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Minimum pricing in a minimum society

It is possible both to argue that minimum pricing for alcohol is entirely right but that it is just only if we see it as part of a proper social contract. If the governing classes keep imposing policies on the poor but never for the poor, what we get is ‘minimum society’.

The first and most important things to say is that introducing a minimum price for alcohol is the right thing to do – nothing that follows is in any way intended to undermine that central message. Alcohol in the Scottish context is a substance which is fine at the ‘micro’ level (most people handle booze reasonably responsibly and it is, broadly, a life-enhancing thing) but it would be obtuse in the extreme not to note that at the ‘macro’ level (wider society) it is a massive problem. In contemporary Britain we aren’t happy with anything until we can put a price on it and so people talk about the cost to the NHS. Fine, and likewise the awful toll it takes on our health. But that hasn’t been my personal experience of the biggest cost of alcohol; the biggest damage I see from alcohol is the aggression and the stupidity. Scotland (like Britain, possibly worse) is quite an angry country. Too often if someone accidentally stands on someone else’s foot, the expectation seems to be confrontation rather than apology. Anger is a nasty, corrosive emotion when coupled with stupidity – which is to say that getting angry is healthy until we realise that we’re getting angry at things we ourselves would admit were stupid. Too much blood has been spilled over football arguments, suspicion that someone looked at someone else’s girlfriend the wrong way or the pointless escalation from spilled drink to casualty.

So for the sake of health, for the sake of prosperity but above all in the hope that we might start to take the fear and anger out of a Saturday night we need to change our relationship with booze and removing the kinds of booze sold intentionally for the get-drunk-quick market is right. No-one thinks minimum pricing is a panacea but it does this, it removes alcohol priced to target for destructive behaviour from the shelves.

OK, but there are buts. There are two significant buts which we need to now move on to address. The first of these is about the policy use of pricing mechanisms and the second of these is what I’ll call ‘piecemeal social reform’. Pricing mechanisms first because they are easier to deconstruct.

Pricing as a policy tool is in some ways as old as civilisation – but not in its current form. So for example, duty on alcohol and cigarettes is a long-standing attempt to generate income and change behaviour by targeting socially harmful products, but it was not a policy on its own. Both tobacco and alcohol have been controlled through a series of policy tools of which pricing is only one. The requirement for retailers to gain a license (which can be removed if criteria of behaviour are not met), the age restrictions on purchase and sale, restrictions on packaging and advertising and so on. Pricing is part of a package. And then we get to the 1980s where (in particular) the far-right Adam Smith Institute started feeding in wild ideas about the market being the sole means of influencing all behaviour. So by using pricing alone the state can leave all other matters to the private sector. And (crucially) this has the beautiful added benefit of making any progressive element (in the real meaning of ‘related to ability to pay’, not the new version which just means ‘can be made to look a bit fair with some heavy spin’). So the Poll Tax pays for basic administration and then pricing all other public services (road tolls, entry fees, ‘co-payment’, prescription charges and so on) does the rest. And if – if – you absolutely must interfere in the anarchy of markets, just increase the price and then get out again. For example, congestion charging (a poll tax on free movement designed to get poor people off the road so rich people can move faster), used instead of investment in public transport or greater use of pedestrianisaion, both better solutions to the problem.

We need to get used to rejecting pricing mechanisms as a primary policy tool. They are from start to finish based on the assumption that the market still knows best. They are still, broadly, a right-wing policy approach. In the case of minimum alcohol price things are ameliorated by the ability to focus on unit pricing which does target the most objectionable behaviour reasonably accurately (the bulk of alcohol is probably not underpriced). But we need to be cautious about the habit and we need to start to develop more effective means. For example, in many cases selective prohibition is fairer and more effective than achieving the same thing through pricing. So if you want to make sure bus travel is attractive you can price half the traffic of the road – or you could simply create a series of bus-only artery ways which would have much the same effect without it hammering people on low incomes which barely touching the rich.

So to reservation two. This is ‘softer’, less easy to explain exactly. And it is harder to come up with solutions. But all of that makes it even more important that we try. This is about adopting bits and pieces of good social policy from other countries but then trying to transplant it into a social structure which is not properly able to support it. (My thinking on this was clarified by an economist who told me in no uncertain terms that the problem with Scotland is that we think we can keep transplanting ‘good bits’ of economy into largely crap economic sectors as if that might offer a solution. It is a bit like buying a world-class racehorse and feeding it pork pies.) So I am a big fan of the Nordic countries (I need to emphasise here that this is in large part a cultural and social thing as much as a political thing – I don’t see the Nordics as quite the nirvana-on-earth politically that they are sometimes taken to be). It took me a minute to adjust to the fact that in Iceland only the State can sell you your carry-out. Grocers and supermarkets do not sell alcohol, but it seems to work fine. And it was a good long time before the shock of paying £9 for a whisky in a fairly nondescript Swedish bar subsided – and that was nearly five years ago. But again, it basically works.

However, it works because these are part of a wider social contract. Yes, you pay more for your alcohol and yes this is a specific health policy. But no-one is priced out of the ability to have a responsible drink because they have neither the poverty or the massive income disparity that we have. Yes, it might be a bit more of a chore to stock up on booze, but then so many other things are so much easier (for example, the wonderful resources of the public library which makes our process for engaging with local services look like a Kafkaesque satire). They have grown a policy on alcohol as part of a process of growing their society. It went along with educational reform, welfare reform (in the positive direction), childcare support, investment in public transport, top-quality healthcare and all the rest. We have stuck a policy on alcohol pricing on top of a society tearing into pieces as income divergence means different strata of society not only experience the world in different ways from each other, they do so to such an extent that there is barely any social connection left between them. One more time, while I am 100 per cent in agreement with the many senior academics, health professionals senior policemen and civil servants who have championed this policy, none of them would notice a £1 rise in the price of a bottle of wine – not least because few of them would buy a bottle of wine costing less than £8 anyway.

What we risk here is one section of society making policies for another section with not shared experience of what it means. And unsurprisingly it is a policy which worries the section of society imposing the policy – crime, the toll of alcohol on the NHS and the diversion of policing impacts on that group in a way that endemic, grinding poverty does not. The risk in this is that we live in a country with Nordic alcohol prices but Eastern European poverty, South Asian transport and North African childcare provision. This, collectively, is not a social contract.

We need to get out of the habit of putting sticky plasters on the bits of society that the people that run that society see as the problems while they gnash their teeth at the impossibility of ever doing anything about all sorts of other social problems. Like that old poverty problem that everyone seems to have decided is impossible to solve other than giving rich businessmen everything they want in the vain hope that they will used everything they are given to ‘create jobs’ (rather than use everything they are given to get stinking rich and buy their way out of society as actually happened).

And so I wholeheartedly support minimum pricing for alcohol. I just wish it didn’t feel so much like a good idea transplanted into the middle of a social crisis about which damn all is being done. Which is to say three cheers for the health policy makers, where are you to the other social policy makers and shame on you to those who shape our economic policy. Unless you all move forward together then it will never be a social contract. In fact, it just leaves a ‘minimum society’ in which the least possible connection between people strains to hold us together.

Robin McAlpine