Allan Massie: Morality may be tonic to quench booze culture

The SNP's minimum pricing law has won the backing of the Irish
The SNP's minimum pricing law has won the backing of the Irish
Share this article
Have your say

MINIMUM pricing may help reduce alcohol use among the young, but the fight against problem drinking needs a strong 
measure of shame, writes Allan Massie.

When Gilbert Murray, a supporter of the anti-alcohol temperance movement, was appointed professor of Greek at Glasgow University in 1889, one of his Oxford friends advised him to remember that “if there is one thing in the Scotch which is incurable it is their drinking, of which I remind you, as you ought to be careful in your advocacy of your temperance principles in a people so greatly addicted to alcohol.”

The friend had a point. “Freedom and whisky gang thegither” as our national bard boldly sang. “Here’s tae us – wha’s like us?” and all that. In the 18th century, judges in Parliament House in Edinburgh would sit with a bottle of claret to hand, from which they refreshed themselves the better to assess legal argument. One senator of the College of Justice, Lord Newton, was reputed to be at his best after he had downed six bottles of claret (three of today’s standard size).

Yet there was another side to the story. The ravages wrought by drink provoked the temperance movement to which Mr Murray subscribed. It had many followers in Glasgow, where the Scottish Band of Hope Union was founded in 1871.Temperance, inasmuch as it suggests moderation, was a misnomer. Total abstention from alcohol was the aim. Young people were encouraged to “take the pledge”. The Red Clydesider MP, David Kirkwood, told a story in his autobiography to point the moral. As an apprentice in the shipyards, he and his friends belonged to the Good Templars temperance association. Another group of apprentices called themselves “The Jolly 12” and went out boozing. They called it “seeing life”, but none of them lived beyond the age of 36 “and eight killed themselves”. The diligent apprentices “prospered and their families prosper too.” The Red Clyde was dry; most of the early Labour politicians were teetotal.

The division between the drinkers and the dry survived for at least the first half of the 20th century. Much of self-consciously “respectable” Scotland , working-class as well as middle-class, either abstained or drank very little, and then only on special occasions. There were temperance hotels in most towns of any size, and many respectable people never entered a pub. On the other side of the coin as it were, bars were drinking-places and nothing else, food being rarely served.

Then things changed. We became more prosperous. Principled total abstention went out of fashion, associated perhaps with what was stigmatised as “the life-denying Calvinism of the Kirk”. The word “temperance” was dropped; instead we began to speak of “responsible social drinking”. Scotland’s love-affair with alcohol blossomed, until it reached a point where , once again, booze was regarded as the curse of Scotland, the demon drink, even if we eschew such colourful language and prefer to speak of hard drinking as a social problem.

It is one the SNP Government is determined to address by introducing minimum pricing.

The policy is based on the assumption that price is a deterrent and that dearer alcohol will reduce consumption. This is probably true. Indeed a report from NHS Scotland which shows that sales of alcohol have fallen by 5 per cent in the last two years as, for various reasons, the price of booze has risen, supports the government’s view; or at least seems to support it. As we argued in a leading article yesterday, “the main cause” of the fall in consumption, the first since 1994, “is almost certainly the recession, which has reduced people’s disposable income”. When times are tough, many people cut back on spending on luxuries – and for many moderate or social drinkers, alcohol may count as a luxury.

So it is likely that minimum pricing would lead many to drink less. Price is a factor. People buy supermarket chickens rather than free-range birds because they cost less. The high price of petrol and parking charges may persuade people to get about the city by bus rather than by car. And so on. It’s reasonable to suppose that more expensive alcohol will mean that some – especially young people – drink a little less.

Will it do more than that? Will it deter the problem drinkers? Anyone with experience of alcoholism, either personally or among family and friends, will be sceptical. For the alcoholic there is nothing more important than alcohol. Reason may tell him this is ridiculous, but reason takes a back seat. For the alcoholic, more expensive booze means less money for other things. Booze is more essential than food. So he will cut back on food if the choice is between the next drink and a burger. Like the compulsive gambler, the alcoholic will even starve his family to feed his addiction. This is no doubt deplorable; but it is undeniable.

That Scotland’s love affair with alcohol does great personal, family and social damage is a fact. That it imposes costs on the health service is a fact. That it is responsible for much violent crime and fills our prisons with people who have committed assault under the influence of alcohol: these too are facts. That it leads young people to drink more, and more damagingly, than their contemporaries in most countries of continental Europe is a fact. But whether it will be much affected by minimum pricing is at best doubtful.

It’s a question of respectability. If no shame is attached to drunkenness – as is the case in much of Scotland today – there is no moral deterrent. The 19th century saw a marked fall in alcoholic consumption as the idea of respectability took hold. That idea can still work: witness the now general disapproval of drunk driving. This has been brought about less by legal penalties, than by a developing acceptance that it is wrong to drink and drive. There is no such stigma attached to public drunkenness. Drinking and good times gang thegither. Perhaps it is time for the government to lead by example rather than admonition and a pricing policy. Let Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon take the pledge, and then we shall know that they are serious about combating Scotland’s drink culture.