Minimum alcohol pricing is a tax on the poor

Credit: Pexels/Matan Segev

Tom McDonald
Writer

The first thing to note about the Scottish government’s finally approved legislation on minimum alcohol pricing is that it won’t affect (and isn’t intended to affect) students a great deal. Rather, it has surely been concocted for those who we are told subsist on the breadline and yet still prioritise the purchase of alcohol.

Our breadline “alkies” do exist – they are the fly in the rich ointment of this nation’s drinking culture but some, it must be conceded, are indeed in mortal peril of the sodden end this law compassionately strives to save them from. So, how can we mark them out?

Firstly, they are a minority. Secondly, they may be subdivided into two groups categorised by two essential factors: income and age. The income of both is typically low (the law would mean squat to them were this not the case) but the age is quite polarised. The first of these two groups which the Scottish government has targeted are the underage – the teenage drinkers. This lot may, at certain times of the year, have birthday money, Christmas money, “gran was feeling generous” money, etc… but they do not, typically, wield a terrific purchasing power. We are to expect then, that with the price of what I (in my positively halcyon underage days) affectionately termed “jakie juice” raised by some two or three pounds, these nihilistic weans are to be gently jostled into a life of temperance. Of course, it is wishful thinking to believe that this will succeed where the most stringent ID regulations in Europe have failed.

The second group are the more wizened “alkies”. They’ve been at it for a while: drinking heavily on a low income, and it is foolishly expected, too, that such a meagre increase in the price of their gut-rot will shunt them, through raw economic necessity, into sobriety. Notice now what a sneering portrait of the unemployed (the employed are not affected) this law relies upon – as if these people lack the acumen to coordinate the most basic financial reorganisation it would require to match these ineffectual price increases.

This law has been said to be a triumph of public health against the drinks industry, but it’s only own-brand rubbish and small-brand paint-stripper that is affected. However tough it is eking out a living on the dole, jacking off the dog to feed the cat, it isn’t quite so bad that the stereotypical underclass Scot I have created here cannot meet the price hike. (I shall work in offensive stereotypes because that must be what the Scottish government is doing.)

The cheapest spirits are, admittedly, priced up more than this – but not by a great deal. Again, it won’t make any difference to anyone besides our stereotypes – our bogeymen whose blotchy visage the government has relied upon to get this through. The salient point to make is that the scary hospital statistics that have lent support to this law (a nice cross-party issue that makes everyone look good) won’t, by dint of this law alone, be affected a jot.

Whatever the reasons for making Scotland the first country in the world to pass such a law, political incentives abound and seem to trample over national traditions of drinking which the Scots, when you don’t see them all as Rab C. Nesbitt, are quite content with. We drink well as a nation, and it is worth considering how un-Scottish the whole business is (it could also be described as un-British, or un-Northern European too, or perhaps just “horrible”). And if you don’t think this rings true, do have a flick through our literature – if anyone can find a major Scottish writer who wouldn’t be on my side on this issue, I’ll buy them a pint.

But of course, when we call time on this debate, one imagines most people won’t feel strongly enough about such petty governmental intrusion to either support or condemn it with any kind of vigor; most people, after all, are not affected by it. Its effect will be detrimental to the very people this law claims to protect – and rather glum.