Lesley Riddoch: Deja vu on alcohol talks down south

Newsnight asked Eric Joyce to talk about minimum pricing
Newsnight asked Eric Joyce to talk about minimum pricing
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It seems Scotland’s three years of debate about alcohol pricing has passed English politicians and the BBC by, writes Lesley Riddoch

Once upon a time in a country called Scotland, supermarket cider was cheaper than bottled water. So the government brought forward plans for a minimum unit price to hike the cost of alcohol, cut consumption and tackle an epidemic of alcohol-induced harm.

This would boost supermarket profits but a windfall tax would then swipe the cash back for government use. Not a perfect solution but a very practical one.

Every Scottish political party bar the Greens opposed the plan and the UK government said minimum pricing was anti-competitive and therefore illegal.

This rather strengthened the resolve of the Scottish Government, though – it realised if it didn’t act, no-one else would. Instead there would be more years of worthy “education” for young people contradicted every day by the sight of drunken adults and cut-price temptation. The Scottish Government would be the first in Europe to impose a minimum alcohol price and though health campaigners backed the move, the public would hardly applaud or reward a party ending the cheap booze culture.

Still, in the face of near total political and media hostility, the minority Scottish Government pressed on – to a resounding defeat. In the 2011 election however, the SNP promised that minimum alcohol pricing would return and went on to win an overwhelming majority.

So two weeks ago, stage one of its Alcohol Bill cleared the Scottish Parliament, supported by the Lib Dems (Willie Rennie always backed minimum pricing) the Tories (Ruth Davidson negotiated a five-year sunset clause) and the Greens. Shamefully, Labour abstained.

In his budget, John Swinney completed the move with a Public Health Levy to swipe supermarket windfalls created by minimum pricing. The levy will tax only the biggest retailers selling fags and booze. Smart.

Well, that’s what I thought happened – but now I’m left wondering. Has Scotland actually been through a three year alcohol debate? Is new legislation really working its way through Holyrood even as we speak? Surely that’s impossible?

Last Friday the UK government surprised everyone with a Damascene conversion to minimum pricing – and yet in the blanket media coverage which followed, Scotland’s pioneering stance was roundly ignored.

How strange. Surely if the Scottish Parliament is already passing minimum price legislation – the first in Europe to take the plunge – network BBC news would want to explore that fact? Surely if Scotland is likely to plump for 45 pence, not Westminster’s 40 pence per unit, someone might want to ask why? And surely – if that someone probed further – they might be interested to find the Scottish price was calculated (partly) to protect against legal challenge?

When the tobacco industry challenged the public smoking ban on the grounds of “anti-competitive” behaviour, the government’s defence was that a ban was both effective and proportionate in view of damage to the nation’s health. Unless a minimum alcohol price can reasonably be argued to impact on Britain’s binge-drinking culture, it may be ruled illegal in Europe.

Indeed, one might speculate that the 40 pence rate was deliberately chosen by the coalition to prompt just such a convenient legal challenge.

But no. Comment focused on the coalition’s apparent attempt to use hastily announced minimum pricing plans as a smokescreen diverting public attention from its much-castigated budget and granny tax. There have only been three Friday Commons debates in recent times – on the Iraq war, Libyan emergency and swine flu outbreak. Minimum alcohol pricing was clearly not in the same league. And yet, there might have been another possible reason for the rush. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley – revealed to have met Diageo officials six times in the six months before the 2010 election – was about to announce a new “Responsibility Deal” whereby drinks giants would offer to produce more low-strength alcohol, effectively taking a million units out of circulation by “diluting” the total supply. This was going to be the coalition’s response to England’s drink epidemic – until the Home Secretary’s sudden announcement seized the policy initiative. All interesting stuff, none of this was tackled on Friday night’s Newsnight – the BBC’s main daily forum for current affairs analysis. Instead producers invited Falkirk MP Eric Joyce to play the alcohol expert from the front room in which he is curfewed as punishment for a drunken head-butting attack in the Commons. Somehow the opinion of a man with a drink problem, recently expelled by his own party and rejected by many constituents – is worth hearing. The experience of a pioneering Scottish Government is not.

Scots could contribute insight, expertise and evidence to the English debate on alcohol abuse. Instead we can contribute only a stereotype. It’s a wonder Newsnight didn’t ask Eric to wear a “Hey Jimmy” wig and chomp a deep fried Mars Bar. Is this what our licence fee is for?

Unexpected constitutional developments in “the North” have forced BBC bosses to recognise the existence of sentient life beyond London (again), but after each news flurry the establishment settles back into a pre-devolutionary world-view where Britain is run by just one parliament with just one set of policy proposals and just one set of people worth passing judgment.

This does not go unobserved. Scots notice their own intensely felt experience of life is regularly airbrushed from UK debate. They notice and shrug. It’s always been like that. It’s pointless to expect the Scottish tail will ever wag the British dog on any issue. We will simply have to listen as the unfolding English alcohol debate repeats, word for word, every single question raised and answered during three years of Scottish debate.

What choice is there? For Scots, enduring McGroundhog Day courtesy of BBC “National” news is simply part of being British.

Nationalists and defenders of the Union alike may care to take note. The exclusion of any Scottish input to UK debate has an impact – albeit a subliminal one – on the wider independence debate. Crucial swing voters may conclude the Union is all about England and the only way to ensure a proper focus on Scottish life is through full independence. Others may conclude that a country so easily ignored by institutions like the BBC is simply too unimportant to survive alone.

Of course Scottish experts may yet be included in the unfolding British alcohol debate.

And pigs might fly.