If ever there was a man on a mission it is Scotland's Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who is about to reveal plans to curb the sale and promotion of alcohol in the off-trade. Though no official date has been given, OLN understands the big announcement will come on June 25,
to be followed by the long-awaited consultation with the trade, before the new Scottish Licensing Act is drafted next September.
MacAskill's bid to restrict sales of the demon drink echoes
former First Minister Jack McConnell's campaign against the evil weed. And, like the smoking ban which came into force in Scotland 15 months before it did in England, what happens in the north could well head south.
MacAskill, who is being lobbied hard by all sections of the trade, is seen as an old-style conviction politician who genuinely believes in his cause. Few doubt his resolve and, as one lobbyist put it , "he's not going to let anyone, any body, any group or any industry get in his way ".
Voice of experience
When MacAskill talks of alcohol fuelling "the carnage and crime that takes place every night ", he speaks from experience. Before becoming an MSP in 1999, he handled cases of street violence and domestic abuse almost every day as a Glasgow lawyer. He has also had his own personal issues with drink and was arrested, though never charged, on suspicion of being drunk and disorderly at an England v Scotland match at Wembley.
"What we're seeking to do is to make clear that alcohol is not just another commodity," he explains. "Therefore action has to be taken on how it's promoted, how it's priced and how it is seen and laid out within a store. We want people to go in and make a distinctive purchase, not to have it thrust in front of them in a subliminal, subconscious way."
Under MacAskill, those islands of beer at supermarket entrances would melt away and any wine bottles hiding
in the barbecue briquettes
would be repatriated to the drinks aisles.
Battle on price
MacAskill appears to have heeded on-trade concerns about people
"front-loading " on cut-price booze from the
high street before heading out.
"If a two-for-one offer is unacceptable in a pub, then it's equally unacceptable in an off-licence." A world without
bogofs and big volume discounts would seem strange indeed. Yet this is just the start, for the real battle will be on price.
Some might argue this issue has already been addressed by the Chancellor in his recent
draconian budget. "But the taxation element doesn't necessarily affect some irresponsible pricing," counters MacAskill, referring to below-cost selling - now a hot topic in Westminster as much as Holyrood. Defining what constitutes a loss-leader is notoriously difficult, as Fiona Moriarty, of the Scottish Retail Consortium, explains. "There's a complex, multi-faceted relationship with the supplier, whether a huge multinational or small independent brewer, that determines how that product reached that shelf at that price."
"Yes there is great difficulty," concedes MacAskill. "But what we are looking at is minimum pricing, so the onus would be on the supermarket and not the supplier." The use of the word supermarket does not surprise Moriarty in the least. "In the alcohol debate we are definitely the whipping boys. There's nothing easier for a politician than to have a go at the big, bad supermarket, and it makes good copy in the papers." When the big chains suggested a promotional ban might actually reduce alcohol prices, the Justice Secretary was apparently furious and accused them of playing games.
Jeremy Beadles, of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, has argued that squeezing drink back into the drinks aisles w ould reduce customer choice at the expense of quality, high-end products. It's an argument that cuts no ice with MacAskill. "When one door closes another opens. I would have thought some of the specialist shops would see a great advantage in selling a premium product to those who wish to buy."
Whatever his feelings for Tesco and Asda, MacAskill has spoken fondly about Scotland's national drink. "We are very supportive of the whisky drinker. We are also conscious that people are not, in the main, binge-drinking on quality malts."
According to one lobbyist, "he talks of whisky almost as though it wasn't alcohol ". Yet Scotch would be hit hard by any minimum pricing. To take the figure of 50p per unit, recently put about by the anti-alcohol lobby, Scotch whisky would start at £14 a bottle, an increase of
more than 40% on the current cheapest-on-display price.
Scotland is not yet independent and its SNP
government cannot rule on issues
such as drink-drive limits, much as MacAskill would like to.
When it comes to the promotion and pricing of alcohol however, he believes his crusade will succeed despite all the legal challenges.
Using the public health provision under the Scottish licensing authority, he is confident he can sidestep the Office of Fair Trading and EU competition law. And if it helps widen the gap between Scotland and England it would hardly upset the SNP.
Asked if that was part of the appeal, MacAskill barely pauses for breath. "Absolutely. It's up to us to do what we believe is appropriate for our community. Obviously part of devolution is that we can go our own way. If the UK wishes to go in a similar direction - so be it."