Sunday, 9 October 2011

Home Rule and Booze - Just a normal Scottish Lib Dem Conference!

A speech or a suicide note... you decide
The day started at about 7am. After a raucous and alcohol assisted Parliamentary Debate at the GUU, and just three and a half hours sleep, I hauled myself out of bed in time to catch my lift to the Scottish Lib Dem Conference in Dunfermline. My total lack of organisation meant I had to get registration for Conference sorted out, including having a mugshot taken for my voting card that reflected quite accurately my lack of sleep. A brief bacon sandwich properly restored semi-consciousness and it was straight into the hall to begin proceedings.

Shortly before the first debate, I decided to submit a speaker slip on the off-chance I would get selected. I'd written a broadly supportive speech on the first motion (affirming the work to be done by the Home Rule Community Rule Commission) on the back of a Scottish Women Lib Dems leaflet (don't tell them!) in the canteen shortly before. I have to confess to being a little nervous, but what I had to say seemed to be well received, even if I did deviate a little from my script in the middle! I've enclosed what I intended to say, but it's not quite verbatim:
"Conference. This is my first speech at a Lib Dem Party Conference so I'll do my best not to disappoint! Our party is often perceived as constitutionally eccentric. Whilst our views on particulars are invariably well founded, be it on electoral systems or the dispersal of power to different levels of government, there is an increasing problem with showing people why it matters. The success of the SNP in the last 4 years has been predicated on an over-arching message to the electorate in Scotland, however misguided, that they are fighting their corner. In the mean time, we've lost our own liberal narrative for Scotland and have come to be seen as "tinkerers" and strained defendants of an extension of the status quo.
This Commission is the first significantly positive step we've taken in recent years to rectify this situation. Pulling down more powers, be it from Westminster or from Holyrood, means that people should have more control over the things that matter to them. It is more transparent, accountable and democratic when a body is responsible for raising what it spends as the custodians of local services.
I don't think the Commission is perfect, and we need to show that it's part of a wider federal approach, be that encouraging further devolution of power to other regions of the UK or indeed forming a proposal for an English Parliament. That is not to say that we should dictate to our neighbours how to run their affairs (perish the thought!). However we need to recognise that it is the asymmetry of the current system and the ad hoc approach we have taken to it, which has harmed the stability and credibility of the constitutional settlement. We need instead to incorporate this into a truly federal structure under a codified constitution. If we dwell on Calman for too long we risk accepting something with which, when it comes down to it, we consider insufficient.
I worry that this Commission will serve to delay what many of us already want to advocate: the Steel Commission with a lick of paint. In the interim, we must continue to push the political case beyond Calman and avoid finding ourselves on the small 'c' conservative side of this debate. Let's make sure that the people of Scotland see us for the real localists and federalists we are and not the Damascan converts to be found among other parties. With all this in mind I urge you to support this proposal."
There were a handful of other motions throughout the day, dealing with fuel poverty in rented accommodation, affirming support for the Human Rights Act and ethical trade, none of which threw up anything especially controversial. Tim Farron addressed the Conference with a clear message of empathy for our difficult predicament, but with a morale-boosting, positive message for Scotland's role in furthering liberal values across the UK. Michael Moore delivered a speech in which he emphasised Calman as a "stepping stone to Home Rule". I have criticised us overplaying the substance of the Calman Commission in the past and was never especially comfortable with rhetoric of Scotland's "settled will" or Moore's public incongruent approach to SNP demands for more powers. His message was, however, much more promising and I hope he and other Lib Dems at Westminster make it clear that Calman is not our end-game.

Willie Rennie's first conference speech as party leader was a rousing one. Opening with the story of the family of a young girl who needed alterations made to their home to deal with her medical condition, and the cumbersome response of the local authorities when a little flexibility was all they craved. Going on to expose the illiberal and centralising deceit of the SNP with respect to the police and other issues, and confronting the Catholic church about the issue of equal marriage, I really felt as though we have the makings of a persuasive alternative vision to put to Scotland in the absence of just about anything from Labour or the Tories. I was left feeling much more optimistic about our prospects going forward.

I do, however, have one regret about this year's Conference, and it pertains to the passing of the motion put forward in relation to adopting a minimum price per unit for alcohol. The party has, in the past, felt a degree of inertia towards what is an illiberal and ineffectual response to the problem of excessive alcohol consumption in our society. It disappointed me in particular, that Willie appears to be a strong advocate of this policy as well. He spoke with great passion about sending a clear message that we're serious about solving this problem. Other speakers expressed with considerable strength of conviction that the external harm alcohol causes and the correlation with cheap booze justified this intervention.

Lamentably I think this majority miss the point. Certainly many who consume large amounts of alcohol consume cheap, strong beverages in high volumes. But we have to ask ourselves what is it that motivates dangerous levels of consumption.

My contention is that a minimum price simply serves to make the poor pay more for alcohol, does not change attitudes, and only benefits supermarkets who currently sell alcohol more cheaply. High consumption of alcohol happens not because drink is cheap and readily available, but because of cultural attitudes towards drink ("binge" drinking) and because of alcoholism. The predetermined motivation is driven by reaching a certain level of intoxication and not a question of "how many units of alcohol can I acquire for £x". The desire for alcohol in large amounts is not simply a rational economic calculation; indeed if anything such considerations are overridden by social and psychological factors.

The reason that excessive alcohol consumption is linked to cheap booze is because it is after the above premise that the market operates. The cheapest and strongest booze is preferred because it's the cheapest available. This would still be true with a minimum price. The idea that increasing the price makes someone decide just to buy enough alcohol to become tipsy instead of legless has no real basis. People will still buy approximately the same amount of alcohol. The difference is they'll cut back on other things and spend more in doing so.

If you want to mitigate the impact of alcohol, there are two responses. The first is the amendment which was rejected. It was better than the motion, advocating use of higher duty levels to cover the cost to society of excess drink. This at least puts money into rehabilitation schemes instead of helping Tesco's shareholders.

But the second option is, for me, the truly liberal option. To tackle our drink problems we need not resort to what David Laws called "nanny state liberalism" in the Orange Book, but instead examine what it is about our society that makes drink so culturally attractive and by extension what makes our society susceptible to alcoholism. Why is it that alcohol is no less available or especially more expensive on the continent, yet the attitudes and behaviours in relation to it are not nearly so severe?

The liberal response is to better inform people of the risks, to enforce existing laws about serving minors and intoxicated persons more rigorously, and for local authorities to use more discretion as a licensing authority. Targeting the proceeds of alcohol duty to treatment and prevention is not incompatible with this approach, but arbitrary price pointers are. I am almost certain that this proposal shall not make any meaningful dent in alcohol consumption and health risks. It's a large mallet that cannot even crack the nut and I hope Conference finds an actual nutcracker by the next time we come to debate it.

Overall, Conference for this relatively new member was a principled, resilient and a friendly environment. I guess our task is to spread that goodwill across the rest of the country.

4 comments:

  1. Graeme, thanks for your thoughtful comments about minimum unit pricing for alcohol. I was the person who moved the motion on Saturday.

    You present an internally powerful argument, but I am not sure the available evidence supports your view about how the market operates. I think price does affect the amount of alcohol which people consume, at least to the extent that generalisation is possible.

    I don't disregard your concern that pressure is also placed on other important areas of household spending where alcohol dependency is severe - but equally I don't think it is reasonable to suggest that alcohol purchases are generally irrational to the same extent as the buying of much more addictive drugs.

    The purpose of minimum unit pricing is to tackle cheap strong drink which has gained a much more significant market share than has been the case in the past. I support it because I believe it will reduce the harm done to other people which results substantially from the consumption of those products.

    There is no reason not to use alcohol duty increases too if you think price affects consumption and you want to raise extra revenue too. It is true that would increase prices across all alcohol sales - which has pros and cons. We need to pay for more treatment for alcoholism and for a wide range of other action to deal with the consequences of excessive drinking. I do think, though, that it's important we try to reduce the level of harm at its source rather than just dealing with it in a permanent cycle. Duty used in this way is a regressive tax which catches everyone, so it's worth giving some thought to what the arguments about fairness really support. If alcohol sales (as a whole) were to pay for their 'costs', it's likely duty would have to rise very significantly - although I am sceptical of the numbers which are thrown around. [The Scottish Government say that the cost to them of alcohol problems £3.56bn per annum - which is more than 10% of their annual budget.]

    I really think the suggestion that supermarkets will make a 'fast buck' from MUP is a red herring. On one hand, you need to look at retailers profits as a whole - and ask why they developed alcohol products on which they have little or no profit margin in the first place. Even if you don't accept the argument that profits are boosted elsewhere in stores by loss-leading on alcohol, MUP will not push up the price of the entire alcohol market unless you think competition is not functioning at all. It seems more likely that retailers will either withdraw their cheapest products or reduce their strength. The cheapest remaining products will either be sightly higher quality or less alchoholic - neither of which is a bad thing. The minimum price is not high compared, say, with a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.

    I do agree that there are deeper cultural and environmental factors which affect people's attitudes to alcohol. Enforcing existing laws will help - although no laws will ever be enforced perfectly and the law on selling alcohol to people who are already drunk is particularly difficult to use. It seems likely that some of the deeper factors are beyond the reach of politics altogether. Incidentally, I'm intrigued that you don't say more about the crime and anti-social behaviour which is alcohol-related. John Stuart Mill thought we should do something about that - and I suspect he saw less of it on the streets than we do now.

    Anyway - thanks again for posting and making a lot of interesting points. I think the main thing, about which we hopefully can agree, is that a relaxed approach to excessive drinking is not sustainable in Scotland. Beyond that, we have to look at evidence and see what works.

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