“minimal”. I have to say at the time I did smell something of a rat, and felt it came into the category of “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” but I wasn’t inclined to dig any deeper. However, it has now been analysed in greater depth by Christopher Snowdon, revealing that things are by no means as clear-cut as they might seem at first.
The figure of only 3% of people having made cross-border trips specifically to purchase alcohol may seem pretty low, but it has to be remembered that in itself it represents around 130,000 people. Given the distances involved – 56 miles from Edinburgh to Berwick, and 97 miles from Glasgow to Carlisle – it’s not something that people will undertake on a whim. And it’s highly likely that each of those people will also be buying drinks for friends and relatives at the same time. Plus anyone doing it as a black market operation is unlikely to answer yes to the question anyway.
What is more, a further 13% of Scots adults, or 560,000 people, reported having bought alcohol when visiting England for other purposes. That must be a substantial proportion of the total who actually visit England in any given year anyway. Realistically, this was always how it was going to work. The economics of making specific trips may not add up for most people, but if you’re there anyway it’s something of a no-brainer.
The savings on offer are certainly not to be sniffed at. For example, I recently saw Morrisons advertising three ten-packs of various beers and ciders for £20. Depending on the specific product, this could mean a saving of up to £13 compared with the price north of the border. Anecdotal evidence is that there’s been a substantial increase in the amount of Tennent’s Lager sold in Carlisle ASDA. And, of course, people will be buying for family and friends as well as themselves. “Get us a few tinnies and a litre of Grouse while you’re there, will you?”
Total alcohol sales in Scotland have fallen by 3.5%, which has been hailed as a success by the supporters of the policy. But, at the same time, sales rose across the North of England, which has a larger population than Scotland, by 1.14%. It’s hard to believe that some of that isn’t a displacement effect. More specifically, in the North-East of England, the closest area to Scotland, sales rose by 1.46%, with cider up by 4.51% and RTDs (alcopops) up by 5.85%. The latter two categories are the ones most affected by MUP and thus of most interest to cross-border shoppers.
The overall effect may not be enough to pose a major threat to the off-licence trade in Scotland, but when you look at the figures more closely it certainly isn’t “minimal”. And the effect is likely to be significantly greater between Wales and England, where the distance from the major population centres to the border is much less.
Meanwhile, the Scottish government has released a report on the impact of MUP on homeless and street drinkers. This confirms that, to some extent, all the predictions made before its introduction have proved to be justified – a switch from cider to spirits, increased use of illicit drugs, especially cheap “street benzos”, consumption of “non-beverage alcohol”, an increase in theft and begging to fund drinking, and allocating a greater proportion of a limited budget to alcohol. As the old Russian proverb goes, “Daddy, now that vodka is dearer, will you drink less? No, my son, you will eat less.”
Maybe the policy, does, all things considered, have an overall beneficial effect. But it is certainly an indiscriminate blunt instrument that creates a lot of collateral damage. And, while it isn’t stated explicitly, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that at least part of the motivation behind MUP was to deter and denormalise alcohol consumption amongst normal drinkers of modest means. It is effectively a tax on the less well-off.