SNP MSP Alex Neil is not above playful mischief. It is in this light that his extraordinary assertion that Margaret Thatcher was to blame for Scotland’s destructive relationship with alcohol could be viewed. Did our serious drink problem really first take off in the 1980s? And was it really “all Mrs Thatcher’s fault”?
These remarks might be passed off as no more than platform exuberance: Mr Neil was, after all, speaking to SNP supporters in Airdrie.
But Mr Neil is also health secretary in the Scottish Government. And he well knows, in his less mischievous moments, that the causes of alcohol abuse are far more complex than this simplistic assertion. Excessive consumption of alcohol and the manifold health and social problems to which it gives rise were long in evidence before the 1980s. One might as well blame the Great Depression, or the First World War, or reach back to the Darien Disaster to trace the roots of our urge to drown our sorrows in drink. The de-industrialisation of the 1980s was indeed a traumatic experience for Scotland. But over the past 30 years living standards have risen markedly. Today unemployment has fallen to pre-recession lows and numbers in work are at an all-time record. To assume social conditions have not changed is at best fanciful.
And there have been many other changes which better explain the growth of excessive alcohol consumption: the greater availability of drink in supermarkets and the relative cheapness of alcohol have been the despair of health professionals for years.
The baleful tendency to “blame Thatcher” for everything that is dysfunctional in modern Scotland suggests a mind with the lights switched off. Sadly, so long as this resort to blaming bogey figures persists, the longer and more difficult it will be for Scotland to come to grips with this serious, complex – and self-inflicted – problem. The challenge becomes ever more bleak in the face of assertions of helpless victimhood. If we are forever beaten down by historic external forces and incapable of change, what is the point of doing anything to address our condition?
We know there is no silver bullet that will lead to instant changed behaviours. There is a strong case both for restricting the widespread availability of alcohol, for more vigorous action on alcohol pricing and for obliging drinks manufacturers to contribute more towards treatment for alcohol addiction and rehabilitation. This in itself is a time-consuming and labour intensive process, adding to strains on health and social services. But all this can make little difference unless there a radical change in education from an early age on the destructive effects of alcohol and that intensive education forms part of the school curriculum.
Mr Neil as health secretary has a critical role to play in combating our national problem with alcohol. He should stop playing to the gallery and get down to it.
Positive points for in-court cameras
TO THE debate over whether to allow cameras to film more widely in Scottish courts, the Law Society of Scotland has made an important and telling contribution. In its response to the Judiciary of Scotland’s review group, it backed much wider access and said it sees no issue with the courts being allowed to film criminal proceedings at first instance for documentary purposes.
This is a welcome submission and a due recognition, both of the relentless in-tide of rapidly evolving technology and to changes in social attitudes. Very few criminal cases have been filmed in Scottish history, and in most cases they have been appeals or sentencings. There seems to be no compelling reason why televising of trials held in public should not happen. Such a change could work positively in enabling a broader public understanding of court procedure and how the legal process works. Justice has not only to be done, but be seen to have been done.
But equally important are the caveats that come with the Law Society’s conclusion. It rightly urged caution on cases involving co-accused and separate trials, in sexual and family cases, and defamation in the civil courts. And it also suggests TV companies who do want to film court proceedings should pay for the privilege.
The problem of course is the vulnerability of the dividing line between responsible coverage with proceedings seen in proper context and the danger, as Margaret Mitchell MSP pointed out, of our courts becoming “subject to the kind voyeurism that turns trials into a circus”. Discretion will need to be applied, both by judges who give – and withdraw – sanction and by programme makers, to avoid abuse.