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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Minimum pricing for Scotland a step closer

Now that the SNP has won an overall majority in the Scottish parliament, one of its first priorities seems to be the minimum alcohol price proposal that was defeated by opposition parties when the parliament was hung.  There is a fairly wide-held view that such a proposal may be illegal under EU law; the Law Society of Scotland came out with this opinion earlier this year in March - you can read what they say here.  I personally would be wary of arguing a legal point with the Law Society, but the SNP is clearly made of sterner stuff than I am, and states that government lawyers have confirmed that the Scottish parliament does have the power.

A legal opinion is, of course, just an opinion, although one would hope an exceptionally well-informed one, but it's worth bearing in mind that all serious court cases have a lawyer on each side, and in every instance one out of the two will lose.  Remember also that Tony Bliar managed eventually to get a legal opinion that the invasion of Iraq was lawful, and yet millions regard him as a war criminal, myself included.

So where does this leave us with minimum pricing?  My view is that the SNP ministers are unconcerned about the legal position, especially as they have the go ahead from a government lawyer - from whom independent legal advice is guaranteed!  In other words, they intend to chance their arm.  After all, if they lose a European court case, it will be the Scottish taxpayer who pays, not the ministers responsible.  The trade association of the Scottish whisky industry has already said it will pursue legal options, and a couple years ago, at the request of the Scottish Labour MEP Ms Catherine Stihler, the European Commission responded to a question on minimum alcohol retail prices - you'll find it here.  I find it far from definitive and hedged with ifs and buts.  Nevertheless, the way I read it is that the SNP government doesn't have a completely free rein.  In the words of the song, "There may be troubles ahead", but I think the SNP will need more than music and moonlight to get this proposal through.

Then there is the law of unintended consequences. As the beer blogger Curmudgeon has written: "The sight of HGVs trundling cases of whisky from Scottish distilleries down the M74 to Carlisle ASDA, and white vans hauling them back again to Glasgow, would underline just how barmy the idea is." An unintended consequence, perhaps, but not unpredictable. 

It's funny, isn't it, how it never occurs to them to address the reasons why there might be a drink problem.  The thinking is, "This problem costs us £X million (pluck figure out of some computer projection), so we're going to get the big sticks out."  When there's a choice of a carrot or stick approach, most governments just reach for the stick for a whole range of problems, mainly because it is much cheaper to pass laws about them than it is to address their causes.

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