Stuart Waiton: SNP tack on alcohol is against the grain

The great liberal John Stuart Mill could have told the Scottish Government that its approach to drink is wrong-headed and highly likely to fail

WITH the jobs situation in Scotland becoming worse than anywhere else in the UK it is perhaps surprising that the centrepiece of the Scottish Government's legislation to be unveiled in September is to be a law on minimum pricing of alcohol. With the SNP likely to use "expert" economists, health professionals and crime figures to justify this hike in booze prices, it is worth remembering that life is not made up by statistics alone and that the 19th century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill specifically argued against the state artificially increasing the price of alcohol.

In their challenge to Scotland's "drink culture", and with a nod to statistics on rising alcoholism, liver disease, drink-related assaults, drink driving and various other social problems, the government aims to target things like cheap super-strength cider and supermarket brand whisky through a 45 pence per unit alcohol price measure. Other possible measures could include an end to "irresponsible" drinks promotions and raising the age for off-sales purchases.

As a majority government it is highly unlikely that their failure in the last session of parliament to get these measures through will be repeated despite, or perhaps because of, the limits of the opposition itself. The last time, following the rather technical, number-crunching nature of the discussion for example, the Conservatives largely stuck to a discussion about the impact on the whisky industry. Even worse, Labour feigned concern about how the SNP approach targeted the poor while, in the same breath, bemoaning the fact that drinks like Buckfast (generally drunk by poorer sections of society) would not be affected. Parroting an underlying concern of the SNP, Labour hereby illustrated their own desire for some form of booze regulation that focuses on social control. Or, to but it more bluntly - "How can we stop the poor working class drinking, fighting, costing the state money and upsetting the health professionals who have to pick up the pieces in A&E."

There are genuine problems of drink in society including alcoholism, alcohol-fuelled violence and a number of other issues associated with alcohol abuse. However, when reading the material promoted by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems or when examining the SNP's own material on this matter, the focus on drink appears as a rather unrealistic and unworldly silver bullet.

Targeting the inanimate object that is alcohol appears as a form of alchemy, capable of resolving social and cultural problems as far-ranging as violence, murder, prisoners, bad parenting, work absenteeism, unprotected sex, child abuse and, of course, alcoholism itself.As well as this discussion being profoundly one-sided - the glass being always half empty regarding our use of alcohol (ignore the pleasure of drink itself, the nights out we enjoy, times with friends, the number of lovers who meet when drinking, its ability to relax us after a hard day and so on) - what the above approach lacks is any sense of humanity, of individual will and choice, of the reality of social conditions, and even of personal morality.

For John Stuart Mill, targeting the conservative and illiberal climate of his own time, the key to developing and improving society was the encouragement of a culture that allowed maximum freedom to the individual. Through this he believed a climate would necessarily develop in society within which, "over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual (would become] sovereign". For Mill the idea that the price of a drink could be "irresponsible" would make no sense. Nor would the idea that forcing us to act responsibly by pricing us out of the drinks market be seen as a positive thing. Rather, this form of social engineering would rightly be understood as something that infantilised the public and encouraged a climate within which the idea of genuine individual responsibility was diluted.

Discussing the arguments for price increases on alcohol in the 1850s he noted that increased taxation of this kind was a measure that differed "only in degree from entire prohibition". Likewise, while challenging the attempt to limit the number of beer houses, he argued that such an approach would produce "a state of society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages".

But Mill was not "anti-social", far from it. His belief in the freedom of the individual to make choices, even bad choices, was predicated upon his understanding that a positive and dynamic society could only be created when the culture of that society encouraged the fullest sense of personal freedom and, consequently, personal responsibility. Adopting a state-led approach to resolving this problem by banning and regulating things that people may abuse would simply be counter-productive, effectively infantilising its citizens. He was, and is, right.

Unfortunately, today's cultural and political climate is profoundly illiberal, and we have hundreds of local authorities with public drinking bans resulting in approximately 20,000 bottles of booze being poured down the drain in Britain every summer by over-officious regulators, often irrespective of any misbehaviour by the demon drinkers in question.Twenty-year-olds in many supermarkets already have to act like naughty children by persuading older adults to buy their drink for them. Showing little understanding of what being truly responsible means, we are urged, time and again, to "drink responsibly", while being patronised with made up figures of "correct" units of alcohol we can safely drink each day which have no basis in medical science, and told we are "binge drinking" every time we have more than a couple of pints. Even the supposedly libertarian Boris Johnson illustrated the illiberal trend of the current times by introducing a no drinking policy on the underground as his first initiative when becoming Mayor of London. Mill truly would turn in his grave.

Targeting drink as a problem in society is nothing new. What is new is the morally vacuous nature of today's campaigns. Where past temperance movements aimed to change people's hearts and minds, holding out the hope and possibility of self-control, moral improvement and the elevation of the individual, our current day politicians, health experts and statisticians act as anaemic behaviour supervisors, petty regulators and risk managers.

Past movements were often exactly that, movements. The first British temperance movement began with seven men from Preston travelling from village to village from 1832 to promote their cause, resulting in a million teetotallers by 1860. This contrasts with today's technical managerial "leaders" who have no sense of moral or political campaigning and rely instead on laws and policing to miraculously transform society.

Old temperance movements, even the more middle class American versions, were relatively successful because their campaigns were generated by sections of the public themselves and based on real lived experiences and problems. Today's campaigns in contrast are the products of elites and experts who receive little direct funding from the public itself and who create these unworldly notions of "responsible" compared to "binge" drinking which bear little or no relation to public problems or desires.

Libertarian campaigner Josie Appleton notes the elite nature of our current anti-alcohol activists who appear "less concerned with wasted lives or opportunities than with costs to the public purse and threats to public order". Following Mill's line of argument, she concludes that the most important distinction between the old and new temperance approaches are that "old temperance was about people's self-control over their minds and bodies, new temperance is almost entirely about state control of people's behaviour".

There are many social and economic pressures upon us all that can at times undermine our capacity to be truly "sovereign" over ourselves and our lives and may lead us to "abuse" alcohol.Unfortunately, the current approach by our elitist alcohol alchemists to regulating our drinking habits at a cultural and moral level simply undermines further the belief and potential for us to act as genuine morally responsible individuals.

• Stuart Waiton is a lecturer at the University of Abertay Dundee. The campaign against Alcohol Alchemy can be found at www.TakeaLiberty.blogspot.com

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