If you were an MSP, how would you like to be remembered? This would be one of my essential questions, along with what can I do today to make a difference to Scotland and her people?
Perhaps if more of our MSPs posed these two questions, we wouldn’t be in such a pickle over the Alcohol etc (Scotland) bill. On Wednesday, a radical overhaul of the legal framework around alcohol consumption and purchase will be passed into law. Nicola Sturgeon MSP, the Health Secretary, will make one final attempt to introduce minimum alcohol pricing but it is likely to fall. Labour and Conservatives are focused on winning the battle of the day rather than seizing the opportunity to think big and deliver far reaching change for future generations. Labour senses the chance to wound a stuttering government, to improve its own electoral chances next May, but I’m not sure the electorate will thank them for it actually. We might all live and behave like individuals these days, but we do prefer our politicians to rise above our own petty foibles. Sometimes we expect them to do what is good for us even when we don’t exactly know or appreciate what that is. Subjecting an issue as big as alcohol misuse to a stairheid rammy somewhat reminiscent of an after hours party where the guests have all drunk too much and fallen out is the ultimate irony.
Lined up behind our politicians are the serried ranks of vested and special interests. In the government’s corner, the health professionals, the police, voluntary organisations, celebrities, some manufacturers and even a former First Minister and in the opposition’s, the drinks industry, the retailers and the licensing trade. The divide is reflected today in our Sunday newspapers’ coverage and treatment of the issue. The chasm has existed throughout the bill’s process and the debate: never the twain shall meet appears to have been the mantra.
Yet, one crucial voice is missing, and hasn’t really been listened to. That of Scotland’s children and young people.
Too often seen as the miscreants of alcohol misuse, they are its real victims. The figures are frightening: 65,000 children growing up in homes where at least one parent is a problem drinker; alcohol misuse cited as a contributing factor in one in three divorces; a quarter of children on the child protection register due to parental substance misuse; over 200 children a year speaking to ChildLine Scotland concerned by a parent’s drinking; at least 900 children suffering the debilitating and potentially fatal effects of foetal alcohol syndrome, and thousands more with less serious health and disability issues which could probably be traced back to the mother’s problematic drinking before and immediately after conception, if anyone could be bothered looking.
Scotland’s love affair with alcohol does not extend to respecting our children’s right to an alcohol blightless childhood. How many parents (including myself) could say hand on heart that they had never subjected their bairns to less than edifying behaviour because of their alcohol intake? Never lost a day that should have been theirs to the sofa and duvet due to a hangover? Not shielded them from the fall out at a family occasion – none too big nor too small – where excessive consumption has resulted in vicious, pointless disputes and worst of all, physical violence? We raise our children to be in awe of alcohol and its status in our lives, an ever present commodity in good times and bad. Little wonder then that younger and younger, they emulate us by imbibing and indulging, trying to secure their adult status by crossing this particular rite of passage.
Every family has its alcoholic skeletons rattling in the cupboard and we are locked in a very unvirtual circle of misuse and abuse, passing our habits and mores onto the next generation to sustain Scotland’s place at the foot of the league tables that matter and at the very top of the ones that don’t. The actual cost to our society – and to our collective pockets – is staggering: hundreds of millions every year in lost productivity and output, to the health service, our justice system, on social work services, for emergency services. Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) has even managed to put a price on the human costs of our behaviour.
The bottom line is that as a nation, we can no longer afford to drink as we do. It requires a package of measures to radically overhaul our attitude and to change Scottish culture. Minimum alcohol pricing is a key part of that package. To suggest that it is unfair to the poor – only when it suits Labour politicians it seems – is patronising and offensive. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be drinking yourself to death: is Scottish Labour suggesting that this is somehow okay and that we as a state should not be taking steps to address that? There is no point in a phalanx of public health professionals wagging their fingers if folk can still stagger out to the corner shop and stock up on rocket fuel to help obliterate the reality and paucity of life.
There are occasions and moments in a Parliamentary life cycle that require our politicians to be at their best. To put the slings and arrows of daily adversarial politics back in the quiver. To acknowledge that there are times for tribal politics but that this isn’t one of them. To think about the kind of Scotland they want to be involved in shaping and forming. To ask themselves why am I here and what do I want to achieve? To set aside narrow self electoral interest and focus on the interests of our communities and families, and above all else, our children. To ask themselves what can I do today to make a difference to Scotland and her people? On Wednesday, there should be only one answer.