This article was written following the last attempt to increase the price of alcohol in supermarkets.
The Scottish media correspondent Iain MacWhirter, discussing the killing of the alcohol bill in the Sunday Herald summed it up well, ‘The smoking ban showed Holyrood at its best, this showed our Parliament at its worse’. For Iain and many like him the more bans and regulations the better – after all – while we can expect ‘responsible’ people like Iain to make correct choices with their lives – for the hoi polloi – well that’s a different story. Poor Iain even shares his pain of having to get his ‘clothes dry-cleaned after going for a pint’ in the bad smoky smelly old days when smelly people used to smell around him. One wonders how Iain coped.
Nicola Sturgeon, according to Iain made one of the best Holyrood speeches for years, and I must agree, if we are basing the speech on illiberal rhetoric it was a belter. The underlying idea used to support the case for pumping the price of cheap booze up is that too many people drink too much and kill themselves, too many people are alcoholics and too many people get drunk and fight and cause mayhem in communities. Or in a nut shell, ‘We can’t trust people. We can’t trust the poor working classes in particular. We need to protect people from other people and from themselves’.
In the past not trusting people to make the right choices and attempting to regulate society so that they could not make those incorrect choice used to be called authoritarianism. Today it is represented as an enlightened form of health and safety awareness raising: A kind of hippy with handcuffs protecting us from ourselves.
That the opposition parties were opportunistic is unquestionable in this whole affair. Labour after all has not a liberal bone in its ‘body’ and is only miffed that it didn’t ban booze first. While the Tories wittering on about how this will undermine Whisky producers suggests they are incapable of seeing an issue of principle and of liberty and freedom even when it is being poured down their throats.
The hypocrisy of Labour is useful to observe because the smoking ban and the various bans of drinking in public that they have overseen are a useful illustration of the trend to ban things today, to make everything about safety. Commentators like MacWhirter and politicians like Sturgeon act as if there is something particular about today that means ‘something must be done’ but it is not the rise of alcohol related problems that is new. What is new is the new depths of political life. As Steven Purdey a Take a Liberty colleague noted, ‘Since when did politics get so low that the government and elected members felt it was there role to debate the merits of buy one get one free policies in Tescos?’.
Farcical though this is, it is part of a trend in politics towards the regulation of people’s behaviour, indeed the ‘politics of behaviour’ has become an accepted new dynamic within government both North and South of the border, increasingly regulating increasing areas of public life. With most new laws developed in this way we are offered extreme examples that are taken as a bench mark for creating new regulations that impact upon everybody. Likewise with the booze ban promoters we get examples of 11 year olds turning up drunk in school, of dying alcoholics and of youth in Drumchapel ‘sucking on big plastic bottles of cheap booze’ and terrorising the community. The solution? Increase the price on cheap booze for everyone and hey presto all these various social problems go away (really?) and we all have to pay more for the alcohol we want to drink.
But even if increasing the price of booze had some impact should it be supported? Surely laws and practices should not be developed based on the lowest common denominator? But even here, let’s face it, the stereotypes being bandied about might not be fictitious but they are clearly one dimensional, simplistic and pretty patronising. As is the very idea that people need to be protected from themselves and from making the wrong choices. Like it or not making the wrong choices is part of being free and as John Stuart Mill argued, the greater good of freedom of choice far out weighs the harm done by people through drink.
Ironically one of the most powerful barriers to drinking excessively is self control, self respect and self discipline – all of which are products of a liberal culture and a culture that celebrates freedom and the ideal of the responsible individual – the very culture and freedom that is being drained from society by the likes of MacWhirter and Sturgeon.