Brian Monteith: Politicians can’t stick to facts

MPs and MSPs don’t let an inconvenient truth get in the way of their arguments, writes Brian Monteith

MPs and MSPs struggle to stick to the facts, writes Brian Montieth. Picture: TSPL

It HAS been a funny old year. Not a laugh out loud kind of funny, more an ironic “I just don’t believe it” type of funny, and I blame today’s politicians. If the facts don’t exist to support their arguments, they will often make them up; if facts do exist and they are rather inconvenient, they will ignore them; if the facts are inconclusive or contradictory, they will cherry-pick the ones they like and discard the unhelpful ones; and even when facts are helpful and supportive, they then have a bad habit of adopting completely contradictory positions. Maybe, to borrow from 1970s rockers King Crimson, in today’s politicians we have found 21st-century schizoid man without even looking. But these are not subconscious split personalities: it is conscious double-dealing to optimise vote share.

Possibly the most bizarre example of the two-headed approach is in the SNP’s attitude to young people. In the past, the SNP has paid scant regard for the freedoms and responsibilities of our youngest adults who, by definition, must be considered able to make choices that affect them. It was the SNP on coming to power that tried to introduce a ban on alcohol purchases for anyone under 21. Fortunately Alex Salmond did not have a majority at that time and the proposal was withdrawn. It is noticeable that now the SNP has an overall majority, it no longer wants to enforce a higher legal age for alcohol purchases. Might that be because it could lose support from young adults in September’s referendum?

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But wait, you say, the SNP is supportive of young adults and greatly admires the contribution they make – and believes they should have a say in Scotland’s future. It was the SNP, after all, that pressed this year for 16- and 17-year-olds to have a vote in that referendum. This is indeed true, but this is the same SNP that also passed a law (before the referendum was ever a prospect) that judges those same young adults cannot be trusted to buy cigarettes until they are 18. Then, also this year, the SNP lost all touch with consistency when it decided that all children will in future have a state guardian – including “children” of 16 and 17.

It sees no contradiction in arguing for a group of people that are considered wise enough to have a say in everyone’s future but are not considered adult enough to get by without a state minder – or responsible enough to purchase and smoke a legal product.

Staying with the SNP’s attitude towards smoking, this past year the unbridled arbiter of adult choices has unrepentantly decided to press ahead with standardised packaging of cigarettes with no branding. Instead, the packs will show horror-porn of alleged health dangers that falls just short of putting a poison sign on the front. (Such uncharacteristic timidity might be explained by the inconvenient fact that when a few years ago someone did indeed use the skull and crossbones and called the brand “death cigarettes” they proved popular!)

Now you may want to give the SNP the benefit of the doubt. After all, Australia has introduced a standardised packaging law and others are thinking of following suit – all in the name of discouraging children from being attracted to the seductive bright colours. Do not expect consistency in the name of dissuading children from danger, though. The same approach is not being adopted for other dangerous products such as cars (why not make them all taupe-coloured?) or alcohol (why not put it all in dark brown bottles?). Not that 16- and 17-year-olds are trusted with choices for themselves anyway. This policy is being pursued dogmatically while the only (repeat, only) evidence available since Australia’s ban on brand packaging was introduced shows a large climb in counterfeit cigarettes but no fall in the percentage of smokers.

What evidence is used by politicians is in fact opinion surveys of what people think, rather than hard, proveable statistical outcomes of how they behave. There’s the ignoring of inconvenient evidence again – the SNP’s argument is little more than baseless conjecture.

Real statistics are like those that appeared this year which showed that despite a ban of advertising, point of sale, removal from retail display, tobacco tax rises above inflation, and of course the ban on smoking in public places (and many open spaces too), smoking rates in Scotland have almost flattened out and in some instances started climbing. It’s as if our politicians bring in rules that can criminalise ordinary people just for the fun of it and without any consideration of their failings.

If the idea is to reduce smoking and thus improve public health by achieving an expected decline in smoking-related diseases, our politicians would be learning not from Ireland but from Sweden, which allows the consumption of SNUS (a form of chewing tobacco in pouches). In Sweden, the smoking rate is below 16 per cent – compared to Scotland’s 25 per cent. At first glance, 11 per cent might not seem a huge difference but when translated to Scotland’s population that’s 392,534 fewer smokers which, if you believe the cause and effect that smoking has, would deliver a hugely beneficial effect on the appalling number of Scotland’s heart, lung and cancer-related illnesses. But no, our politicians (in Edinburgh and London) continue to oppose the availability of SNUS in Scotland and last month supported an EU-wide ban of the cigarette alternative (Sweden retains an exclusion it gained on EU membership).

The same “we just don’t believe it” approach that is contrary to the evidence is followed with alcohol where the statistics show Scotland’s consumption is falling (repeat, falling) and that that the longest-lived group of people are moderate drinkers and the shortest-lived group are abstainers. Even heavy drinkers live longer than teetotallers.

Yet our politicians continue to crusade as if alcohol is too cheap and too plentiful. Again this year the evidence got in the way of the policy when it was found that the ban on alcohol promotions and discounts in supermarkets had resulted in no net fall in consumption – we had simply changed our purchasing practices. Unsurprisingly the neo-prohibitionists kept silent.

Maybe next year our politicians will accept what the evidence tells them – leaving us all to wonder if we can believe it. Happy New Year.