The most shocking thing about the shocking figures released this month about how much Scots drink was how unshocking they are. ‘Scots “drink 46 bottles of vodka”’, BBC News announced, the omission of a time frame giving the headline an added touch of surrealism – had this been the most sober Saturday night in the history of Scotland? And why vodka? Had they run out of whisky the night before?
In fact, the figure referred to annual consumption of all drink by Scottish adults, calculated from sales data by NHS Scotland, the pure alcohol content translated into vodka for simplicity’s sake. Or to put it another way, translated into vodka to abstract from the cultural significance of particular drinks, and the conviviality and pleasure associated with them, to give the impression of Scots standing on street corners downing the nearest thing you can get to pure alcohol, like desperate Russians at the nadir of Stalinism (which is not to do down vodka, a perfectly nice drink if you chill it and drink rather less than a bottle at a time).
What’s really odd is that if it were a case of all adults drinking this much – less than a bottle of spirits a week, or 10 pints of beer, or a little over two bottles of wine – there wouldn’t be a problem. Arbitrary and absurd official recommendations notwithstanding, that is a perfectly normal and reasonable amount to drink. Presumably a lot of people barely drink at all, and it’s the ones who make up the average for them by putting away a bottle a day who have health problems. But the fact that we’re supposed to be shocked by a figure like this indicates a childish moralism around the issue, in an unholy alliance with soundbite science. I wonder if this is what it was like back when public sexual morality was hopelessly at odds with lived experience, dooming people to hypocrisy or miserable repression and guilt. Only this time the tide is going the other way, bringing more hypocrisy and guilt on a wave of scientism.
What we’re seeing now is essentially a denormalisation of drink. Another striking example of this is the trend for supermarkets to ask obvious adults for proof of age when buying alcohol. Posters announce ‘Think 25’ or even ‘Think 35’, indicating that anyone who looks younger will be asked for ID to show they are over 18. The logic is that we should get used to showing ID regardless of how old we are, as a kind of ritual of submission, an admission that there is something a bit sordid about the whole business of buying booze, rather like the old convention whereby newsagents kept pornography ‘behind the counter’, so perverts would have to ask for it and know what perverts they were. In parts of the USA, adults are regularly ID’d in bars, perhaps a puritanical legacy of Prohibition, but the always-pleasant American service culture takes the sting off somewhat. In British supermarkets, the effect is more stark, more like the quasi-militarism of airport security.
Supermarket bosses clearly imagine a strict attitude to alcohol sales can only do them good, putting them on the right side of moralising government and showing customers how ‘responsible’ they are. This might be true, but only as long as people are willing to go along with the demonisation of drink. If we begin to object, we might find plenty of supermarket customers would prefer not to be treated as naughty teenagers. (The Manifesto Club is conducting a survey into people’s experience of ID checks. Read it here.)
Supermarket bosses perhaps also think that if they take a tough line on ID’ing customers the government will be less likely to introduce minimum pricing, preventing them from using cheap booze as a lure for ID-wielding customers. In fact, the more they succeed in denormalising drink, the more likely it is that such measures will be introduced, with Scotland most likely to be first.