ALEX Salmond came under fire last night after appearing to characterise Scotland as a “nation of drunks”.
In the same magazine interview that generated controversy over comments Mr Salmond made about Russian president Vladimir Putin, the First Minister claimed that Scotland had a destructive relationship with alcohol caused partially by a lack of confidence as a country.
The views expressed by Mr Salmond were last night criticised by his political opponents who called his comments a “slur” on the people of Scotland.
The row came on the day that a judge referred the legal battle over the government’s flagship policy of minimum pricing for alcohol to the European courts.
In the interview for the men’s magazine GQ, conducted by Tony Blair’s former spokesman Alastair Campbell, Mr Salmond was asked how worried he was about Scotland’s relationship with alcohol. “Significantly,” answered Mr Salmond before saying that alcohol consumption had risen a lot.
“The general reason is the availability of cheap alcohol and the cultural changes that has introduced,” Mr Salmond said.
“When we were young we would go out for a drink. People now go out drunk, having drunk cheap booze before. That is social change for the worse.
“Then there is something deep about Scotland’s relationship with alcohol that is about self-image – lack of confidence, maybe, as a nation – and we do have to do something about it.”
Mr Salmond went on to defend his government’s plans to reduce drinking by introducing minimum pricing for alcohol – a proposal that has met with opposition from the whisky industry.
“I promote whisky,” Mr Salmond said. “I do it on the argument that it’s a quality drink, has a worldwide cachet, that its recent great success in markets like China is about social emulation and authenticity, not cheapness.
“My argument is that if you are promoting it as authentic and of great worth, you cannot promote it from a nation of drunks.”
Last night a Labour spokesman described the comments as “jaw-dropping”.
“It’s remarkable for Scotland’s First Minister to dismiss his fellow Scots in such a way,” the Labour spokesman said. “You can imagine what Alex Salmond would be saying had a Westminster politician had made exactly the same comment.”
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “After his astonishing gaffe lauding Vladimir Putin, this is an even more incredible and unforgiveable slur on the people of Scotland.
“It would be offensive to hear from a foreigner, but for our own First Minister to hold these views is simply breathtaking and frankly unacceptable in a national leader.
“The fact is, thanks to the efforts of thousands in our public services, consumption and alcohol-related illness is actually decreasing in Scotland.
“And if he is so worried about alcohol consumption, why has he dithered, having totally failed to secure EU or legal support for minimum pricing after almost two years and with no single debate on the issue at Holyrood during that time?”
The First Minister’s comments were made in the full version of the Campbell interview, published today in June’s edition of GQ.
An extract from the interview released earlier this week attracted criticism after Mr Salmond said he admired “certain aspects” of president Putin, including how he had restored part of Russian pride, although he qualified his remarks by adding that he disapproved of some aspects of his leadership.
In the full interview, Mr Salmond also revealed that he liked Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp, despite being criticised for trying to forge too close a relationship with him.
“He [Murdoch] is a remarkable man. What is wrong with this relationship? Why shouldn’t politicians engage with people in the media,” Mr Salmond asked Mr Campbell during their two-hour lunch and two-hour interview on 14 March. “Relations with the media are an inevitable part of discourse. The test is do you administer policy without fear or favour? And I do.”
But his admiration of Mr Murdoch was criticised by the Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, who said: “The First Minister’s casual and unhealthy relationship with the rich and powerful is a deep flaw in his character. His refusal to back down in his praise of president Putin is deeply concerning.
“But it is his close association with Rupert Murdoch so soon after the phone hacking scandal that is alarming. He seems to have learnt little from the abuse, the pain of the victims or the subsequent Leveson inquiry.”
Meanwhile, last night Labour called on Mr Salmond to apologise for the views he had expressed on president Putin.
Labour MSP Paul Martin said: “It is imperative Alex Salmond comes to the Scottish Parliament and apologises for his support for Russian president Vladimir Putin as the rest of the international community stands with the people of Ukraine trying to retain their freedom.
“Salmond may have written Scotland off as a nation of drunks, but we need him to sober up his comments on the international stage and say sorry.
“Alex Salmond’s timing is tragically wrong. He backs Putin as Russia threatens Ukraine, and he backs Rupert Murdoch as those accused of hacking murdered Milly Dowler’s phone stand trial.
“It seems there is no comment too crass, no statement too insensitive, no level too low to stoop to for Alex Salmond as long as it puffs up his own ego.”
Earlier in the day, Mr Salmond was unrepentant about his views on Mr Putin, claiming they were “perfectly reasonable” when he launched the SNP’s European election campaign in Penicuik.
Mr Salmond insisted that the comments would not harm the SNP in this month’s election. When asked if he would apologise, he replied: “No.”
In the House of Commons, the Prime Minister David Cameron said Mr Salmond was guilty of a “major error of judgment”.
Last night, a spokesman for the First Minister insisted that Mr Salmond was “very happy” to take part in the interview with “one of the best-read magazines in the country” – and “enjoyed exchanging anecdotes with Alastair Campbell”.
“Regardless of people’s views on Mr Murdoch, the fact that he has led one of the world’s largest media conglomerates for half a century is surely remarkable.”
The spokesman added: “Scotland clearly has a problem relationship with alcohol which is why we are proposing minimum pricing.
“And in this interview, the First Minister was simply spelling out the clear risks for Scotland as a nation if we do not take radical action to tackle problem drinking.”