Booze price hypocrisy and why this nannying will drive us all to drink.
By Graham Grant
THE legendary comic novelist and veteran toper Kingsley Amis knew all too well the horror of hangovers that follow most binges.
In Lucky Jim, one of his characters wakes feeling his mouth ‘had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum’.
Despite the ordeal of the morning after, Amis hailed booze as the ultimate social lubricant – while acknowledging that if you give it up, you’ll feel and behave better.
To find out how to do that, he conceded, ‘you will have to find a more expert expert than I shall ever be’ – and since he wrote those words, the number of such ‘experts’ has grown exponentially.
Alex Salmond controversially quipped that Scotland is ‘a nation of drunks’ – well, he did after all appoint Kenny MacAskill as his Justice Secretary, a man once arrested on suspicion of being drunk and disorderly.
We’re all guilty to some degree of hypocrisy on the subject: we can clearly see the public health implications of heavy drinking and alcoholism, but at the same time we might well laugh at stories of our friends’ drunken exploits.
The product of this soul-searching about our toxic relationship with drink by Mr Salmond and senior Nationalists was minimum pricing – the idea that by driving up the price of alcohol, you will put people off drinking it.
It comes into force today, so it’s too late to stock up on cheaper booze – at an Asda store in Glasgow, Koru Sauvignon Blanc was reduced from £4.50 to just £2.50 at the weekend.
All of which has the feel of those heady days before Prohibition in the US of the 1920s, which paved the way for a boom in organised crime – and there’s every chance of a black market springing up here.
Shops have been warned of unannounced inspections by enforcement officers – perhaps, like those old mob movies, the content of under-priced bottles will be tipped down drains after a dramatic bust at the local Sainsbury’s…
As with all such measures, we know instinctively that this is the thin end of the wedge – experts (who else?) are now recommending that sales at off-licences should be banned from 8 pm, two hours earlier than the present cut-off, because of increased alcohol sales in the two hours to 10 pm.
It’s also obvious that the 50p minimum price will rise inexorably – like all good taxes – and having won a five-year legal battle which cost the Scotch Whisky Association £1million, ministers will be keen to make the fullest possible use of their shiny new policy.
And that’s the core of the problem: Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers need to acknowledge that the Scotland they’ve created is so miserable that for many of us, alcohol might be not just an optional extra to get through the week, but a necessity…
At the very least, a stiff tincture is called for before you risk a peek at your payslip, after the SNP hiked income tax for 1.1million Scots earning £26,000 a year or above, who from last month found themselves paying the highest income tax in the UK.
The con trick at the heart of this avaricious ploy is based on a kind of political hypnotism: look into my eyes, this money will fund public services, it will not be frittered away on an ever-lengthening list of government vanity projects and public sector perks…
Miss Sturgeon must think we were all born yesterday (in which case a baby box is on its way to you), to believe we will stomach such a destabilising blow to our ailing economy on the basis that it will all be worth it for the socialist nirvana the SNP is allegedly constructing.
Council taxes have been hiked to bankroll the removal of the public sector pay cap, which Finance Secretary Derek Mackay knew would be unaffordable, and yet in one local authority – Falkirk – hundreds of council staff are being paid for hours they don’t work, costing taxpayers £1.4million a year.
Businesses across Scotland have been hit with a rates bombshell, at a time when many of them are struggling to survive.
And later this month, interest rates are expected to rise again, pushing up mortgage repayments, as household debt continues to soar.
Frankly, all of this sounds very much like a good reason to reach for a quick livener, and yet even this small pleasure is now squarely in the cross-hairs of the joyless SNP.
Mind you, in the SNP’s first year in office after winning power in 2007, the then Scottish Executive’s drinks bill was £36,500, double the sum spent by the previous Labour-led regime in its first 12 months – well, government is a stressful business…
Minimum pricing, despite its troubled evolution, didn’t happen in a vacuum: it is the culmination of years of incessant nanny state hectoring by people whose credibility on this score was dubious, to say the least.
You might remember that, in Mr MacAskill’s day, his officials specifically targeted moderate middle-class drinkers, warning ‘everyone, including people who have some wine with their dinner’ to rein in excessive alcohol consumption.
At a police conference in July 2007, he railed against the ‘bevvy culture’ in Scotland, where alcohol is ‘not there to be savoured but simply slugged back as quickly as possible’ – hours after delegates had taken part in a whisky-tasting event.
The hypocrisy is, like the worst drunks, staggering: and yet the alcohol is still flowing in the subsidised bars of Holyrood.
In fairness, there is no way you could listen to Green MSP Ross Greer calling for bank accounts that can be opened ‘under a non-binary gender identity’ without something alcoholic in your system.
Like all the best laws devised at Holyrood, this one already has the feel of a policy destined for disaster, ridden as it is with loopholes that will allow online and telephone sales, as well as ‘click and collect’ purchases, to be exempt from minimum pricing if the alcohol is despatched from outside Scotland.
Cheap booze can still be offered as part of ‘meal deals’ – as long as the total price, including food, exceeds the minimum unit price – while loyalty reward vouchers can continue to be offered to cut the cost of alcohol.
Perhaps it’s just as well that, thanks to clever strategising by the Scottish Tories, a five-year sunset clause has been built into the legislation, giving ministers a convenient escape route if it all goes horribly wrong (in the same way as the doomed anti-sectarian crusade and the Named Person saga).
Miss Sturgeon should reflect that Churchill quaffed two bottles of champagne a day and still made a reasonable job of governing the country – so let her wage war on the drinking classes. We shall never surrender…
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on May 1, 2018.