Who should set the price of booze?
Yes, the SNP’s minimum-pricing law is illiberal, but the EU’s challenge to it is undemocratic.
Last week it was revealed that some EU countries have raised objections to Scotland’s plan to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol. On one level, this is good news: it calls into question an illiberal law. However, it also highlights a bigger problem: the way in which the EU and its rules can be used to subvert the will of democratically elected governments.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Edinburgh has been trying to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol since 2009. Having won an overall majority in the Holyrood parliament in 2011, the SNP was able to push through the measure in May 2012. The new law, Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act) 2012, sets a minimum price of 50 pence per unit of alcohol. So a bottle of wine would cost at least £4.50, and a bottle of whisky at least £14. The biggest effect would be seen on strong, cheap drinks, like some ciders, which might double in price.
The aim is to reduce problem drinking, but this is a thoroughly illiberal law that would impose a cost on everyone who wants to have an inexpensive drink, while having little impact on problem drinkers. The law is presented as a compromise that is better than banning certain drinks, yet it still amounts to the government and its public-health cheerleaders forcing a large section of society to make choices that we would not otherwise need to make. You don’t need to be a hardened alcoholic to want a cheap tipple. Also, the law is clearly aimed at poorer people; the middle-class dypsomaniac will be able to carry on knocking back good claret or Tanqueray and tonic to his or her heart’s content.
But minimum pricing in Scotland may be stillborn thanks to EU single-market rules. According to a report by BBC Scotland, five European wine-producing countries – France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria – have lodged objections to Scotland’s plan, while one (Ireland) has offered support. The basis of the objection is that while countries may restrict goods on health grounds, health cannot be used as a ‘means of arbitrary discrimination or a disguised restriction on trade between member states’. Clearly, the purveyors of low-priced plonk would suffer if prices were hiked thanks to minimum pricing.
Opponents of minimum pricing have known this all along and a legal battle within the EU and in Europe’s courts is bound to follow. But this is no cause for celebration, because employing these single-market rules to oppose minimum pricing seems just as arbitrary and undemocratic as using health grounds in other situations to circumvent single-market rules. In other words, laws that were designed to create a fair playing field for trade between countries are being used to protect a certain section of producers and to undermine an elected government’s policies. It could equally be argued that setting a minimum unit price removes the hodge-podge of different rates of alcohol duty for wine, beer, cider and spirits and sets a common measure for them all.
Unlike some of the other bans and restrictions placed on our bad habits, like the ban on smoking in ‘public’ places introduced in 2007 in England, it was very clear to voters in Scotland that this was SNP policy. The Edinburgh government has a mandate for this policy, no matter how bad an idea it may be.
For the EU to step in and prevent the SNP from enforcing the law might be good news for drinkers, but it is bad news for democracy. If minimum pricing is prevented, it will be thanks to Eurocrats and unelected judges acting directly in contravention of the desires of elected politicians.
We at spiked have long argued that the lifestyle manipulation that has become so fashionable among politicians in recent years is an affront to the notion of personal autonomy, and it should be opposed as strongly as possible. But to accept that the thoroughly undemocratic EU has the right to veto the will of elected representatives is every bit as poisonous as the notion that the government has the right to decide what is best for us.
Rob Lyons is commissioning editor of spiked.
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