Tom Sutcliffe: A lesson in drinking from the Scots

Tuesday 03 March 2009 01:00

When the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group sits down with government ministers tomorrow morning it won't be very long, one assumes, before the conversation turns to Scottish beer. And it won't be the qualities of Orkney Skullsplitter or Arran Blonde that dominate the conversation but the question of price – the Scottish government having announced yesterday that it plans to set minimum prices for alcohol and to ban bulk-buy promotions.

Not for the first time when it comes to a public health initiative the executive north of the border has left that in the south looking politically timid. And it isn't that the idea itself simply didn't occur to the current government.

In April last year there were reports of purposeful muttering from the Government about just this issue. Reports would be commissioned, discussions would be tabled and opinions canvassed with a view to stemming the availability of cheap alcohol. Since then, though, not a lot has happened and the publication of at least one report, from the University of Sheffield (which concluded that there was "strong and consistent evidence to suggest that price increases and taxation have a significant effect in reducing demand for alcohol" and that "young drinkers, binge drinkers and harmful drinkers tend to choose cheaper drinks") didn't spur the Government onwards.

There was, perhaps understandably, a political reluctance to raise the cost of anaesthetic at a time of widespread economic discomfort, particularly since the current government is identified by a lot of voters as one source of the pain. Provided the tabloids weren't making too much of a fuss about binge-drinking there was no need to rush.

The Scottish initiative makes such prevarication much more difficult though. For one thing, as John Grogan, chair of the Parliamentary Beer Group, points out, if the booze in Berwick-on-Tweed is half the price of the booze in Burnmouth just across the border, it isn't going to take Scottish drinkers long to set up a supply route.

For another thing the move should give fresh heart to those who've argued that minimum prices are the best mechanism to diminish the harm of binge drinking. These include the British Medical Association, who know what cheap cider can do to young livers, several chief constables, who know what it costs to clean up at the end of the night, and publicans, who know what cheap supermarket alcohol has done to their profit margins.

When minimum pricing was talked about last year the British Retail Consortium came out against the idea – insisting, in the teeth of common sense and hard evidence, that there was "no clear link between the price of alcohol and irresponsible consumption". Publicans, on the other hand, like the proposal because it promises to reverse the ever-widening gap between the cost of a drink in a pub and the cost of a drink at home. And that's an important point about legally enforced minimum prices. They don't necessarily make all alcohol more expensive, only the very cheapest forms of alcohol. They strike at a differential which is harmful in itself – because it encourages people to "pre-load" their intoxication before they even hit the clubs and puts drooling insensibility within reach of drinkers too young (or too short of pocket money) to get served in pubs.

Supermarkets claim they're powerless to do the right thing because trading law forbids them to collude over pricing – and an isolated act of social responsibility would be commercially lethal. The Government should take that excuse away and convert its vague words into action. Given that they have no popularity to lose any more, they might as well do the right thing.

The problem with rambling is in the name

Good luck to the Ramblers and their current president Floella Benjamin in their search for a younger membership, which has led them to spruce up their logo and drop the word "association" from their name. But I think it may take more than a bit of design spring-cleaning to shake off the unwanted association they're really bothered about – which is that with a faintly superannuated retirement activity. The problem, surely, lies with the first word of their title not the second. For nearly 300 years now, the word rambling has had two basic meanings – one physical and one intellectual. Bodily rambling has long had intimations of liberty and freedom and the open road. Mental rambling, on the other hand, suggests you've lost all sense of where the road is leading. The OED can't say which of those meanings came first but one undoubtedly bleeds over into the other when people think of the Ramblers. Disappointingly, given the group's attempt to sex up its image, the OED concludes its etymology with this deflating note: "A suggested connection with Middle Dutch rammelen (of an animal) 'to be sexually aroused' seems unlikely on semantic grounds." Pity. If "rambling" meant that as well I don't think they'd have to fret about image changes.

A little Peace of Hitch

* Watching a preview of Red Riding, Channel 4's terrific new drama based on the novels of David Peace, I found myself admiring one particular shot – in which the camera tracks a plastic bag full of incriminating evidence as it is carried down a municipal stairwell.

All you can see is the bag, ping-ponging across the screen as the overhead perspective foreshortens the descending zig-zag of the stairs. A day later, I found myself admiring the shot all over again, while watching Paul Merton's documentary about Alfred Hitchcock, which included a clip from his British hit The Lodger, in which a man's hand is seen sliding down a tenement banister in exactly the same manner.

I don't know whether it was conscious homage on Julian Jarrold's part but the serendipity left me admiring both directors – Hitchcock for coming up with the shot and Jarrold for being well-viewed enough to tip him a nod.

A tribute from the young master to the old

*I registered an interest in Antony Gormley's project One and Other, the other day – in part because I figured I was never going to have a better chance of being mounted on a plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Gormley invites anyone interested to put their names forward for a one-hour slot on the fourth plinth, to do whatever their imagination (and the law) will permit.

I haven't decided yet but I might spend an hour teetering unstably around the edges – pushing my luck in such a way that I occasionally fall off completely. I feel this may convey the spirit of the times.

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