I am a firm believer in the redemptive qualities of alcohol. Any minor failure, casual provocation, or slight humiliation is enough to convince me that what I need is a long, slow soak in an ocean of booze. Only once my blood stream is comprehensively saturated, only once the world is spinning at light-speed on its axis, can I begin to relax again and let all my anxieties drift gently off into the abyss. At moments like that it truly becomes clear that in this liquid intoxicant, I have made a friend for life.
But the Scottish Government is trying to call time on my relationship with the bottle; it’s trying to drive a wedge between us. It has announced plans to put an end to the unbridled joy of an indulgent liquor-fuelled night. The Scottish Government says that there are too many mouth-watering incentives on offer to tempt me into drinking. I say: what else is there to do? Drinking has always been a part of Scottish culture; for centuries it has gifted vitality to this cold, dark corner of northern Europe.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser addressed the booze question in the Scottish Parliament at the beginning of November. He called excessive alcohol consumption a “scourge on Scottish society”. The Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon — leader of the crusade against drinking — wants to punish the majority for the mistreatment of alcohol by the minority. The First Minister Alex Salmond is convinced that I should pay at least £4.50 for a bottle of wine. I would be on the streets if I could stand.
So, long gone will be the days of stacking up on vodka doubles during happy hour. Cheap, high strength favourites amongst heavy drinkers, such as white cider or supermarket own brands, will be banished to oblivion (that is, subject to a new per-unit pricing law).
But taxing the consumer is not going to change the incomparable pleasure of getting drunk. No authority is going to impose sobriety on me. Surely, it should be my choice to purchase alcohol after 10pm. Surely, I should be entitled to slowly corrode my liver, rot my gut, and ruin my looks. Granted, there is a good chance I will, at some stage, end up face down in A&E, but (and read this bit carefully) the cost of alcohol-related admissions doesn’t seem so unreasonable when we consider the amount ploughed into the economy by alcohol tax revenue. According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, alcohol revenue in the UK brought in nearly £14 billion in 2004-05. The same body calculated NHS costs attributed to alcohol misuse in 2006-07 at £405 million. I’m sure there’s a handsome profit margin in there somewhere.
A huge amount of revenue will be lost every year if alcohol is made as costly as the new measures propose. Studies of alcohol-related illnesses and hospital admissions in Scotland rarely mention the lucrative remuneration of alcohol VAT sales.
Essentially, politicians are reluctant to admit that alcohol consumption is doing the government a favour. The truth is that during the worst recession in living memory, the more we drink — even better, the more we drink at an expensive price — the more the government benefits. The state faces a two-pronged dilemma. If they go ahead with their minimum-price plan and attempt to solve the ‘binge drinking problem’, they will be presented with a new black hole in the national finances.
Previous government campaigns to curb excessive alcohol consumption have been childish, patronising, and (surprisingly!) ineffective. Articles attacking binge drinking are often accompanied by stereotypical images, either of audacious women having a good time in clubs, or (as seen on the BBC website) an image of a teen in a Burberry cap drinking Buckfast. The clichés the media has adopted towards drinkers — that they are all abhorrent teenagers, ‘ladettes’ or working class — only further alienates us from the debate, especially when one considers that Britain’s middle classes are a famously gin-soaked bunch.
The Daily Mail may well stigmatise the enjoyment of drinking — categorising it as pastime likely to be frowned upon by anyone who can afford security tagged liquor brands — but I imagine more than a few of its most ardent readers will spend their afternoons alone with a crate of toxic, bargain-basement, Californian wine.
The state’s wild desire to restrain the alleged evils of binge drinking has led us to ignore a more disheartening aspect of cheap alcohol — the mass exodus from British pubs. The pub industry has faced a trading battle since the price of supermarket alcohol fell sharply. Minimum pricing will only exacerbate this problem, as the price of a pub pint rises even more. If we really don’t want to see traditional pubs going under then we need to use existing laws more effectively, or at least exempt pubs from the minimum pricing laws. There are already enough ways to commit an offence as a drunk person, and the government must realise that attempts to tackle binge drinking won’t be successful by piling new ineffective laws on top of old, underused, ones.
I can’t help but notice that all of this is being propagated by the bone-dry, humourless puritans that populate our parliament. I can’t help but notice that all this strongly echoes Scotland’s ultra-conservative Calvinist past. I note that John Knox’s hatred of fun would make any self-respecting member of the Taliban blush; that Scotland’s medieval Protestant foot-soldiers, were they alive today, would make Mullah Omar look like Alan Carr. Our MSP’s want to force us to salvation, and they’re not going to ask twice. Why can’t we all just admit that there will always be, no matter how many disincentives you introduce, people who wish to consume large amounts of alcohol (and I will always be one of them, no matter how many interventions my parents stage).
I will say this clearly: more expensive drinks certainly won’t stop me from knocking back my fourth or my fifth or my sixth (nothing will stop me downing my seventh). All my social awkwardness just drains from my body after a gin and tonic, a fifth of scotch and water eradicates my shyness, a few white Russians constitute my antidote to neuroticism.
Alcohol makes everything better, no matter how hard my head bangs in the morning, and I deny the government any right to take that feeling away from me. Binge drinking keeps our pubs in business and my self-confidence at a momentary high. I raise my glass to it.