to the [pounds]20 billion brought in by VAT. I did wish I could persuade her, and one or two of her officials, just to stand in one of the wine merchants at Calais for an hour. The loss is not trifling, and it is growing by the month. I think that in five years there will not be a wine merchant or off-licence left in Kent or Sussex. Shepherd Neame, the Kent brewers, estimate that one pint in four drunk south of London now comes in on these 'bootleg' runs (I put the word in quotes, because duty has been paid, French duty, that is). It is all part of the greater porosity of boundaries within the European Union, which even an island shares. We do, of course, have one land boundary with the rest of the Union, and low-tax diesel fuel is currently pouring in from the Irish Republic to be sold at a discount of 20 pence a litre in the UK. If the Treasury dismisses the pressures now, it will not be able to do so in five years' time. Next spring the duty-free shops cease to operate as such. This will not greatly affect the position except to force the ferry companies to increase their fares to make up for their loss of the shops. These shops have never been quite the bargains they seem, and will simply continue trading on the French-duty-paid basis, at least on the far side. The losses in profits and jobs will all be on the English side.
If there is any check made or enforcement attempted, it is invisible to me. I understand that the Kent traffic police do most of it. On the homeward run there is a long gentle rise on the M20, and when a van is spotted labouring up this at walking speed the police pull it over on safety grounds. It is then relieved of its load until it is no longer a grossly over-loaded vehicle. What gets through is often, of course, in bad hands, and is sold to pub landlords and tobacconists (yes, tobacco is also much cheaper) for cash at their back doors. A coterie of small gangsters is becoming a set of not-so-small gangsters as a result. Benjamin Franklin said 'Nothing is certain but death and taxes': perhaps he should have added 'taxes and the avoidance thereof.'
George Wedd, C.B., is a former Under-Secretary in the Departments of Transport and the Environment.…