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Use & Abuse
Benedictines, Buckfast and the Scottish Minister
Sunday, 6th February, 2005  - Richard Farmer

The Abbott of Buckfast Abbey, David Charlesworth of the Order of Saint Benedict, chose as his sermon to celebrate the Feast of St David in 1999, the story of Saint David putting his trust in God and helping others to do the same.

"The newly baptized Christians of Wales under David's care," the Abbott told his congregation, "were being threatened by pagan invaders from what we now call England. They were no match against the fierce raiders and were in despair, ready even to turn back to their own pagan gods because the Christian God had seemed to desert them. Bishop David feared that his work would be lost. He prayed for wisdom and the Lord answered him.

"Just before a battle, a battle that had to be won, he became angry with his people for their lack of faith. He scolded them and derided them - he turned to their soldiers and said that if they had faith they would put down their swords and fight off the enemy with nothing but the plants that grew around them - the plants were leeks. He so roused their spirit that they did what he said. They charged the enemy like mad men - waving the leeks in their hands. The pagan invaders amazed at such foolhardy courage fled before the power of the Christian God."

This week the good Abbott Charlesworth is surely urging the monks of Buckfast in Devon to wave a leek or two as they do battle with their own enemy - Cathy Jamieson, the Justice Minister in the Scottish Government. Ms Jamieson, the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley in the Scottish Parliament, is threatening the economic viability of the Abbey by urging that its major product be banned from sale. Buckfast Tonic Wine, she alleges, is behind the antisocial behaviour of underage drinkers.

Now this is not the first time that the Benedictines of Buckfast have tangled with governments. First founded in Devon in 1018 the Abbey was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539. It was not until 1882 that the Abbey was refounded - the only dissolved English medieval monastery to have been restored and used again for its original purpose. The Abbey Church was painstakingly rebuilt over 30 years and completed in 1938.

Funds for that monumental task came partly from the sale of a tonic wine the recipe for which the French monks who resettled the Abbey in the 1880s brought with them. Base wines from Spain, known as mistellas, were imported and to these were added the tonic ingredients according to the old recipe.

The Abbey's website describes the product in this way:

   By the 1920's 1400 bottles were sold annually, 500 from Buckfast and the remainder by post. In 1927 a London wine merchant was visiting the Abbey, and in conversation with the Abbot, Anscar Vonnier, it was decided that the monks would continue to make the Tonic wine with the distribution and sale to be carried out by a separate marketing company. In order to broaden its appeal the Tonic was changed slightly from a rather severe patent medicine to a smoother, more mature medicated wine. Having taken on the marketing of "Buckfast" the distributing Company adopted a reserved promotional approach resulting in the widespread appreciation of the product nationally and internationally.

   In modern times it continues to be made by the monks of Buckfast Abbey along the same lines and according to the same basic recipe as used in the very early days. The main difficulty lies in the successful addition of inert substances to a base wine - a living and natural entity. The selection of the base wine is thus of prime importance. To-day the base mistellas come from France providing the ideal medium for the skill and expertise of the monks to produce a finished product round and mature to the most discerning of tastes.

According to Ms Jamieson those "most discerning of tastes" include the young people of her Ayrshire constituency who find that at 15% alcohol and 5 a bottle it is a pleasing variation to the array of RTDs offered by the major liquor companies. She welcomed the decision of one Co-op store in her constituency to limit sales to two bottles and only to customers who were personally known. I welcome the Co-ops recognition that there has been a problem and their decision to restrict the sale of Buckfast, the London Times reported her as saying. I would call on other off-licences to act as responsibly or ban Buckfast. It is an unfortunate fact that off- licences can become the focus of antisocial behaviour and underage drinking.

These comments were very similar to those made by Helen Liddell, a current member of the House of Commons, in 1994 when she too called for a Buckfast ban. The result on that occasion was no ban and a huge increase in sales.

So far Ms Jamieson's Ministerial colleagues seem to favour the same do nothing approach on this occasion. After all, the First Minister in the Government of which she is a member, recently told a group of teenage school students that it was acceptable to "get drunk once in a while". Some business leaders have criticised her "tokenism" while the Monks have condemned her remarks as "a cheap shot."

Note: The comments of the Scolttish First Minister, Jack McConnell, came during an hour-long event billed as Ask Jack, when one pupil raised the issue of under-age drinking. Mr McConnell joked that he was sure there was no such thing in the Highlands, then went on to talk about binge drinking in Scotland. Criticising pub chains for selling too much cut-price drink and encouraging rapid consumption, he said there would be a clampdown, and those promotions made illegal. "By all means get drunk once in a while but do not get into a situation where people are being encouraged to get completely incapable just to save money and drink more quickly," he said.

Note 2: The Scottish Herald newspaper reported that the Scottish Tories, whose health spokesman last night stood down after reports he broke his leg after a drinking session, declined to comment on Mr McConnell's comments.

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