And although the perils he had in mind involved a reckless midnight ride towards an improbable encounter with the supernatural, there’s no doubt that alcohol also has the power to make us indifferent to much more banal threats, including the direct threats to our health posed by alcoholic drink itself.
It’s in response to those health threats that the Scottish Government last autumn launched a consultation into restrictions on the advertising of alcohol, particularly where it may encourage young people to start drinking. To say – as public health minister Maree Todd did, in introducing the consultation – that Scotland has a complicated and difficult relationship with drink is to state the obvious.
In the small-town postwar Scotland where I grew up, most people barely drank at all, except for a toast at New Year; yet despite – or perhaps because of – this dour but robust tradition of radical temperance and Presbyterian prohibition, many Scots still tend to associate alcohol with the thrill of the forbidden, identifying with Burns’s famous thought that “whisky and freedom gang thegither”, and applying it freely to whatever tipple they prefer.
In 2020, for example, Scots bought alcohol amounting to 18 units per week for every adult in the country, well above the recommended limit; and deaths entirely due to alcohol abuse, at around 24 a week, ran at roughly the same level as Scotland’s much-criticised “drug deaths” total, with many times more deaths hastened or partly caused by alcohol. Small wonder, then, that the Scottish Government has been working through the World Health Organisation’s check-list of possible measures to help reduce alcohol abuse, including restrictions on alcohol advertising; indeed several European governments have already acted on the WHO’s suggestions, including the government of Ireland, which has imposed some of the tightest restrictions anywhere in the world.
Yet all of this international concern over alcohol and public health has little impact on our public debate here in Scotland, now so polarised between supporters and opponents of the present SNP government that we cannot even properly discuss the principle of whether governments should intervene to protect us from our love affair with booze, far less the detail. The former SNP Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing, for example, has now re-badged himself as a vocal opponent of the Sturgeon government’s public health and climate change policies, condemning the “carnage” and “chaos” entailed in the controversial deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers, and describing the possible measures outlined in the alcohol advertising consultation – including restrictions on outdoor advertising and marketing, for example – as “extreme”. Essentially, his language echoes the pervasive Tory allegation that the SNP government is a bunch of incompetent ideologues, lacking real-world experience, and now no longer capable of winning the trust of the business community.
All of which – in its tone of polarisation, exaggeration and megaphone lobbying rather than serious consultation – is enough to reduce to despair anyone who really cares about good policy-making in Scotland. To take a step back from the political slanging-match is to see all the real-life forces in play here, as the government tries to introduce major changes to an industry already traumatised by the pandemic, which effectively closed down the vital hospitality and tourism sector for the better part of two years; an industry which also – in the case of suggested advertising restrictions – has a range of vital sponsorship arrangements with the equally traumatised events sector, including key sporting and cultural events.
Behind all of these real concerns, though – which the government insists it has taken on board – there also lurk huge underlying tensions about the role of government itself, and the legitimacy of the Scottish Government in particular. The truth about the drinks industry is that it succeeds and grows by persuading as many people as possible to buy as much as possible of a product that may, in many cases, do them harm; and any serious regulation of such industries, aimed at protecting public health, will inevitably, to some extent, restrict their commercial opportunities and profits. As with measures such as the smoking ban of the early 2000s, for example, governments therefore often need to show a certain toughness in facing down the apocalyptic predictions that often accompany such changes, and pushing them through.
In the Scotland of 2023, though, even businesses trying to consult fully with government are likely to find their arguments weaponised in the unresolved constitutional battle. Opponents of the SNP will of course allege that government arrogance and incompetence at Holyrood makes it reasonable to appeal to the UK Government for help; hence the Secretary of State’s threat to issue a second Section 35 order over the DRS scheme. Others, though, will only see a further politically motivated attempt to undermine the devolution settlement, and to delegitimise Scotland’s elected government, even on clearly devolved matters.
In the end, of course, good government always requires that a balance be struck between a thriving commercial life on one hand, and the demands of public and environmental well-being on the other; and sooner or later, Scottish politics will find a new equilibrium, in or out of the Union, that enables us to conduct our debates on how we strike the balance with more reason, less tribalism, and less vituperation. For now, though, those SNP leadership candidates tempted to join the chorus of Tory disapproval against new measures of regulation – or to mimic their language of contempt for those who fail to defer to the demands of business – should be conscious that they are playing a dangerous game; one that risks undermining a key role of all good governments, and also casts doubt on the right of the Holyrood administration to act like a government at all.