7 June 2022

Minimum alcohol pricing is the latest in a long line of SNP failures

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The Scottish Government’s policy of mandating a minimum unit price (MUP) of alcohol went through a peculiar political journey before it was ultimately proved, like so many SNP policies, to have caused more harm than good.

The fact is that when it was first mooted, back in 2011, it was welcomed by a range of policy-makers and health professionals as a thoughtful and radical answer to Scotland’s perennial problem of alcohol-related deaths. 

Drink has always been Scotland’s bane, the cause of much sorrow and violence, particularly in the nation’s poorer areas. The death toll from alcohol-related illnesses is 50% higher than in England – 21 deaths per 100,000 to 14 in England – while the worst affected areas are predominantly working class areas like Glasgow and Inverclyde.

So the familiar cry went out: something must be done. And since most of the other parties’ solutions ranged from more of the same to shrugs of their shoulders, the SNP’s suggestion caught everyone’s attention. A commitment in their landslide-winning 2011 manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections was to place a minimum price for all alcohol sold in Scotland.

Despite Alex Salmond’s triumph and mandate that year, the implementation of MUP was less straightforward. Britain at the time was an EU member, so irrespective of democratic mandates or the views of Scottish voters, the policy couldn’t go ahead until the European Court of Justice gave its approval. That took a number of years but eventually, in 2018, a 50p minimum was imposed on all booze bought north of the border.

As recently as last month, ministers were under pressure to review this 50p floor upwards to 65p, adding £4 to a small bottle of spirits or £1.35 to a bottle of wine. It’s now unclear whether that rise will go ahead, especially in light of the latest conclusions of a survey by Public Health Scotland that suggested that minimum pricing’s chief impact has been to force heavy drinkers to spend more of their incomes on drink and less on food.

This was one of the consequences that critics warned more than a decade ago would result from the policy, which was seen in some quarters as government over-reach into the private lives of citizens. Further, it was feared that, not for the first time, lower income citizens would end up paying disproportionately more for the policy than their middle class, wealthier compatriots. So it has proved.

Campaigners have already claimed that in the first 12 months of the policy, alcohol sales fell by 2%. It’s also true that in that same period, alcohol-related deaths fell by a similar amount, from 20.8 deaths per 100,000 to 18.6.

However, the trend overall across the UK, including Scotland, was already sharply downwards: in 2006, Scotland recorded 28.5 deaths per 100,000. In 2020, that death rate increased sharply again everywhere in the UK, probably as a consequence of the Covid pandemic and associated lockdowns. Arguably, MUP has merely reinforced a trend that already existed.

Now the first formal evaluation of the policy concludes that the heaviest drinkers will sacrifice their and their families’ food budgets in order to maintain their intake of alcohol. Who could possibly have predicted such an outcome? Oh, that’s right – lots of people.

What’s significant about the policy-makers’ response to these conclusions is that there is absolutely no suggestion that the policy is flawed or misguided. Laura Mahon of Alcohol Focus Scotland, a Scottish Government-funded charity, said that the survey suggested that ‘additional support’ was required by the groups included in the research. 

‘We need real investment in recovery-oriented alcohol services to ensure people get the right support when they need it, wherever they live.’ It will come as no surprise to learn that the solution of the third sector to the very ugly unintended consequences of a flagship SNP policy is to spend more public money trying to offset those consequences.

Mahon added that one of the ‘positive benefits’ of the policy is a ‘sustained decrease’ in alcohol consumption overall, which she attributes to MUP, even though it’s unclear if that is the single or even the main reason. It’s also worth noting that the policy-makers in Scotland like to pronounce on the ‘benefits’ of grown adults doing as they’re told and changing their lifestyles, even when, in most cases, their alcohol consumption will be both affordable and moderate.

More to the point, the evidence of this survey is that any reduction in alcohol purchase and consumption isn’t happening where it needs to happen – in the homes of problem drinkers, where food is being deprioritised thanks to this policy – but in the homes of Scots where alcohol consumption isn’t a problem in the first place. 

But a win’s a win in SNP Scotland, especially after the disastrous stream of failures that have embarrassed the first minister and her colleagues in recent months and years, botched ferry-building contracts, record drug deaths and abandoned education targets among them.

The MPU policy cannot be allowed to go the way of the Orwellian ‘named person’ scheme or the disastrous attempt to launch a publicly-owned People’s Railway. One way or the other, with the enthusiastic (and publicly funded) backing of health professionals, minimum pricing of alcohol is here to stay. And the hungry families of alcoholics in Scotland’s poorest districts will just have to get with the programme.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.