THE inevitable finally became reality in the Scottish drinks trade last week. It came when it was confirmed that the Scottish Government’s plans for a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol are to be challenged in the Scottish and European courts.
And given its steadfast opposition to the measure, it was no surprise to find the Scottish Whisky Association leading the action.
Given the strength of feeling on both sides of the argument, and the complexity of the issue, it’s fair to say we’re in for a barnstorming, long-running battle.
In the one corner we have the Scottish Government, opposition parties, top medics, some major brewers and the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, all convinced that MUP is the right thing to do for Scotland’s health, economy, reputation and, lest we forget, hospitality industry. In the other a sizeable element of the drinks producing industry in Scotland and, we now know, elsewhere in Europe, who in their petitions to the Court of Session and the European Commission will say that MUP breaches EU trade rules, will damage producers (including distillers), hit consumers in the pocket and ultimately fail to help tackle misuse.
It’s easy to appreciate both sides of the argument.
This column has backed MUP since it was first floated by the SNP as a minority government in the last Scottish Parliament, without viewing it as a panacea to the country’s alcohol problems.
To a large extent this is informed by the challenges on-trade operators have faced for years as a result of the price-slashing activities of the major supermarkets.
But it was also because of a belief that alcohol has to be seen and treated differently to other commodities. Scottish ministers frequently trot out the line that there’s something wrong when products like strong cider are available for “pocket money” prices and they’re right: alcohol is a mind-altering substance and it’s sale is tightly regulated for very good reasons.
Yet I also appreciate that not everyone involved in the drinks business, including some on-trade operators as well as producers, are comfortable with what MUP entails. This feeling was summed up by Ian Payne, chairman of the Stonegate Pub Company, who asked: “Why would any sensible retailer voluntarily give the government control over its retail prices?” in a recent article in SLTN.
In Payne’s view, there will be nothing to stop a government pushing an MUP up and up once it has the power to so, and in such a scenario it’s hard to see what the trade could do about it.
Yet on balance it remains my view that MUP represents a useful mechanism to help deal with our alcohol issues, to stop supermarkets discounting irresponsibly and to create a more level playing field between the on and off-trades.
I think it’s disappointing that the opportunity to observe it in action has been lost for now (a ‘sunset clause’ in the Act meant it could have been scrapped by ministers after six years if it failed to succeed). Now the stage is set
for a mighty courtroom battle and while I welcome the prospect of legal clarity ultimately being achieved, I hope, for the sake of pubs, it comes sooner rather than later.