Over the years I have had a fair bit to do with Scots drinking habits, having dealt with criminal cases emanating from that little piece of Scotland in England which is Corby. Many of its denizens are either descendants of Scots immigrants or are themselves immigrants, mostly, but not exclusively, from Glasgow. They have been binge-drinking for donkey’s years.
I once travelled on South African Airways in the days when international sanctions forced it to detour round the west coast of Africa which involved a refuelling stop at a singularly dreary place called Ihla do Sal in the Cape Verde Islands which was then the sort of place Ken Livingstone or Arthur Scargill might have made a bee-line for when choosing where to spend their holidays. It was run by a nasty bunch of Marxists who had, with help from Ken’s chums in Cuba, established a little corner of Commie Heaven.
Notwithstanding that the majority of its inhabitants were generally of dusky hue and its political masters theoretically implacably hostile to South Africa, those same politicians had so swiftly beggared the nation after independence with its pursuit of unbridled socialism that it quickly succumbed to the lure of the Rands and Dollars which landing fees and the profits from refuelling SAA’s Boeing 747s generated in prodigious quantities.
The duty-free shop at the airport was always quite empty as they could not afford to stock it and staff it but there was a bar where, if the stopover was longer than usual, one could get a basic range of drinks, mostly a local beer. On one occasion we stopped for an hour and I found myself next to a gentleman who proceeded very methodically to drink himself as fast as he could to a state of oblivion. Before he did so he confided that he was from Corby where, as he so delicately put it, ‘we Scots know how to drink you Sassenachs under the table’. He then proceeded to drink a prodigious amount of lager and announced just as we reboarded: “I’m steamin’”. Quite how he got up the steps to the aircraft remains a mystery.
It must be just this sort of drinking culture at which the suggestion of raising the age at which one might buy alcohol in Scotland is to be directed.
We shall see if it gets beyond the stage of suggestion and becomes law. In the meantime one might observe that it would be a provision doomed to failure.
In the first place one wonders how they would plan to enforce it upon those who, having already reached the age of eighteen but not twenty-one, are already lawfully buying alcohol. One foresees the Scottish Executive getting bogged down in some interesting Human Rights Act cases if they are to have such a right taken away from them.
Secondly, in the South at least, there will be a devastating effect on licensed premises that lie within any sort of distance of the English Border as young men drive South in order to drink themselves silly – incidentally increasing the drink-driving rate at the same time. English landlords of hostelries will just love the sound of their cash registers ringing in these lovely Scottish £20 notes as Scotland’s youth transfers its wealth to the English Beerage.
Thirdly there is the old chestnut: if young Scottish men can volunteer for the Army and are of an age to go into combat – an all to frequent circumstance these days – and die, are we really going to tell them that they can join up with that possibility in mind but that when they get home on leave they may not imbibe so much as a shandy?
Fourthly, the law is already being broken with a degree of impunity by those under eighteen. Why should that change?
Short of a massive increase in police, such a law would be largely unenforceable and a law that is unenforceable garners nothing but contempt. It would, in short, be self-defeating.
Lastly, but not least (and I suspect others may think of yet more sound reasons why this is a daft idea), it is likely to have a depressing effect on Scots universities that have a large intake of English students every year. The latter are unlikely to view party-free St. Andrew’s or Edinburgh with any enthusiasm whatsoever and will quickly abandon such centres of excellence for more bibulous seats of learning in England.
All of these reasons ought to sink this idea without trace. Sadly, given the quality of politicians in the Scottish Parliament, we shall doubtless see it made law before you can say: ‘Mine’s a double!’.
At which point it might well be worth buying a pub as close to the border as possible.
In the meantime the government of the United Kingdom, which still exists despite the best efforts of Labour and the EU, might care to take a lead on all this. When I first went to the Bar, driving with excess alcohol was still an offence triable before a Jury. Lots of juries were disinclined to convict but almost overnight this changed and drink driving became socially unacceptable. Just at that moment the government made drink driving triable only summarily. The point is that by judicious use of the criminal law (principally a zero-tolerance approach) and a consistent publicity campaign, drink driving was made socially unacceptable. Though offences are still committed today, it is largely under control.
Thus it should be with public drunkenness. Enforcing the law in a way that meant loss of liberty and consequent loss of jobs would cure this problem within five years. At present, however, young people can go out and get plastered with absolute impunity. So also with those responsible for licensed premises. Those who run pubs should also find themselves subject to zero-tolerance if they continue serving drunken customers.
Under the present government such measures are probably impossible to secure. Labour wanted to appeal to the youth vote and thus opened the doors to a twenty-four hours drinking culture rather than the genteel continental café culture which is not going to happen until we have a lot more climate change. Having done so it knows only too well that unpicking this new dispensation will amount to a serious error in its original judgement and to the accusation that much of the present binge-drinking culture is its fault.
Banning eighteen year olds from drinking will not work: they will always find a way to get smashed if they want. Rather let there be freedom to drink with serious consequences if the right is abused. Rights and responsibilities may be an old-fashioned notion, but it served us well enough once