Scotland’s minimum alcohol pricing – an ill conceived proposal?

In a landmark victory for the SNP, the Supreme Court has ruled that their Government in Holyrood can set a minimum price for alcohol, in spite of a persistent challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that she was “delighted” by the ruling, forgetting to mention that this had gone all the way to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Surely it’s only a matter of time before other senior SNP figures tweet their gratitude for Kingdoms working in a united way.

It was 2012 when legislation was first passed, by a then-majority SNP government, to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing. Amongst the headline reasons were that alcohol is now 54% more affordable than it was in 1980 and, that if the minimum price for alcohol was 50p per unit, 120 deaths per year would be avoided. Incredibly, we would have wait an 20 years for the full effects to become apparent.

A stereotype of the typical Scotsman is one of a belligerent drunken yob, exemplified by Rab C Nesbitt in the popular BBC TV series. The ‘sick man of Europe’ mantle is passed from nation to nation but is handed to the Scots for their reputed love of fried food and hard drink. Various government strategies have looked at ways to mitigate the health effects of over imbibing, and this problem isn’t confined to Scotland. Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays, not known for his youthful sobriety, says that he has been all over the world and British people “caning it” is something he hasn’t really witnessed elsewhere. So, it fell to the SNP to have a go in Scotland.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) challenged the new legislation almost immediately. Their position was that it would harm their industry and wouldn’t do what the SNP claimed it would, namely improve the health of the nation. It was an irony not lost on the SNP’s opponents that the SWA quoted EU trade rules. That’s the same EU the SNP claim they want to stop us Brexiting from. Further, the SWA said that minimum pricing would not have the same effect on consumption as taxation.

It’s worth remembering that in 2012 the Scottish Government had no tax varying measures at their disposal. Increasing minimum pricing was the only tool they had in their desire to do something. And there is the problem right there. The SNP have been wedded to this policy since 2012 because they wanted to do something, anything, to be seen to be doing something, anything. The SNP argue the need for more powers all the time, to tackle the things that really matter. However that’s not what they’ve been saying since 2012 on this subject. They’ve been telling us that minimum pricing is the best most effective way to reduce deaths and hospital admissions from misuse of alcohol is to set the minimum price at 50p per unit.

The Muir of Ord Whisky Distillery near Inverness 

Of course, now they’ve won at the UK Supreme Court. That’s the same UK the SNP are desperate to say Scotbye to. The SWA have said they accept the ruling and look now for the Scottish and UK governments to provide support in overseas markets. The SNP can add this success to their list of mediocre achievements such as baby boxes and an attempt by John Mason to reduce portion sizes in the Holyrood canteen.

Like baby boxes though, and other SNP initiatives, minimum pricing of alcohol has its roots in the Scandinavian experience. Over the past sixty years, Scandinavian countries have tried many initiatives to curb excessive drinking. In their Viking past it was considered impolite to not try and drink one’s friends under the table. By the mid 20th century, there was a mood to do something about it.

Restrictions on availability through off-licence opening hours, and making those a monopoly of the state, allied with taxation and price hikes has nudged Scandinavia into a healthy cafe culture. You only have to go to a smart cafe in Denmark’s capital to see Copenhagen men sit round a table nursing a cup of coffee and a small glass of beer to see the difference. Imagine the same group of British men waiting in Wetherspoons for their wives and the scene would be very different.

But there is a flip-side to this image of a happy Nordic landscape full of sober blonds. Norwegian towns and cities for example still have their own Rab C Nesbitts, people whose lives are blighted by alcohol problems, and can often be seen hanging around outside Oslo’s Central Railway Station. The high price of alcohol there means that organised crime has a revenue stream from ordinary people similar to that seen in Prohibition America. It’s surely a fear, though the SNP has never admitted it, that smuggling will increase. New illicit stills, to a level not seen since the distilleries of Scotland were legalised and regulated, would return to haunt our landscape and our health.

It’s easy to imagine, even, the booze runs to Berwick-upon-Tweed. That fine town has some supermarkets handily placed just off the A1. Mail-order wine clubs will have a boom. Goodness knows how eloping couples will find accommodation in Gretna when they’re jostling for space with migrant drinkers from north of the border. Eliot Loch-Ness will need to form a team of untouchables to examine Amazon parcels that mysteriously clink.

Scandinavian countries do believe that the range of government measures have had an effect on consumption and public health. However, the SNP need to learn the lesson now about how criminals benefit from Norway’s position on alcohol. Unintended consequences have a way of spinning off from well-intentioned legislation. If Sturgeon and her government fail to do that, then success at the UK Supreme Court is only the start of their, and Scotland’s, troubles with minimum pricing of alcohol.


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