Emily Carver: Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP bungles schools, ferries, drugs, rail – and now minimum alcohol pricie

8 Jun

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.

The post Emily Carver: Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP bungles schools, ferries, drugs, rail – and now minimum alcohol pricie first appeared on Conservative Home.

Lord Ashcroft: My survey of Scottish voters. The SNP maintains its lead for the Holyrood elections. But there are clouds on its horizon.

28 Apr

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Events that change the world sometimes have little apparent effect on politics. At first glance, this is the case with the Covid pandemic and the scene in Scotland.

The independence debate continues to sit on a knife-edge. In my 2,000-sample survey, the 51-49 margin for staying in the UK amounts to a statistical dead heat. To the frustration of many voters on all sides who would rather talk about something else, the question still dominates the agenda: nearly as many people say they will use their votes next week to prevent a new referendum as to try and secure one.

Not only does the SNP maintain its clear lead in the Holyrood elections, but its support is more intense: those naming the nationalists as their most likely choice put their chances of actually turning out to vote for them higher than those of other parties’ potential backers.

Nicola Sturgeon herself is more dominant than ever. As her newly-appointed rivals (and the perennial Willie Rennie) struggle to make an impression, the First Minister’s handling of the pandemic has enhanced her standing even among her critics. Many praise the clarity of her daily briefings and draw a contrast with Boris Johnson (whom many Scots cannot quite believe has become Prime Minister), even if the more cynical praise “her commitment to being on TV every day,” as one focus group participant archly put it.

Her occasional digs at London’s approach have found a ready audience, and if she happens to be able to lift restrictions early in the run-up to an election, well, that’s politics, isn’t it? In our ever-revealing question on what animal each leader would be, the canny Sturgeon emerges as a fox, panther or lion. Alex Salmond, her supposed nemesis, is a warthog, toad, snake or wild boar; Johnson is a panda, sloth, orangutan or pigeon (“a lot of folk don’t like them but that doesn’t stop there being pigeons everywhere”). Keir Starmer is sleepy Bagpuss, or “a rabbit caught in the headlights”.

But the research reveals some other straws in the wind. While not necessarily ready to say they have yet changed their minds, we found some former Yes voters more nervous about independence. Though they think Sturgeon has outperformed the Prime Minister, they know that vaccine procurement was a UK effort, and doubt whether an independent Scotland could have sustained its own furlough scheme on anything like the scale seen over the past year. With oil revenues now offering a less reliable foundation for the Scottish economy, the thought grows that Edinburgh might become not just the architectural but the fiscal Athens of the North.

For many, Brexit is a powerful justification for a new independence referendum. But this, too, works both ways. Belief that the effects of Brexit have yet to play out adds to qualms about Scotland’s economic prospects, especially when combined with uncertainty about the post-Covid recovery. Those who would like an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU are far from certain that this could easily happen; they are unlikely to have their doubts assuaged before any new vote.

Northern Ireland’s experience leads to questions about the post-independence border between Scotland and England. And those who despaired at four years of Brexit negotiations will need to be convinced that Westminster will prove a more magnanimous negotiating partner than Brussels – a reversal of the nationalists’ standard demonology. Meanwhile, with questions like Scotland’s future currency unanswered, some who still favour independence at heart feel it would be more of a leap of faith now than in 2014.

Most feel Salmond’s motives for launching Alba have more to do with ego than independence. But the SNP has lost some of its lustre. Many question its record on health, education and poverty, and bungled schemes like Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Some openly say the SNP is the means to an end, believing the party to achieve Scottish independence may not be the right one to run an independent Scotland.

Many are nervous about the prospect of a new referendum without authorisation from London, and cite the example of Catalonia. But pro-independence voters take promises of further devolution with a large pinch of salt, and the current settlement seems to promise continued Tory rule from Westminster for much of the foreseeable future. There is a feeling that Scottish politics cannot move on until the question is settled. If it is in Sturgeon’s favour, she seems more likely to dislodge Downing Street’s current occupant than the official opposition.

Full details of Lord Ashcroft’s research can be found at LordAshcroftPolls.com.