Freedom: good or bad for pubs?

UNTIL an Italian cruise ship ran aground, Tommy Sheridan was released, and the latest financial crisis to engulf Rangers FC hit the headlines, there was no keeping the independence referendum off the front pages.
Of course, there are innumerable ways in which a ‘yes’ vote would affect Scotland, and some of the biggest issues, from the debt to defence, have rightly been debated over the past month. But as far as I’m aware there has been little – if any – airtime devoted to how much independence would affect the Scottish licensed trade.
And perhaps there ought to be, given how many jobs depend on the wider hospitality and tourism industries, and how the rules governing those sectors would change if First Minister Alex Salmond was granted his wish.
The power to set alcohol duty is one of the first things that springs to mind when considering the subject.
Salmond has already called for Holyrood to control excise duty as part of the Scotland Bill, a piece of legislation that’s expected to give the Scottish Government more tax-raising powers. Scottish minister Fergus Ewing has been quoted as saying that the devolved administration already covers the cost of excessive alcohol consumption from its own coffers, and would like to enjoy the additional “revenue benefits” such a measure would bring, pledging to sink any extra cash into public services. Sounds reasonable enough.
But some drinks lobby groups oppose the move, claiming that fraud or cross-border trading could ensue from having two different duty regimes. The same arguments have been applied with regard to minimum pricing.
I also wonder if a dual duty system might cause logistical headaches for producers who operate on both sides of the border: at the very least they would have to make two duty calculations and ensure the right amount of tax is paid before the drink is distributed.
There is also a point of whether pubs would receive more support in an independent Scotland. In some ways I can see some publicans favouring independence, as the current regime has been much more positive about pubs than its predecessor. It’s thanks to the SNP that restrictions on drinks promotions are now applied to the off-trade as well as pubs, with the previous Lib-Lab coalition shamefully failing to bring supermarkets into the promotions package of the 2005 Licensing Act. Many pub owners are also unlikely to have forgiven Labour for the way it railroaded the smoking ban on to the statute books.
There is also the threat of businesses withdrawing from or scaling back investment in Scotland in the event of a pro-independence vote in 2014.
If it’s enough to convince drinks firms to relocate from Scotland to England, or for managed pub firms and hotel operators to conclude their interests are better served south of Hadrian’s Wall, it would clearly be concerning. The flip side to that argument, though, was expressed recently by Scottish finance minister John Swinney. After lingerie tycoon Michelle Mone claimed she would relocate if Scotland became independent, he claimed that more firms would come to Scotland because of lower corporation tax.
Like many matters concerning the thorny topic of independence, it’s hard to work out what’s best for Scotland and from that its licensed trade.