This week, after much deliberation, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish government can set a 50p minimum price-per-unit for alcohol.
This is a discussion of which we’ve tended to steer clear because following the arguments is a full time job and other people are more invested in it; and because it tends to get a bit frothy as libertarians with complicated connections to think tanks and the booze industry yell at researchers and policy-makers with complicated connections to the historic temperance movement and government, and vice versa.
With that in mind, we can’t say with any confidence whether MUP is a good policy or not, and we’ve heard convincing arguments for and against from both sides.
For example, we do worry that it will make it harder for ‘responsible drinkers’ on low incomes to get tiddly while middle- and upper-class drinkers can continue to get as wasted as they like on whatever they like. (A few years ago we wondered about setting up a Christmas Booze Bank dishing out bottles of whisky or slabs of beer to people who might otherwise have to choose between having fun or having the heating on.) It seems clear that MUP is intended to target very strong white ciders and super-strength lagers — the kinds of thing few people actually choose to drink if they can afford otherwise — but will catch lots of other types of less sinister booze in its net.
Equally, it seems daft to ignore the reality of the problems alcohol causes for some of the most vulnerable in society, especially when it’s wilful ignorance in support of absolutist anti-regulation dogma. Some people drink too much — we’ve all seen the evidence of this, or known family members who demonstrates it — but their lives, and those of their loved ones, might be prolonged and made happier in the long run if they drank at least a little bit less. This is reality, people’s actual lives, not a philosophical parlour game.
We certainly don’t think all alcohol policy campaigners and researchers are cynics and killjoys attempting to introduce prohibition via the thin ends of various wedges. (Even if some of their fellow travellers might be that way inclined.) In general, the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument winds us up — we’d never do anything if point B inevitably leads to point Z. No, we tend to think they are motivated by genuine concern for their brother man, even if that sometimes reads as condescension or meddling; and, in the case of researchers, we’ve no reason to doubt that they are striving for scientific objectivity.
(If you believe otherwise we’d be genuinely interested to know what you reckon motivates them – surely not religion, in 2017? Chronic dourness? Insanity?)
Politicians, government PR people and newspapers on the other hand… Well, they’re prone to over-simplifying, over-dramatising, grand gestures. If there’s a problem, it might be there.
So, again, we don’t know if MUP is a good idea. What we do know is that Scotland won’t be taking this step without due process having been followed. Much research has been undertaken; hours have been spent labouring over every detail and footnote; the final judgement from the Supreme Court seems balanced and cautious (PDF); and there’s going to be a substantial evaluation project to judge its impact.
Good policy or not, this is how it ought to work – small steps, cautiously implemented, challenged in court where appropriate, followed by a serious assessment of whether it has achieved what was intended, and whether they have been any undesirable side-effects.
There is, after all, no way to really test policy without trying it in the real world, and there’s never been any policy, however well-intentioned, that didn’t wing a few bystanders along the way.
Ultimately we have to accept that pubs and the alcohol industry aren’t the only things that matter, even if they’re very important to us, and if the collective judgement is that they have to take a hit for the greater good then, well, that’s part of the give and take of living in a democracy.
- The Sheffield Alcohol Research Group whose work informs much of the thinking around MUP has an FAQ explaining its work here.
- John Holmes, who works on the ARG at Sheffield, is worth following on Twitter for what strikes us a sensible pro-MUP running commentary. His timeline this week has lots of interesting stuff.
- Christopher Snowdon is vigorously sceptical of MUP and expressed his dismay at the Scottish decision in an article for the Spectator earlier this week.
- The Pub Curmudgeon is also a sceptic and sets out his concerns in a concise set of bullet points here.