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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 2nd November 2011

Alcohol is the second biggest killer in the world of plant poisoning. I thought I’d start with that reminder because it should focus the attention on the need to do something about that, even if it means abandoning long-held views.

I don’t like Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP). I did consider expressing that as ‘I don’t have a lot of goodwill towards’ or other weasel words but the truth is I don’t like him or his party and, in part, that is because it is pretty obvious they don’t like me.

In the SNP’s world, simply being English is enough to make you an enemy. But, that’s an emotional response. More pragmatically, I think the whole business of Scottish devolution has been a waste of time and an unbelievable waste of money. I often think I should begin every one of these blogs by pointing out that the Scottish Parliament building, which was supposed to cost £30m, cost over £400m by the time it was finished and part of the ceiling collapsed within weeks of it opening.

All of which rant is just to make it clear how much of a step it is for me to say I have nothing but admiration for Salmond and the SNP with their determination to legislate for a minimum price for alcohol. Before the last election, the SNP ran a minority administration and the combined forces of the opposition parties defeated a similar proposal. Now that the SNP has an overall majority there is nothing the Scottish Parliament can do to prevent this becoming law.

Sadly, it is not just a matter for the parliament and, later, I’ll look at some of the things that could still prevent this becoming a reality.

But, first, let’s deal with whether a minimum price will have any effect. There are plenty of people claiming that it won’t stop the heaviest drinkers from drinking, saying there is no evidence for it. Well, there is plenty of pretty good evidence from reasonably analogous situations elsewhere in the world. Of course you can say, as some people have, there is no evidence it will work in Scotland because it hasn’t been tried in Scotland but there is no reason to believe that Scottish drinkers won’t react in the same way as other people have been shown to react to higher alcohol prices.

But, for those who argue that price is not a factor in alcohol purchasing, I’d just say ‘How come you don’t own a Ferrari or a Rolls Royce?’ If we assume that most people would like one or the other then all that stops them is price. Yes, that’s an incredibly simplistic way of looking at the effect of price on consumption but many of the arguments against minimum pricing are based on even more simplistic thinking.

A key plank in the opposition arguments is that this will hit ‘responsible’ drinkers. Now that might have been true if what the SNP wanted was to impose higher taxes on alcohol that applied across the range but they don’t. This is a minimum price and one of its weaknesses becomes one of its strengths by the way it is intended to operate.

There have been voices raised at the prospect that the retailers will pocket the increased profits from charging higher prices for alcohol. Inherent in that assumption is the notion that the measure won’t work. Clearly, a higher minimum price means the retailer makes more per bottle or can but, if the measure has the desired effect they will sell fewer bottles and cans ending up worse off in total. Since the evidence strongly suggests the measure will reduce sales, the retailers would be foolish to increase the price of alcohol that is already being sold above the minimum price.

The actual minimum price to be imposed has not been decided but let us suppose it is set at 50p per unit of alcohol. There is no reason for alcohol selling at 60p per unit to be increased in price. There is no reason for ‘sensible’ drinkers to be aware that there is a minimum price because it won’t affect their purchases.

The first of the opposition forces lined up against the SNP is the British Retail Consortium (BRC). It is engaged on a campaign to make people think that they, with their ‘sensible’ drinking habits, will pay more as a result of this measure whilst the problem drinkers will not change their behaviour. I don’t think the BRC believes its own case but it is playing a long game. When minimum pricing proves to reduce the consumption of the heaviest drinkers there will certainly be calls for price to be used to moderate the consumption of those whose drinking whilst ‘sensible’ is actually creating a risk of serious health problems in the longer term.

Then there are the manufacturers. One of Scotland’s largest industries is the manufacture of whisky and the SNP will face attacks on the basis that this is the worst possible time for a measure that could result in the loss of X jobs, where X is some totally fictitious number pulled from the air for greatest dramatic effect.

And there are the litigious. It has been suggested that imposing a minimum price that retailers in Scotland will be forced to charge infringes the rules at the very core of the EU single market. There is talk of legal challenges lasting years as a way of preventing this policy being implemented.

So, we’re going to see a lot of misinformation fed to the public intended to damage support for the SNP. (I’m one of those who thinks there isn’t a lot of real support for the SNP, anyway, and that their win at the last election had more to do with unsupport for the three main parties.)

We’re going to see the suggestion that the SNP doesn’t care about the Scottish economy because the retail sector will be devastated by busloads of Highlanders making a 500 mile roundtrip to save 10p per unit on alcohol bought just across the border in England. As well, of course, as manufacturing suffering all sorts of pretend damage.

And, we might well see the EU act to prevent the SNP law being applied which, for me, would demonstrate that there isn’t a lot of difference between the present devolved parliament and an independent Scotland that, in fact, can only do what the EU lets it.

So, Alex Salmond, is willing to risk the central aim of the SNP by reducing the number of people who support it from the peak seen at the last election and by showing that, in the 21st century, the idea of a single nation being able to act independently is a sham and all because he wants to reduce the number of people whose lives are shortened by their addiction to a poison more dangerous than any of the substances covered by the UN’s single convention.

The man must be stupid. I’m so pleased I wasn’t wrong about him.