Taxing the sinners

The Scottish proposals to eradicate cheap alcohol are coercive attempts to control our choices and behaviour.

‘If drink was abolished how many peaceful homes would there be, / Just, for instance in the beautiful town of Dundee; / then this world would be heaven, whereas it’s a hell, / An’ the people would have more peace in it to dwell…’

If their latest anti-booze measures are anything to go by, it seems that the terrible Scottish poet, William McGonagall, author here of the execrable late nineteenth-century classic ‘Demon Drink’, may have a few too many fans in the Scottish Parliament.

This week, the ruling Scottish National Party announced a raft of new proposals aimed at tempering Scotland’s world-renowned thirst (1). Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon was clearly in a soft-drink-induced fighting mood. ‘Plummeting prices and aggressive promotion’, she didn’t slur, ‘have led to a surge in consumption, causing and adding to health problems. The time has come for serious action.’ And what might such action entail? A spirits ban? Reduced opening hours? Prohibition, perhaps?

Well, this being a contemporary British politician rather than a teetotaller poet, the measures represent something far sneakier than an alcohol ban. Taking its cue from a piece of academic research (2), the Scottish government is advocating minimum prices for drinks, in order to eradicate the really cheap stuff, an end to supermarket deals of ‘2-for-1’, and a ‘social responsibility’ fee levied at some drinks retailers. So, rather than open prohibition, the Scottish government is pursuing prohibitive pricing instead.

If the SNP’s proposals reek of mean-spirited cowardice, the parliamentary opposition to them has been sorrier still. While the Labour Party branded the proposals ‘unworkable’ and the Conservatives labelled them ‘flawed’, none saw fit to criticise their deeply illiberal impulse. Tory MSP Murdo Fraser simply said he would prefer ‘a taxation scheme’. It’s not the tacit prohibition that he and others see as problematic, but rather the method. While they reject or are discomfited by the specifics of the SNP’s proposals, they subscribe to their authoritarian strains.

Of course, advocates are flagging up alcohol-related ill-health as a justification for their proposals. Figures bandied around include 42,500 alcohol-related hospital discharges and 1,500 drink-related deaths per year, and rising rates of liver cirrhosis.

This recourse to medical statistics testifies to the pusillanimous nature of the crusade against alcohol. Fearful of openly moralising about the alleged problem, the authorities seek refuge in the medical lexicon instead. In this context, health functions as a near synonym for the lives that people lead. But it’s more than that: the health tag also helps to pathologise individuals’ lives. To say that some lead healthy lives and others lead unhealthy ones is implicitly to judge; to say that some are upright in the eyes of officialdom, while others sin daily with discount deals on McEwan’s lager.

Writing at the time of the temperance movements in the mid and late nineteenth century, that trenchant defender of liberty, John Stuart Mill, was unequivocal in his opposition to what he saw as a sin tax: ‘Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price; and to those who do, it is a penalty laid on them for gratifying a particular taste. Their choice of pleasures, and their mode of expending their income, after satisfying their legal and moral obligations to the State and to individuals, are their own concern, and must rest with their own judgment.’

There’s little doubt that the SNP’s proposals will target unit-quaffing sinners, but, unlike the temperance movements of Mill’s time, today’s anti-alcohol crusaders lack the moral conviction, or vision, to articulate how people ought to live. Hence they institute prohibition by stealth. ‘To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained’, observed Mill, ‘is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition; and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable.’ No matter how illiberal their views, temperance societies at least had the advantage of morally repressive consistency.

The Scottish government, by contrast, does not. While the elite retains its morally inflected disdain for the bevvied-up masses, it is all too clear (if the number of bars in the UK Houses of Parliament is any indication) that they enjoy getting as royally tight as the people they decry. Targeting inexpensive drinking simply targets ‘cheap drinkers’. It’s not the Chenin Blanc minority that are seen as the problem, but the Stella and Strongbow hordes.

As with all sin taxes, the tacit snobbery of the SNP’s proposals will do far more to punish less well-off sections of society than alleviate the suffering of chronic alcoholics. After all, the daily intent, amongst small numbers of very heavy drinkers, to drink oneself into oblivion has less to do with supermarket special offers than with a feeling that one has little to live for. Imposing a minimum price of 40p per unit does not amount to giving people a raison d’etre.

Ominously, the reception south of the border to the SNP’s proposals has been favourable, with both the publicity-seeking British Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians welcoming them. It seems these proposals are underpinned, less by McGonagall’s poetic warnings about the ‘demon drink’, than by a desire to demonise British drinkers in general.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick urged doctors to refuse to become the high priests of the new anti-boozing temperance movement. Lee Jones analysed the moralistic myth of the ‘demon drink’. Josie Appleton argued against all booze bans. Brendan O’Neill thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) See Changing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol, The Scottish Government, 2009

(2) See Independent review of the effects of alcohol pricing and promotion, University of Sheffield, December 2008

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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