Monday, 28 December 2015

Dry Scots?



While many of us have been tucking in to plenty of booze over the festive season, spare a thought for our dour puritanical friends in Holyrood. Their Christmas didn't come early when the Court of Justice ruled against the SNP's minimum pricing policy, which was legislated for as long ago as 2012, but has yet to take effect.

This issue raises some interesting questions. For free market types such as frequent these pages, the ruling against the price-fixing of booze will probably come as a relief. Believers in the power of the invisible hand (famously observed by a Scot, let us remember) will argue that artificial interference in the price of almost anything will cause distortions which might be worse than the original problem. Efforts to hold down the price of toilet paper in Venezuela, recently, famously resulted in a national - er - shortage.

Localists may argue that the Scottish Parliament should bloomin' well be allowed to bring in whatever crazy policies it bloomin' well likes. That is also an interesting topic for discussion. Should a distant court staffed with (mostly) foreign judges be able to tell the sovereign will of the people of the Kingdom of Scotland that they need to have a bit of a re-think? Do national governments - even those run by the excellent Ms Sturgeon - need to be overseen by the adults in Luxembourg? Or having signed up to a rules-based system should we accept the rules come-what-may? Could the voters of Scotland change the framework of the EU if they wanted to move from a market-based, free-trade approach to something else? One could argue probably not, without leaving the Union. At what point can a democratically-enacted constitution become undemocratic?

All of that is before we have even considered whether setting a floor price for booze is even a good idea!

In practice, those affected by a general increase in the price of booze are likely to be those on modest incomes. In other words, a minimum unit price is regressive: it hurts the poorest more than it hurts the richest. A bottle of decent plonk may already have a unit price above the minimum, but a tin of cheap cider may not: so the family struggling to make ends meet will pay more for the same consumption or have to cut back. The aim of the policy is, of course, "tackling alcohol misuse and reducing the harm that cheap, high-strength alcohol causes our communities" in the words of the Scottish Health Secretary. But will a floor price achieve that? At the margins it may cause some people to reduce their intake, but it might also encourage others to switch spending from something else to alcohol. It is not barking mad to wonder whether people may reduce their consumption of fruit and veg in order to keep their booze supply constant.

And if alcohol consumption doesn't collapse under the weight of the new system, then where does all that extra revenue go? Most of it will end up in the pockets of the manufacturers. While some of it will eventually end up in state hands directly and indirectly, the chief beneficiaries appear to be the people who make the products which are apparently in need of curtailment. How is that for a perverse reward? We won't even get sidetracked by considering smuggling and the black market.

The Court of Justice suggested that a more straightforward approach may be to use the tax system. I haven't looked to see whether the recent devolution of extra powers to Holyrood would allow the Scots to have a different level of booze tax than the rest of the UK, but it surely would not be difficult to arrange if not. The main advantage of hiking the tax would be more money for the government to fritter away, sorry, recycle into programmes with some social or economic benefit.

There is always one good thing to come out of controversies such as these: they get people outside the politically-engaged minority to think about stuff that effects them. The free flow of a good selection of booze at sensible price points is probably only pipped, in terms of its essentialness to the smooth running of this island, by the availability of a decent data signal.

30 comments:

Scan said...

Probably three things to consider:

1) On the ruling, the old phrase "Even a stopped clock is correct twice a day" comes to mind.
2) The daft minimum pricing policy of politicians has been cancelled out by an undemocratic ruling of politicians.
3) Neither of them give a sh!t about the public's health; it's about stealing more of people's money (otherwise, just ban cigarettes and alcohol)...so let's not pretend otherwise.

All the best :)

Peter Whale said...

I remember when you could not get a drink in a Welsh pub on a Sunday evening so the locals all trooped into England for a pint. Just have an off licence on the English Scottish border and stock up. The free market wins again.

dearieme said...

The old viaduct across the Solway was pulled down because too many people were dying, plunging to their deaths while walking home after a Sunday's drinking in England.

Elby the Beserk said...

Too little contrast in the type face, again, BE - I can't read it unless I press my nose to the screen :-(

Demetrius said...

Keir Hardie, of course, was a prominent Temperance campaigner, among other things. Prohibition for Scotland?

Anonymous said...

Scotland.
What happened to the nation of hard drinking, hard fighting, hard saving, self making people ?

Can only assume those people emigrated. Leaving generation Train Spot behind.

BE said...

Elby, I do apologise, but I also wonder whether it is entirely my fault: on both my laptop and phone the text is black and the background is white. If there is a higher-contrast colour scheme you can suggest, please let me know...

Electro-Kevin said...

Yet again it is the majority who can moderate their consumption who could end up paying the price for those who can't. The same with the proposed sugar tax.

If someone is a problem for the NHS - ie they have got themselves into A&E sloshed or onto a barriatric/cardiac ward obese then tackle the problem there. With punitive charges - enough of a deterrence to the rest.

The other issue is shame.

We are no longer allowed to be judgmental and so people who take things to excess cannot be stigmatised.

Cruel to be kind, so to speak.

The truly addictive personality is probably in need of specialist help but it is the people who have followed their path through the lifting of social stigma who have increased these problems to 'epidemic' proportion - to the point that minimum pricing/blanket taxes are being considered.

Ditto corporal/capital punishment. The deterrent effect was not there to deter true psychopaths but those who would choose to emulate them or fail to control their own tempers.

Electro-Kevin said...

psycopaths (?)

Sebastian Weetabix said...

The ability of Scots to get completely stocious will always outwit these fuckwit politicians. When I was a kid on Clydeside you used to see "gassers" - these fellers used to bubble the town coal gas through milk and drink the resulting concoction. It used to get them completely out of their tiny minds. Fuck knows what it was doing to them.

Anonymous said...

I have a theory that the upsurge in drug taking over the years is at least partly to do with the increasing price of beer at the pump and the loss of the British pub culture.
I reckon that half the 'boozed up' violence stories are actually down to the former.
Perhaps slightly off topic but it does relate to tax and Govt action.
I don't suppose legalisation of certain drugs and the taxing thereof is too far away. Minimum pricing of weed anyone?

Anonymous said...

BE: "on both my laptop and phone the text is black and the background is white."

Here the text is rendered grey on a white background. Previous articles are blue type.

Electro-Kevin said...

Anonymous - I don't see the difference between bootlegging of legal substances and the supply of illegal substances.

The suppliers are the same people on the wrong side of the same legal fence.

All legalisation will do (if legal drugs are to be taxed, and if not then why not ???) is to:

- make drug dealers switch to bootlegging instead (what ? we expect legalisation to result in them setting up legitimate businesses ?)

- increase the numbers of people (currently only 6%) taking drugs

- make it incumbent on the state that it should fund the supply of drugs through welfare or even via the NHS

- make it difficult for parents like me to tell my kids that they can't do it, at least in my house



It is illegal to be intoxicated in a public place. It is, therefore, illegal (and arrestable) to be drunk in a public place.

The legalisation of narcotics is a subtle but dangerous shift in the legal frame which no-one else will tell you.

For the first time ever it will be legal to be intoxicated in a public place.

How is this a step forward for the better ? Peter Hitchens offers many articles showing that the results of cannabis use are not safe nor harmless - the incidence of terrorists being habitual users is striking and habitual use of cannabis present in nearly 100% of cases.

But as with minimum pricing of drink. Any attempt by the government to nudge behaviour with price disincentives will result in the opening of new markets for criminals.



Anonymous said...

EK,
I am with you all the way.
My point was that 'nudging' on alcohol has opened the way for increased drug use.
Drink begats it's evils but imho an increasingly drug using society will begat worse evils. Hitchens as you say, often draws attention to this. I see your former colleagues getting more and more tooled up as they face the need to deal with large blokes in Croydon waving machetes or lads in Hartlepool on a cocktail of beer, Charlie and green who are almost unstoppable.
Having said that, don't rely upon Govt to protect us against that and expect the idiots in power to imagine they can't use legalisation as a route to increase the tax take.

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