Hugh Reilly: Minimum pricing for maximum effect

Alcohol continues to cast a shadow over much of Scottish social life. Picture: Toby Williams
Alcohol continues to cast a shadow over much of Scottish social life. Picture: Toby Williams
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Scotland’s relationship with strong drink is a long and close one but, joking apart, it’s high time we put a cork in it, writes Hugh Reilly

I WASN’T a beautiful baby. A day after I’d entered the world at Robroyston Hospital, I lay in an incubator looking as if someone had wrapped me up in a hi-vis jacket – jaundice has that effect. As my worried mother peered at the life form that had popped out of her womb, a kindly matron on a break from roaring “only two visitors at a bed!” asked mater to identify the kid she had given birth to. On lovingly pointing to the cherub with wispy ginger, oops, strawberry blonde locks, the matron opined: “He’s a boy alright – what a coconut-shaped head!”

Unfortunately, aged 12, a bout of temporary alopecia gave me a Friar Tuck tonsure, my depression not helped by my merry classmates calling me “The Mad Monk.” I got the last laugh when, probably out of profound sympathy, staff in the local licensed grocer served me even though I was only 15 years old. The ability to illegally purchase alcohol made me many new acquaintances. An hour or so before school dances, my new best buddies would club together for me to buy the evening’s aperitivo. Thanks to my stammer, B-B-Buckfast was out of the question hence, enjoying the ambience afforded by Cranhill Park, we partook of WhiskyMac, a fine blend of whisky and wine (according to the label on the bottle passed from boy to boy desperately seeking enough Dutch courage to winch a fifth year burd).

Back then, bevvying was an expensive business. It took a month’s pocket money – and a week of scamming mum’s cash when sent for the messages – to amass sufficient funds to get tipsy. These days, alcohol is as cheap as – no, cheaper than – chips. A cargo of a dozen cans of lager only costs around £8 when bought from responsible supermarkets. For non-beer drinkers, vodka is keenly priced at just over a tenner a bottle. The National Blotto: it could be you!

Sadly, the SNP – Scottish National Puritans – seem almost messianic and obsessive in their determination to end the traditional binge drinking culture that has served our country proudly for centuries. For example, a cursory glance at Robert Gibb’s patriotic painting, The Thin Red Line, shows the unquenchable thirst of the Sutherland Highlanders in Crimea to fight against overwhelming odds, motivated by the promise of a post-battle free bar at the Balaclava barracks. Perhaps conscious of the bill, it is little wonder the regiment’s leader, Sir Colin Campbell, uttered the memorable words: “Damn all that eagerness!”

Heaven forfend but if neo-temperance Nationalists succeed in their quest to reduce per capita alcohol intake to non-lethal levels, the nation would lose forever such stereotypical drunken icons as Willie the groundskeeper in The Simpsons. At a stroke, Glasgow’s streets would be stripped of the weekend banter that leads to A&E units at The Royal Infirmary receiving inebriated casualties by the ambulance load (in what may be a first, the city is currently investigating the economics of investing in double-decker versions of this type of vehicle).

Thankfully, the silent minority of imbecilic imbibers have defenders such as Rosemary Gallagher of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) to fight for their human right to buy bargain-basement, mind-altering liquids. According to Ms Gallagher, imposing minimum pricing “penalises responsible drinkers, especially those on low incomes”. Her sincerely-held concern for impoverished consumers rather than members’ profits is to be applauded; indeed, I’d place her righteous compassion above that of Payday loan companies who lend alms to the poor and, benignly, only ask for repayment, in the case of Wonga, at a token APR of 5,853 per cent.

To her credit, Ms Gallagher, spokesperson for the nation’s firewater producers, is correct to state that a minimum unit pricing for alcohol will bring about job losses. Starved of the 1,000 or so deaths directly due to alcohol abuse, undertakers will perhaps carry the biggest burden, with inevitable knock-on redundancies in crematoriums and the hitherto burgeoning funereal wake sector of the hospitality industry. No longer able to purchase quantities of alcohol that cause incinerated cadavers to smoulder for three days or more, the deserving poor will be doomed to walk the earth for a few extra years. It’s an outrage.

Gallagher calls the government’s attempt to artificially inflate the price of getting hammered “unfair and untargeted”. Disgusted smokers who saw the price of 20 cigarettes rise by 37p recently would put their electrolarynx devices to their throats and speak with one fuming voice in agreement. It seems that this government is hell-bent on destroying the simple pleasures in life that kill the user. Admittedly, hiking duty on carcinogenic-rich tobacco products may have helped to decrease the death rate, but at what cost to society?

This week, the Court of Session delivers its verdict on the SWA’s appeal against an earlier dismissal of their legal challenge to the 50p minimum unit pricing policy. It may be high noon for the drinks trade but the trade will take some succour that it has not been forsaken by every politician. Under the astute leadership of Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour Party is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the purveyors of strong beverages. I beg readers to forgive my previous acerbic attacks on Ms Lamont for her petty partisanship in parliament, for my belief that she confuses yaboo politics with statesmanship. Lamont’s brave, principled policy puts her in direct conflict with the medical profession and the Scottish police Service. But what do they know about drink-related disorder, eh? In what can only be perceived as an act of internecine treason, the quisling Ed Miliband disowned the First-Minister-in-waiting’s policy. His lackey, Diana Johnson, MP and Shadow Home Office Minister, said: “We support a minimum unit price where it prevents too low supermarket prices whilst protecting responsible pubs.”

David Cameron lost his bottle to curb cheap booze after a cabinet revolt. I earnestly hope that our legal system doesn’t show a yellow streak by upholding the right of licensed drug-sellers to flood the market with cut-price alcohol. Here’s to a healthier, more sober Scotland – slainte!