‘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.