Alcoholics have a drink problem, but not everyone with a drink problem is an alcoholic. As a society, Scotland has a drink problem, but not everyone that contributes to that problem is an alcoholic. I have a drink problem, but I am not an alcoholic.
Visualise Scotland’s alcohol problem and what do you see? Like me, you probably imagine a meandering jakey swigging from a bottle of Frosty Jack, swinging from a lamppost at 2pm on a Wednesday. You do not see a married couple opening a second bottle of Malbec on a Sunday night. You do not see an office worker having ‘one for the road’ midweek. Every micro behaviour here can have an individual and social cost. The empty calories in another few glasses of wine can contribute to weight gain. Hangovers for the office worker can lead to sluggishness, and sluggishness inhibits productivity. If these micro behaviours add up they become a trend, and consistent trends of micro behaviours define cultures.
I binge drank in my twenties and I got in debt because of that. I don’t binge drink (well rarely…) but I do drink too much in total and that is part of the reason I have the bodyfat of a Greggs’ steak bake. Micro behaviours add up.
When I was a student I drank. A lot. I didn’t drink because I was unhappy. I drank because it was fun. Getting lashed was not an exercise in isolated misanthropy, it was an intrinsically social exercise. I wouldn’t trade in moments euphorically chanting ‘one more tune’ for anything. I don’t want to deny students the fun my generation had in pubs and clubs. However, against our current backdrop, it would be remiss not to consider the role that alcohol has in the harassment and abuse of women. Let me be clear, drinking is never, ever an excuse, but it can be a contributory factor. How many times have we all heard, and even used, the classic deflection “I’m so sorry, but…he’s no like that when he’s sober.”
Now, minimum pricing won’t stop students drinking to excess, and I am not trying to misrepresent the broader arguments against the policy, but I think much of the criticism focuses on the issue of egregious alcohol abuse for a reason.
There is a compensatory myopia at play. It means we don’t have to remember opening that extra bottle of wine and yawning through a morning at work. We can pretend than misusing alcohol, like poverty, is something that happens to ‘other’ people.
The reality is that the abuse of alcohol, like any substance, does not exist in extreme absolutes, it belongs on a spectrum. The gamut of that spectrum does not end in disadvantaged communities in urban Scotland. It runs from Pollok to Pollokshields. It can deliver chaotic violence in some homes, or merely act as a double edged anesthesia in others, temporarily dulling everyday anxieties while impeding their resolution. Scotland’s drink problem is not demarcated by what Darren McGarvey calls a ravine of experience, instead we have a pervasive and endemic cultural problem that enables excessive consumption.
I am not seeking to sound like a joyless and puritanical bore. Alcohol has been the lubricant for many of the best times of my life. It will in the future. That doesn’t change that, for me at least, some of the opposition to minimum pricing reeks of self-denial and contrived anti paternalism. It is not truly about defending poorer people from paying more, but maintaining the illusion that this social ill sits behind a class veil.
It is true what they say. The first step is admitting you have a problem.