Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
While Westminster reels from the result of the Prime Minister’s vote of confidence, the SNP continues to add to its litany of shambolic policy failures north of the border.
Whether it’s the £150 million debacle over the Scottish census; the scrapping of the party’s flagship pledge to close the education attainment gap between rich and poor by 2026; the endless accusations of corruption and sleaze; the ferry fiasco and the chaos of the Scotrail nationalisation; the horrific drug death toll that shows no signs of easing; chilling legislation on hate crimes; and the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which would make legal gender a matter of ‘self-identification’, the SNP has got the big things so terribly, terribly wrong.
One flagship policy the First Minister used to be oh so keen to shout about is minimum unit pricing – in her words, one of the “major achievements” of devolution, and an area in which Scotland has shown “leadership”. The World Health Organisation praised Scotland for its “promising” policy. Yesterday, however, Public Health Scotland published its final report evaluating its impact, and it made for sober reading.
The SNP first attempted to implement this nanny state policy in 2012. After several years of legal challenges, and a landmark legal victory in 2017, Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce this form of price controls.
At the time, the First Minister said she was “absolutely delighted” that minimum pricing was upheld by the Supreme Court; she noted that while “no doubt the policy will continue to have its critics…it is a bold and necessary move to improve public health”.
In 2019, it was looking good for Sturgeon, when it was reported that ‘Scottish alcohol sales at lowest level in 25 years after price controls’. Little was made of the fact that these figures were totally disingenuous – namely because they referred to 2018, when the policy had only been in forced for eight months. Of course, Nicola didn’t let this get in the way of a good headline, tweeting “this is an encouraging first indicator of the impact of minimum unit pricing”.
Subsequent evidence has not been so “encouraging”. In 2021, a report by the National Institute for Health Research for Public Health Scotland revealed a disturbing 17 per cent increase in alcohol deaths in 2020 on the previous year. There was also no evidence of reduced alcohol consumption.
Now, this week, Public Health Scotland has released its final report into the impact of Minimum Unit Pricing in Scotland on those drinking at harmful levels.
If minimum unit pricing was having its desired effect, you’d expect to see a drop in alcohol-related harms. Instead, you see no such thing. The official evaluation has found no evidence that harmful drinks have reduced their alcohol consumption or experienced any health benefits. Instead, many of them have switched from cider to spirits – vodka, in particular – and there are reports of increased levels of intoxication and violence from family members.
Even more damning, heavy drinkers have not turned away from the bottle as the public health lobby and the SNP suggested they would. Instead, they’ve chosen to cut down on essentials, including food and utilities, and borrow more money, than cut down on the booze. As the authors note, ‘reducing alcohol consumption was a last resort’
With inflation rising, it is highly likely that this policy will push vulnerable groups into further financial strain. Of course, for some, including the Liberal Democrats (liberal in name only), this is simply a reason to raise the rate from 50 to 65p as Willie Rennie MP told the First Minister last year – a policy the First Minister is yet to rule out.
As Alex Salmond accurately said, the First Minister likes to use independence as “political shield” to deflect voters’ attention from her government’s failures. So far, Sturgeon has chosen to remain silent on the bombshell evaluation of one of her flagship policies, but the catastrophic inadequacies of her administration are plain to see.