Scotland leading the world over minimum alcohol price

Credit: PA

Scotland will become the first country in the world to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

Just think about that sentence for a moment. Scotland leading the world. It's quite something. It doesn't happen every day.

There's a view, held by some, that the Holyrood parliament created in 1999 has achieved little, if anything, over its near 20 year lifetime.

And there are plenty of areas of policy where some might argue that our 129 MSPs have failed to tackle the problems facing the country.

But there are examples where Holyrood has made a difference by legislating and being ahead of other parts of the UK, or even the world.

The ban on smoking in public places championed by then First Minister Jack McConnell - with much of the hard work done by the late and still missed Labour and minister Tom McCabe - is one.

Since the ban was introduced the benefits to the nation's health have exceeded the predictions of the time, a point made to me this morning by former chief medical officer, Harry Burns.

According to the Scottish government smoking rates have fallen from 31% in 2006 to 21% in 2016.

It's worth remembering that the smoking ban was, if anything, more controversial than the plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing are now.

The move was said to be illiberal, authoritarian, an unjustified constraint on people's right to smoke, if they choose to do so.

The then Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition was extremely worried there would be a backlash against them.

At one point (and without apparent irony) the then Labour UK health secretary John Reid, a Scottish MP, attacked the idea as a middle class assault on one of the few joys of the working classes.

Minimum pricing for alcohol has not been so controversial. No MSPs or MPs have argued that drinking ultra-cheap cider - one of the main targets of the policy - is the last pleasures of the working classes.

The idea now has had broad cross-party support in Holyrood, though that was not always the case, and was initially rejected by MSPs when the SNP was the minority administration in 2010.

But it has brought the Scottish government into conflict with the very powerful Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the group which represents one of Scotland's biggest industries.

Which was what led to the matter going to the Scottish, then European and finally UK Supreme courts as the alcohol industry spent who knows how much on lawyers to try to stop the policy.

During a hearing in July, the Supreme court judges heard arguments from the organisation that minimum unit pricing (MUP) was "disproportionate" and illegal under European law.

The SWA said there were better ways to achieve the Scottish Government's proposed 50p per unit minimum pricing plan.

But the Supreme Court unanimously ruled there was no breach of European Union law and that minimum pricing "is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim."

So, the industry ran out of legal road and may yet face an even higher bill as the Scottish government seek to have their costs, also likely to have been substantial, paid by the SWA.

Ministers will now press ahead with the plans, likely to involved the minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol which will, they are sure, help combat Scotland's troubled relationship with drink.

I've just interviewed the health secretary Shona Robison who cited an academic study by the University of Sheffield which says price does have an effect on the amount of alcohol purchased.

Ms Robison was also keen to stress that pricing was only part of a number of wide-ranging measures to try to tackle the scourge of alcohol abuse in Scotland.

The health secretary sums up her case thus: "Given the clear and proven link between consumption and harm, minimum pricing the most effective and efficient way to tackle the cheap, high strength alcohol that causes so much damage to so many families."

I asked her whether they could now be a problem if alcohol was cheaper south of the border. Would people perhaps commute from Gretna to Carlisle to buy their booze?

The health secretary told me with Wales moving in the same direction as Scotland she hoped the UK would soon follow suit, legislating for England.

And it is clear that possibility is not being ruled out. In a statement, a UK Government spokesperson said today: “We have noted the ruling of the UK Supreme Court in favour of the Scottish Government.

"Minimum unit pricing will continue to remain under review pending the impact of its implementation in Scotland.

“The Government continues to consider a range of measures available to control excessive alcohol consumption through taxation and pricing."

However, not everyone is convinced that this Scottish government's plans will work.

Scottish Labour's public health spokesperson, south of Scotland MSP Colin Smyth said in a statement: “Minimum Unit Pricing is not a silver bullet and - on its own – will not solve Scotland’s problematic relationship with alcohol.

“Labour will engage constructively with any plans the government brings forward but concerns remain that unlike a tax based solution, the only guarantee is increased profits for major supermarket chains.

“The SNP has slashed funding for alcohol and drug partnerships by 24 per cent in recent years, cutting support for people including the poorest in the most deprived communities.

“Scotland needs a comprehensive, fully-funded strategy to tackle problem drinking – and any approach to tackling Scotland’s unhealthy drinking culture has to see an end to the SNP’s budget cuts to support services.”