Another day, another populist policy from the SNP

I am rather confused by Jeff’s post on the SNP’s new proposals designed to curb anti-social drinking. He says that the SNP’s approach is radical and is proof that the SNP is not just populist. But when you look at the proposals, they are a who’s who of reactionary measures that could well have been lifted straight out of a cliché-ridden Daily Excess editorial.

Let’s look at the list as laid out by Jeff.

  • Raise the limit for purchasing alcohol in off-licenses to 21

    Well right away this is about as populist as policies get. Blame it on the yoof. The media loves to do it, and the politicians love to throw around these age limits. They get to look “tough” by passing some draconian legislation that adversely affects someone. And who better to do this to than the youth, who do not vote in high numbers because they are already so disenchanted? SNP wins by looking tough without losing any votes.

    Besides that, what is this age limit supposed to achieve? We all know that these age limits are about as workable as a chocolate kettle. Given that there is currently an age limit of 18 and under-18s still find it easy enough to get their hands on alcohol, what makes anyone think that raising the limit by a few years will improve the situation any?

    There is nothing to suggest that raising that limit to 21 will make it any more difficult for rowdy youths to get their hands on alcohol. And why should perfectly law-abiding 18-20 year olds who intend to drink alcohol responsibly be prohibited from doing so?

    The fact is that those youths who really want to get alcohol will just nick it from their dad’s cabinet. Or their friend’s dad’s cabinet. Or their uncle’s cabinet. Or anywhere they can get it from. That is assuming they haven’t just got someone else who is above 21 to buy it for them, as Scottish Tory Boy points out.

    Congratulations SNP — you have made it almost impossible for law-abiding drinkers to get their hands on alcohol, whereas the rowdy contingent are encouraged into behaving even more rowdily.

    And if you want people to act like adults, it’s probably not the best idea to treat them like kids.

  • Reprice drinks to a minimum of 35p per unit of alcohol

    You want a continental “café-style” drinking culture? Then raising the price of alcohol is the last thing you should do.

    Why is that then? Well, increasing the price of alcohol will mean it will make little sense to just have one or two drinks with a meal. It will be too expensive for little return. If alcohol costs three or four times more than coffee, no-one will drink it like coffee. Instead, people will use alcohol by saving up their money for a big night out. The result? More binge drinking.

    Jeff says that the SNP’s policies are remarkably similar to those of Sweden. He is correct. Jeff also says that “I can easily imagine [they] don’t have the same alcohol-dependency and vandal culture that we have here.” Unfortunately, Jeff hasn’t done his research because Scandinavia — where alcohol is much more expensive than it is here — has a notorious binge drinking problem.

    Nor is the USA exactly a haven of responsible drinking. Has he never heard of the American phenomenon of “spring break”? These North American events are legendary for their excessive binge drinking and rowdy behaviour. Nor do I think of Australia as one of the most sober nations in the world!

    Clearly, simply raising the price of alcohol won’t encourage people to stop binge drinking. In fact, if anything, it will have the opposite effect.

  • Have dedicated [alcohol] checkouts in some of the larger supermarkets

    I’m not exactly sure what this idea is supposed to achieve. Jeff says it is to create an “inconvenience of having to go for a separate checkout to buy alcohol.” But what does it mean? Walking a few yards? If people will have already travel all the way to the supermarket, having them walk to a different checkout is hardly going to put anyone off.

    And think about the scenario. You’ve got some irresponsible people who only go to the supermarket to buy some bottles. They just go to the alcohol checkout, pay for their goods and then saunter off to the park to cause some fuss. Then you’ve got the responsible drinkers who want to enjoy a few glasses with their meals. These people are genuinely inconvenienced, as they have to go to the checkout twice — once to pay for their food, and another time to pay for their alcohol.

    Yet again, the responsible drinkers are punished whereas the troublemakers hardly bat an eyelid. Yet another sloppy policy.

  • Increase of financial support for alcohol prevention, treatment and support services

    No complaints here. This seems sensible enough to me.

This is not to say that there is not a problem with irresponsible binge-drinking and rowdy neds in the streets. Jeff rightly notes that Scotland has a problem and it’s not good enough just to sit there and let it continue. The point is that these measures will do absolutely nothing to curb binge drinking. If anything, they will exacerbate the problems while making life difficult for the majority who drink sensibly.

Unfortunately — as we see from governments of all shades time and again — the temptation for a government faced with a problem is just to do something, anything. Preferably sounding tough. Then declare the problem solved. No matter whether the solution is well thought-through or planned out.


  1. I tend not to buy booze when I am buying food anyway, since I can’t carry food and booze at the same time… Well, not in the quantities I buy anyway.

    This proposal is a joke, just like the wee pretendy parliament.

  2. Yes, more knee jerk nonsense, this time from an administration that likes to trade of on its progressive credentials. If the SNP is serious about confronting the the growing health problem that is drinking, how about trying to look at the roots of widespread alcoholism and binge drinking?

  3. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks (I think) for the mentions. I don’t know if using my humble blog as a jumping off point is a better idea than using the actual policy itself or The Times/Scotsman etc but it’s fine either way.

    I find your own post confusing also I’m afraid. If the SNP policy is infact populist, how have you so easily gone on to rip their policies to shreds? And then be backed up by 3 commenters who are also against the policies?

    Surely the whole point of a populist policy is that it’s popular? Which this set of policies clearly is not…

    I do think many, many people have been too quick to dismiss these ideas especially when they seem to work in many, many countries across the world.

    These laws would bring us in line with Sweden, USA and Australia, 3 countries I’ve been to in the past 18 months, 3 countries I’ve had late nights out in and 3 countries which, as far as I can see, have a much reduced problem when it comes to drunken idiots and drink-related crime (Australia to be fair has a lot of drink-driving though, which I see as something of a separate issue).

    And any thoughts on why these policies which you believe will do nothing to sort out binge-drinking were so successful in significantly reducing vandalism and anti-social behaviour in West Lothian in the past 6 weeks?

  4. Ah, well Jeff — you know we bloggers are a different breed. Just because a few bloggers can think x it doesn’t mean the public as a whole also thinks x. I have mentioned this phenomenon a few times on this blog before, notably in this post.

    It became clear to me when ID cards were a big story. Opinion poll after opinion poll told us that the public were in favour of ID cards. But it was almost impossible to find a single blogger in favour of them.

    I strongly suspect that if you were to talk to your workmates or just random people in the street they would come up with a list of proposals very similar to what the SNP have brought out. Increased prices, increased age limits, etc. In fact, it’s nigh on all you ever hear in terms of policies being proposed to tackle binge drinking.

    I doubt also that tourists who are visiting Scotland for a few days see much of binge drinking culture. In fact, I have lived here for all of my life and have pretty successfully avoided the worst. No doubt if you head to a city centre on a Saturday night you’ll see some disgraceful sights — but you’ll see that in any city in the world on a Saturday night.

    The binge drinking problem is most heavily concentrated in areas that tourists do not touch with a bargepole — Dunfermline on Saturday at 2am, Paisley on Friday night, whatever.. my hometown of Kirkcaldy even. Not Edinburgh Castle on a nice Tuesday morning. It will have been much the same when you visited the countries you listed (unless you went to Stockholm to sample the nightlife!).

    And just to underline the point that Sweden and Australia perceive themselves to have a binge-drinking problem just like we do, here is a story from the Australian press talking about binge drinking. It mentions the Swedish policies… and the fact that it doesn’t work.

    Then there is a demo in Stockholm against “violent binge-drinking teens”. You could lift that phrase straight out of any British tabloid.

    In America “nearly half” of all students abuse drugs or alcohol at least once a month. That story has a familiar ring to it too.

    Teens as young as 13 are going on weekend drinking binges with no idea of the risks. Where is that? Glasgow? Fife? No, it’s Montreal.

    For the media in all of the countries you’ve cited, your “solutions” are anything but I’m afraid.

    As for West Lothian, I don’t think six weeks is nearly enough to give a clear indication of whether the scheme has worked. Any number of factors can account for a change in behaviour… The weather even. You need to wait for the effects to filter through and for everything to settle down. If anti-social behaviour is still down in six years, then you can call it a success.

  5. “Just because a few bloggers can think x it doesn’t mean the public as a whole also thinks x.”

    You pipped me to that very point Duncan.

    I had a fledgling post brewing in my mind on the discrepancy between bloggers and the public at large.

    As for your others points, you picked some good articles there to spike my guns. Although it’s always easy to pick individual stories and suggest they are generally the case. The article from Stockholm for example was very much a protest about an individual case. It seemed to be the very shocking nature of that one violent attack that pulled people out onto the streets. Here such events are dime a dozen, of course.

    And even if it is a global probem, the issue remains that nothing seems to be working. You say yourself that something needs to be done and yet, in your original post and subsequent comment, you contribute no alternative suggestion to the status quo.

    The only alternative to the SNP’s policies that I’ve seen offered anywhere so far has been a change in attitude and stronger enforcement of current laws. Given the size of the problem, it seems insufficient.

    I personally believe that a ‘stick’ approach rather than a ‘carrot’ approach, at least in the short term, would be a worthwhile tactic and we can always see how we go for 4 or 5 years.

    These policies are not expensive and could easily be reversed if it is the case that all we’re really doing is inconveniencing 18-20 year olds who are causing no bother.

    I remain impressed by the SNP’s boldness and for a party that tirelessly courted the student vote, I remain adamant that it’s not much of a populist policy.

    Even still, you’ve altered, though not quite reversed, my thinking as to whether these are good ideas and that, after all, is what good blogging is all about.

  6. Well I did say something should be done, you’re right. The problem is that these kinds of restrictions almost always have unintended consequences and so you have to carefully think through the scenarios to try and find the unintended consequences. Sometimes I think governments don’t do this and just float policies as headline grabbers. I think the experiences of prohibition demonstrate that, sadly, there isn’t an easy answer to alcohol abuse. There is also perhaps the fact that I am a liberal which means that I am instinctively suspicious of government interventions designed to alter human behaviour.

    As you perhaps hint at, binge drinking is probably a global problem. And it is by no means a modern phenomenon. I seem to remember reading somewhere once that there is not a society in the world that doesn’t use narcotics of some sort of another (that could be wrong mind you). Perhaps it should be accepted as human nature.

    Nevertheless, you can’t have drunken youths going around stabbing people. So what is my solution? Well you first have to define the problem. And I think the problem is a combination of deprivation and poor upbringing.

    My personal view is that too many children are unwanted and are therefore poorly cared for. The children become disillusioned, disenfranchised and turn to violence. One possibility to reduce this might be to lower child tax credits or child benefits or something like that. That way not so many people will decide to have children for the wrong reasons. That is probably controversial, but you said you liked a bold policy Jeff! Somehow I don’t see the SNP picking that one up. 🙂

    Another — potentially less controversial — possibility might be to allow people to drink in pubs from the age of 16. That way, teenagers can be introduced to drink in a controlled, safe environment under the watchful gaze of adults. That would be rather than what they do today, which is nick a bottle of vodka then down it in the park where they can do genuine harm to themselves and others.

    As for the SNP’s pursuit of the student vote, I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective. In that case, I think it is possibly fair to say that it is a bold policy in that it will disillusion some of their core vote.

    On the other hand, I have written before about how I thought the SNP’s pursuit of the student vote was not the greatest idea. In my experience, apart from politics students and suchlike, most students are very apathetic and do not vote. I don’t think the SNP would lose many votes among the student population mostly because they didn’t exist anyway. (That’s not just true for the SNP, but for all the parties.)

  7. Good stuff Duncan, and some interesting and valid alternatives.

    Although screaming headlines in papers showing “drinking age to be lowered” and “tax raid on children” just goes to show how tricky it is to create policy in these media-driven times.

    Though of course I don’t need to remind you of that given your knowledge of Politics.

    And you raise a good point about the students too. I do wonder how many of them really vote despite their protests and the like. Am I right in thinking that you were even considering not voting? If that’s the case then not much more proof is needed that student participation rates are low.

    But many are clouding the issue with the student vote and the SNP zeal to chase it. The one masterstroke the SNP had was to suggest they’d cancel student debt. That was my main reason for voting for them and I know it worked on my family who are definitely not natural SNP voters.

    This policy alone may have won the election and it hasn’t cost them anything now as all the other parties are against it. And it wasn’t the non-voting students they attracted; it was the mid-20s / early 30s bracket, some with families, those who do vote in their droves as they are feeling the pinch from all ends of the spectrum (rising costs, funding pensions, tax, mortgages etc etc)

    Anyway, i have somehow ventured off topic.

    Good to have you back blogging regularly if I didn’t say so before!

  8. Thanks Jeff! I don’t know how long this spate of regular blogging will last. It is only that way for the moment because I am a man of leisure, mulling over my future direction by lounging about the house. I should get into the habit of putting aside ready-made posts that I can publish with little effort during busier patches of my life. But that’s not so easy if you’re writing about current affairs…

    I had begun a response to your points about student apathy but it was getting a bit long and definitely off-topic so I’ll save it for a new post! 🙂

  9. Ah, you missed a trick there…

    “I had begun a response to your points about student apathy but in the end I couldn’t be a*sed finishing it” could have been quite amusing….

  10. I do so love the people who rabbit on about “dealing with social deprivation and bad parenting” There! they`ve said it, so that`s it sorted. Does anyone out there have an actual quick fix (or even a very slow one) for those problems? NO?
    Then lets try what has worked in Sweden (or so my Swedish friends tell me.)

  11. Hello!

    Too bad I’m nearly two years late reading this article… oh well. I’ve recently developed an interest in politics and, as a student, this is of particular interest to me at the moment.

    Binge drinking has been a problem for a long time and will probably, thanks to the generation of neds, continue to be so for the foreseeable future. I think a lot of the problem is that people simply do not care about the damage that alcohol can do to their bodies, and I think most probably don’t know much beyond “something to do with sugar and your liver or something” plus the typical hangover (if they suffer from them, which many of my friends don’t). Maybe government policy should be educating youngsters and encouraging responsibility, rather than demonising binge-drinking (which is probably always going to happen no matter what they do). Making something illegal doesn’t put people off doing it (drugs).

    Personally, my parents introduced me to wine and beer when I was 14. I was able to experience what it felt like to be tipsy, drunk, and have a hangover, with the safety of being in my home and not in some park surrounded by peer pressure. As a result, I’m well aware of my personal alcohol limit and I’m rarely tempted to overindulge. To me, that’s responsible drinking. I know plenty of 18 year olds who, while legal, don’t drink responsibly — the amount one of my friend sinks in one night would probably be enough to kill me, and it astonishes me that it isn’t affecting her health more than it already is. So as you say, changing the age limit won’t make any difference, because age =/= maturity.

    Hmm, this has turned into a bit of a ramble. Oh well, just some thoughts. Cheers!

    PS – I’m also in Kirkcaldy, hiya!