Scotland’s ban on smoking five years ago was a rare glimpse of what political courage, in the face of commercial pressure, our parliamentarians can be capable of when they pull together. Last week’s frankly flaccid and depressingly predictable outcome for what should have been an historic event with the passing of the Alcohol Bill shows us in our more usual state – we can talk a good game but when it comes to realising our ambitions, Scotland falls short. Scotland’s use and abuse of alcohol is a national disgrace. In what other country are we treated, to the same extent, to the unedifying sight of revellers so drunk they can’t stand, of youths writhing around in gutters, picking fights with passers-by if not with themselves? Where else do young women talk about a good night out being one where they can’t remember the state they were in? And what other nation would accept that doctors and nurses need police protection as they stitch up the wounds of a night out on the tiles?
Scotland is, literally, awash with drink and in the months of lengthy discussion, debate, scrutiny and expert evidence-giving on the SNP Government’s Alcohol Bill, there was at least cross-party agreement on that. Indeed, over the increasing damage alcohol has on the social fabric of our nation, there was full consensus, not least because of the additional cost of £3.5bn a year to our public services in trying to mop up the mess. But while the monetary cost is clear, the social cost is harder to quantify. Figures in a recent report estimate that around a fifth of the Scottish population drinks to hazardous levels – men drinking more than 21 units per week and women drinking more than 14 units per week. And it’s a sobering thought that drunkenness is clearly at the heart of most of our crime, of our family disintegration, of our sexual carelessness, of our road deaths and even, if we are honest, most of our personal relationship spats, lack of patience with our children, excuses for not turning up for work or for being late, moody and not working to our best capabilities. It is a blight. Minimum pricing was never going to be the magic bullet but it would have been a start. It would have put Scotland at the forefront of tackling a problem at which we excel. Instead we have an emasculated Alcohol Act that is a cut-price response to what could have been a landmark piece of legislation.
And if evidence of the absurdity that fuelled its demise is needed, one only needs question why our politicians managed to pass the sunset clause part of the Bill but not the minimum pricing element that it would have applied to. In spite of overwhelming support for minimum pricing from the medical profession, the church, alcohol experts and those and such as those of Scotland’s civic society, opposition MSPs decided they knew best and with the one enlightened exception of Malcolm Chisholm, voted the most important part of the Bill down. I have lost count of the number of MSPs that have told me privately that they were inclined to minimum pricing – Ross Finnie admitted as much at his party’s conference – but they had to toe the party line or worse, they felt so heavily lobbied by the supermarkets and the drinks industry that punch drunk, they simply went with the flow. I’m sorry, but MSPs are not paid nearly £60,000 a year to simply kowtow to those with vested interests, be that political or commercial. If we can’t rely on our parliamentarians to stand up for what is in the national interest then who can we? There is a national responsibility to find a national solution and what Labour in particular did last week was cave into well documented tribalism and despite objections to that accusation, there is no other explanation.
Labour said there was no evidence that minimum pricing would work on curbing our appetite for alcohol but there is – not only is there the modelling evidence from Sheffield, a form of research which has been perfectly acceptable when it comes to giving evidence on the efficacy of, say, the introduction of the minimum wage or changes to the welfare state. But at the very least, there is the common-sense evidence that if the price goes up, less of us can afford to indulge. Dr Richard Simpson MSP argues that he can not support legislation that is prejudicial to the poor. How deeply disturbing that a medical professional can argue against making access to alcohol more prohibitive. He, more than most, should be fully aware that because of all the other inequities pressing down on the less wealthy, they are five times more likely to die from consuming the same amount of alcohol as their middle-class neighbours.
The whole point of restrictions on alcohol is to curb consumption and if that means those who suffer most from its harmful effects are also the most affected by the legislation then I’m sorry, but in my book, that seems a positive thing and for once, discrimination is working to the good. Nicola Sturgeon asked her opponents to “rise above party politics”.
It’s a shame amid all the acrimony of last week that none had the Dutch courage to do so.