Scotland is a land of drunk: 1909 edition

BBC News, yesterday:

Plans for minimum drink pricing to tackle Scotland’s historic alcohol abuse problems will be revived if the SNP wins May’s Holyrood election… Addressing conference delegates in Glasgow, Ms Sturgeon said the SNP had acted like a government, while opponents acted disgracefully.

“Time and time again, it is Labour’s fitness to govern that has been called into question,” she said. “And nothing – nothing – demonstrated that more than their disgraceful conduct over minimum pricing for alcohol. “We won the backing of doctors, nurses, the police, children’s charities, churches, publicans – all of those who work on the frontline and see daily the damage cheap booze is doing to our country.”

The Economist, 101 years ago, Saturday, 5 June 1909.  Page: 4.  Issue: 3432

The annual report of the Prison Commissioners for Scotland… is a gloomy document, for the statistics show an unaccountable increase of crime and drunkenness… Happily, steps are now being taken by the Government… and we are told that inquiries are being made into the workings of the Inebriates Act…

There is a curious idea in the House of Commons that it is unfair to Scotland and Ireland to raise the price of spirits because it would diminish consumption. But surely the contrary is the truth. Nothing would contribute more or increase the happiness and wealth of the community.

Scotland (and the whole of Britain) clearly has a deeply ingrained drinking. 100 years of policy making, including the introduction of liscensing lawas to prevent people turning up drunk at armanents factories during the first world war, has not, and will not, deter us.

I would suggest that trying the same thing again and again and expecting a different result is a sign of madness. But that would be too charitable. I would suggest that these politicians don’t know this sort of thing has ever been tried before. Ignorance, not malice, is their problem.

The Big Society meets Edwardian Public Policy. I am positive both will fail, because they have both been tried before and found wanting.

Friendly societies were not really so friendly to the unhealthy, the weak, the female or the black, so we replaced them with a better system, the NHS in the UK and private-public insurance oon the continent.

Perhaps we can replace the hectoring, ignorant public policy with a more tolerant, responsive and infromed public policy, but I wouldn’t hold my breath with this lot.

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12 thoughts on “Scotland is a land of drunk: 1909 edition

  1. I’m not unsympathetic, but this is rather simplistic… I’m not going digging for data right now, but I believe it’s fairly uncontroversial that there has been a rather dramatic increase in alcohol consumption over the last couple of decades, and this rise is fairly clearly correlated with an equally dramatic fall in price, not to mention extensive advertising… Now, personally I think advertising is a more productive area to tackle, but I’m not sure it can be done by the Scottish Parliament.

    To pretend that absolutely nothing else in the equation has changed in the last 100 years is absurd. Nobody was flogging below-cost, loss-leading, BOGOF cases of alco-pops with integrated multi-channel marketing campaigns back in 1909.

    1. It is a little simplistic, but the historical parrellels are unmistakeable.

      I’m not sure there has been an increase in consumption, we currently, and always have drunk a little more than is healthy. I am perfectly happy with that, but I do not think we are witnessing a new especially drunken phase of Britain’s history.

      “Nobody was flogging below-cost, loss-leading, BOGOF cases of alco-pops with integrated multi-channel marketing campaigns back in 1909.”

      They didn’t need to, alcohol was relatively cheap then, its usually just malted grain, hops, water and yeast. Its cheap to produce.

      1. “I’m not sure there has been an increase in consumption”

        Heaven forbid that we should look at the data… Which, interestingly, reveals that the last time alcohol consumption was as high as it currently was during the first decade-and-a-half of the 20th century, and that consumption was dramatically (i.e. ~50%) lower throughout most of the rest of the century. Per capita alcohol consumption has doubled in the last 50 years, and increased by ~25% since 1990. I’d certainly call that “an increase in consumption”… Wouldn’t you?

        And you don’t need to tell me how cheap alcohol can be to produce – I’m a serious craft brewer.

        1. Thanks for the information.

          British society did change a lot in the middle of the century, we were notoriously violent drunks and we had a brief period of respectibility and we now appear to be returning to trend.

          Not sure if that is a good thing, also not sure if alcohol pricing is the best way to alter behaviour. Prices work, but they also generate a black market, which is very bad for a variety of reasons.

          Craft Brewer? If you’re ever hawking your wares round east london let me know, I like good beer a lot.

  2. “Not sure if that is a good thing”

    Sorry, you’re not sure whether it’s a good thing that we’re “returning to trend” of being “notoriously violent drunks”? Hmmmm, let me think… No, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go with “not a good thing”. Don’t get me wrong, I like a drink as much as the next Scotsman with a brewery in his living room, but even so…

    “not sure if alcohol pricing is the best way to alter behaviour. Prices work, but they also generate a black market, which is very bad for a variety of reasons.”

    Well, that’s fair enough, I’m not sure if pricing is the best way to alter behaviour either (like I said in my first comment, I think advertising restrictions would probably be more productive), but I wouldn’t rule it out immediately. I’m not sure how much I’d be worrying about black markets though – the minimum price level being considered here simply isn’t all that high. There are basically two ways you can source black market alcohol – either through avoiding paying duty on commercial alcohol (either by smuggling or fraud) or unlicensed production. You don’t need to worry about the latter because it’s almost impossible to compete with commercial alcohol on price without operating on a truly industrial scale. I can produce sufficient beer for my own use at home quite cheaply, but still not nearly as cheaply as the cheapest beer in the supermarket (remember, I don’t pay duty and they do), and to scale up sufficiently to make it a business proposition would require a very large investment in equipment (plus I suspect that my maltster might get suspicious if I started ordering by the truckload). I even know a man who runs an illicit still, but again, it’s very small production volumes and a relatively small price differential. Illegal importation is more of a goer, but even then you’ll have a hard time competing with the sorts of cut-price alcohol available legally in the shops, even after the introduction of minimum pricing, simply because of the fuel costs.

    We have a situation at the moment where supermarkets are selling booze so cheaply that the retail price doesn’t even cover the duty, never mind the production costs, the operating costs of the retail premise, or a profit. They’re basically buying people booze to get them in the door. I think we can tackle that situation without opening up a significant black market.

    (When I say “craft brewer” I mean “home brewer who knows what he’s doing” – we dislike the term “homebrew” because it carries negative connotations for a lot of people. I’m not licensed. I’ve toyed with the idea of going pro, but the capital costs to set up even a small brewery are way more than I can muster.)

  3. Also, there’s some data on the affordability of alcohol here. Now, correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows rather suggestively whilst mouthing “look over there”…

  4. “Sorry, you’re not sure whether it’s a good thing that we’re “returning to trend” of being “notoriously violent drunks”? Hmmmm, let me think… No, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go with “not a good thing”. Don’t get me wrong, I like a drink as much as the next Scotsman with a brewery in his living room, but even so…”

    Yes, I couldn’t have phrased that more badly.

    It is obviously a good thing to be less violent and want to drink less.

    However, the period in which the British got less boozey and less violent followed the repressive Victorians, the nadir of empire, the dreadful 1920s, depression era-1930, a war and the staid boring 1950s. The consequences were good, I’m just not sure they are worth the journey there in terms of repression (physical and social) and what policies they may imply.

    The note on minimum pricing is interesting.

    The fact is, pubs etc. wouldm’t be effected, except in a positive way, as people switched from supermarket booz at home, to only slightly more pricey booze in a pub.

    I don’t like the idea of minimum pricing, or the kind of social control associated with it. But I should probably be less kneejerk.

  5. “I don’t like the idea of minimum pricing, or the kind of social control associated with it.”

    I’m not exactly thrilled about it either, but I’m equally unimpressed by the consequences of our current laissez-faire approach.

    The one thing I do find very strange in all of this is that (almost) nobody seems to be talking about advertising. Advertising restrictions were one of the first tools deployed in the campaign against smoking, there does seem to be a fairly decent body of evidence for their effectiveness, and they don’t have the same problems around issues of “social control” or penalising the poor. But then, I’m with Bill Hicks on that topic… Seems like it would be worth considering though.

    1. Advertising, true.

      I see it as affecting brand more than total consumption. And tastes are already switching to real ale, and better beers. It might be worth ago ahead of…ahead of things that will inconvenience me more.

  6. “I see it as affecting brand more than total consumption.”

    Funny, that’s exactly what the tobacco companies used to say (in public). Again, there’s rather a lot of evidence out there if you can be bothered to look, but I’m sick of doing your homework for you. By all means, continue to rely on your un-evidenced knee-jerk assumptions if that’s what you want to do…

    “It might be worth ago ahead of…ahead of things that will inconvenience me more.”

    From the sounds of it, minimum pricing won’t actually inconvenience you at all. Seriously, take a look at the price per unit of whatever it is you usually drink, and tell me if it’s below the proposed level. That should just require basic arithmetic, with none of this complicated business of looking for and evaluating statistical evidence which you seem so averse to.

    Sorry, I’m getting snarky now, aren’t I?

    1. You are getting snarky, but far less snarky than me at my worst, so it doesn’t bother me.

      I am currently doing a masters so other people doing homework for me would be grand!

      I am also a wine merchant by trade so this legislation would help the company I work for, as we tend to be more expensive.

      45p a unit or whatever wouldn’t hurt me much, but mission creep is always a distinct possibility.

      “Funny, that’s exactly what the tobacco companies used to say (in public).”

      Perhaps, again, I need to do more homework than I am currently able to do.

      Your comments have made me slightly less headstrong in my views, but I don’t have time to completely reassess my dislike for the price fixing of alcohol. But I will perhaps be more modest until I do.

      1. “Your comments have made me slightly less headstrong in my views”

        Job done then. I’m still not entirely convinced myself, but I think the idea deserves a fair hearing.

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