I’ve been watching the row over alcohol pricing with unusually close interest. Recently, I decided to stop drinking myself – partly for health reasons, but also to reassure myself that I could. I’m not a temperance fanatic, but like many people I know, I was beginning to feel that alcohol played too great a role in my life, and in the life of my country, and that it was time to sober up. So, I was dismayed last month when pig headed oppositionism by Labour and the Liberal Democrats wrecked the Scottish government’s attempts to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol – a policy which is supported by all leading medical authorities, and now by a powerful Commons committee.
Yes, for once, Westminster has stepped into the moral vacuum left by the Scottish parliament. Labour, Libdem and Conservative MPs on the health committee have called for mandatory health warnings on alcoholic drinks, a rise in tax on spirits, and minimum prices for all alcoholoic drinks. It says a 50p minimum per unit would save 3,000 lives a year, I trust Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat MSPs in Holyrood are suitably shamed. The Commons health committee also said that ministers are too close to drinks companies and supermarkets and have effectively been captured by the alcohol lobby. Hear, hear! It’s time we called time on the biggest drug pushers in the world: the drinks giants. For too long, the booze manufacturers have sprayed their hospitality around the political classes, addling politicians’s senses.
I think Scotland is ready for a lead on alcohol and our politicians have let us down. We have seen what has happened to our city centres, to our children to ourselves. I don’t have a drink problem, but I had become very aware of how much alcohol had insinuated itelself into my life. I go to lots of receptions and dinners where it’s easy to knock back glasses of tepid wine, often to relieve the boredom. I don’t remember when I started having wine regularly with meals at home, but I can certainly remember the days when it was still too expensive so to do. And when did it become the norm to take drink into plays and concerts? Drink is now so socially acceptable that respectable people see nothing odd in sitting in the park on a warm day knocking back booze. There was a time when only derelicts and winos staggered around with cans in their hands – and they would have been moved on by the police. I went to a school fundraiser recently and found that it had an all day licence.
Now, I have absolutely nothing against moderate drinking, which is for most people a pleasurable and harmless social lubricant. But I’m not alone in thinking that things are getting out of hand. The epidemic of alcohol-related illness is a national emergency – half of all deaths in Scotland are down to alcohol and the mortality has doubled in a decade. It’s only when you stop drinking that you realise how cheap and available it has become, and how much other people are consuming.
As a nation we have peculiarly intense love affair with alcohol, but we are not alone – other countries with cold dark winters like Norway, Iceland, Finland have also wrestled with the demon and have come to the conclusion that pricing is an essential weapon in the armoury. No, making booze more expensive won’t stop hardened drinkers getting their fix, nor will it stop people turning to other substances like glue or shoe polish. But what it will do is give a moral lead, reduce consumption and help the very many people who are trying to get their drinking under control.
When I gave up smoking thirty years ago there was a direct financial benefit. I could look at my bank balance and notice the effect of giving up the weed. The financial reward for cutting out alcohol today is negligible.. At all levels booze is ludicrously cheap. I recently saw a litre bottle of good whisky in a supermarket on sale for eleven quid. In 1970s money, that would have been nearer forty quid. You can buy three litres of strong cider for little more than the price of a pint in a city bar – that’s eighteen units in one bottle! Wine at three or four pounds a bottle is less than half the cost of a decent bottle thirty years ago,inflation adjusted, and wine today is much stronger.
So, it was desperately depressing last month to see minimum pricing of alcohol falling, being rejected in Holyrood as a result of party tribalism. Labour didn’t want the SNP to get the credit for turning the tide against drink so they found reasons for opposing the legislation. Yes, I know the arguments: the SNP hadn’t shared its legal advice, the government hasn’t set a price per unit, the supermarkets and off licences would make a mint. But since when has New Labour been bothered about supermarket super profits? And if minimum pricing is so lucrative, why are the supermarkets and the drinks companies spending a fortune opposing it? They are interested in volume not price, and they know that ultra cheap alcohol prices is a good way to attract people into their stores.
Perhaps the government could have been more forthcoming on the legal advice, though previous Labour ministers similarly refused to publish advice from the law officers. There are undoubtedly legal issues about minimum pricing: it could be seen as price fixing, and profiteering. There are questions about the legality under European law. But the clearest way to bulldoze these legal obstacles is for the national legislature to mobilise its case and to act decisively and clearly in the national interest. Legal problems were similarly raised over the smoking ban, but they disappeared rapidly once the legislation was in place.
Labour should know this only too well since it was they who piloted the smoking ban through the Scottish parliament in face of legal threats, opposition from London and warnings that there would be civil unrest. The First Minister at the time, Jack McConnell, faced them down, remained focused, and acted on the best advice he could get on the medical case for abolition. If only Labour had that kind of leadership now. The SNP could have opposed the smoking legislation in 2005, just as Labour did last year, but to their credit they put aside party advantage and voted it through.
The Liberal Democrat opposition is even worse, because they actually support minimum pricing – it’s in their UK election manifesto. This is very bad politics. The medical authorities are as unanimous on minimum pricing as they were over the smoking ban, and they rounded on the opposition parties last week for wrecking the bill. The legislation has the support of the Chief Medical Officer, the BMA, the Royal Colleges, the Association of Chief Police Officers, and numerous campaign groups like Alcohol Focus Scotland. Many believe the SNP’s bill doesn’t go far enough, but they still support the measure as a first step, a moral stand. Lined up against that coalition are the drinks manufacturers, the Scotch Whisky Association and the supermarkets. Whose advice would you choose?
Labour may think that the working man likes his pint and will reward them at the ballot box. But times change. Many social drinkers like me are sobering up; women voters see the damage to families; voters in housing estates are fed up having to run the gauntlet of teenagers sucking on those big bottles of cider. In defying medical opinion, the police and alcohol charities Labour has made a serious error of judgement. I believe the opposition parties will eventually realise this – and the sooner the better. But valuable time has been lost, and Labour will not be forgiven for being in the pocket of the drinks pushers.