On this day in 1919, the United States Congress ratified the 18th amendment to the American Constitution, authorising the prohibition of alcohol. It is a day that may be celebrated by Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP government. The prohibitionists in America regarded booze as one of society’s great evils, causing alcoholism, ill-health, domestic violence, bar-room brawls and the lowering of public morals. Our First Minister and her allies seem to share that view in Scotland. The booze ban in America led to years of gangsters, bootleggers, speakeasies and increased crime, until it was finally repealed in 1933. Maybe the SNP government should learn the lessons of history as they pursue their relentless hard-line on hooch.

Their first attempts to impose severe restrictions on alcohol consumption in Scotland emerged in 2008, when SNP justice secretary Kenny MacAskill tried to introduce a ban on under-21s from buying booze in off-licences. The party’s student wing fought back furiously and the policy was binned at the SNP’s annual conference. It taught the SNP government a salutary lesson. Instead of imposing booze bans in a justice bill, it was better to smuggle legislation in under the guise of a health bill, to fool the public into thinking it was all for their own good. In 2009, a health bill duly changed the law to prevent the sale of alcohol before 10am. The SNP government’s health secretary at the time was none other than Nicola Sturgeon.

The mystifying 10am regulation prevented night shift workers like nurses and doctors, or mums and dads doing the weekly shop on their way home from the school run, from buying a bottle of wine for their dinner. Shopkeepers complained that it was knocking hours out of their weekly trade and senior police officers scratched their head in wonder at the concept of alcohol abusing troublemakers even being out of their beds by 10am! But the new law was a sign of things to come.

In 2011 came the ban on bulk buying discounts for alcohol, so that supermarkets north of the border could no longer offer special promotional price reductions for multiple purchases. The Wine and Spirits Trade Association warned that legislation on pricing and promotion of alcohol would do nothing to tackle problem drinking and might encourage consumers to purchase alcohol from England over the internet.

Undeterred, next came the 2014 reduction in the drink drive limit, making Scotland the lowest in the UK, with the maximum blood alcohol limit reduced from 80mg to 50mg/100ml blood, meaning a driver could be prosecuted for drinking one medium-sized glass of wine or a single pint of beer. The SNP government argued that the change would help save lives and make the country’s roads safer. A study in 2018, conducted by Jim Lewsey, professor of medical statistics at Glasgow University’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, found the “unequivocal” results of the research were that the new law “simply did not have the intended effect of reducing road traffic accidents”. It did, however, severely impact on hotels, pubs and inns.

Then there was the minimum unit price for alcohol, aimed at tackling the sale of cheap, high strength drinks. The first attempts to introduce the law were made by Alex Salmond in 2012. The policy was challenged in the EU and Scottish courts by the European Commission, various EU wine, beer and cider producers and by the Scotch Whisky Association, who argued that minimum unit pricing would be an illegal barrier to trade and would damage the whisky industry. They also argued that the law would be ineffective in reducing alcohol harm, while penalising responsible drinkers and putting more pressure on household budgets. In November 2017, after five years of legal wrangling, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the proposed legislation did not breach EU treaties and gave approval for the SNP government to go ahead. 

The new law was introduced in 2018. A minimum unit price of 50p increased the cost of a 3-litre bottle of strong cider to £11.25 and meant that whisky could not be sold for less than £14 a bottle. Bizarrely, although the objective of minimum unit pricing was to reduce consumption by “harmful and hazardous consumers”, the law did not affect the sale of Buckfast tonic wine, Scotland’s favourite ‘wreck the hoose juice’ or ‘commotion lotion’. At £11.93p a litre, ‘Buckie’ is too expensive to attract the minimum unit price. The results, after the first year in operation, showed that sales of strong cider had gone down by 18.6%, while sales of tonic wines like ‘Buckie’ had risen by 16.4%!

The coronavirus pandemic provided the greatest opportunity yet for the SNP government to exercise authoritarian control over alcohol sales, effectively closing down the hospitality sector over most of Scotland, wrecking countless businesses and costing thousands of jobs. In a country that regards whisky as one of the main pillars of the Scottish economy, the SNP government has gone out of its prohibitionist way to destroy the sector. While crime related to alcohol may have dropped, drug offences have spiralled, with over 1200 reported deaths last year, more than double the recorded deaths in 2014.

Sadly, it is no coincidence that drug and alcohol abuse affect the poorest in society the greatest. The prohibitionists within the SNP government must wake up to the fact that drug and alcohol dependency and addiction are not the cause of a problem, they are the results of one. Crude bans and ‘taxes’ like the minimum unit price only serve to exacerbate inequality. More legislation and red tape will not change the behaviour of irresponsible or dangerous drinkers. Enjoyed in moderation, alcohol can be part of a balanced lifestyle. However, when alcohol is not consumed responsibly, there are clear health and behavioural risks. Education, education, education, is the key, to paraphrase Tony Blair. But that is another area where the SNP government has an abysmal record. 

P. J. O’Rourke, the American political satirist, said: “No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.”