A few days ago I was listening to an interview with Scotland’s First Minister Alec Salmond on Woman’s Hour (BBC Radio 4, 10 June). The topic – and I was most impressed with what Salmond said – was the Scottish Government’s efforts to tackle both alcohol abuse in general and the sectarian violence that’s recently been in the news associated with Scottish football.

On the alcohol question, I was less impressed with interviewer Jenni Murray’s suggestion: “but surely (the classic interviewer’s knee-jerk) the Scottish economy depends on the whisky industry”, or words to that effect. Salmond countered by saying that whisky wasn’t the main issue in Scotland, in his view; his primary concern seemed to be with binge drinking among the young, therefore less to do with whisky and more to do with cut-price supermarket vodka, cider and high-strength beers, as in England.

Drinking north and south of the border

By the way, Salmond said “we drink more per head (10%, was it? I can’t recall) than you do in England, and you drink too much.” That last throwaway line “ … and you drink too much”  I might have ignored, if said by your average teetotal hellfire preacher; but said with a smile (this was radio, but I can tell) by someone as humorous as Salmond is known to be – a man that I’ll wager likes a drink or two himself – it was OK by me. As G K Chesterton said: “humour gets in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling with the door-handle”. Or words to that effect.

Whisky exports

Going back to the health of the whisky industry (financial health, that is): it wasn’t mentioned but I’d always assumed its success was based largely on exports, not on sales in Scotland. I have in fact heard that Venezuelans often claim to drink more Scotch than the Scots.

Domestic violence links

Salmond mentioned the increased incidence of domestic violence connected with both alcohol and football (especially after the combination that occurs after so-called “Old Firm” matches between Celtic and Rangers). He referred to a scheme they have in Scotland to try and address the problem of domestic violence in general; it’s called the Caledonian System.

Questioning this connection, Jenni Murray said (I can’t recall if she might well have prefaced it with “but surely …”) that the organisation Scottish Women’s Aid have stated there is no link between football, alcohol and domestic violence and that it’s purely a matter of attitudes. Salmond disagreed; and from police statistics I’ve read in the past I would have disagreed too, if they’d asked me.

Want to know more?

… about the Caledonian System:

Michael J MacMahon, Bristol, UK





Beer sales in the UK are experiencing a “slump”, according to a piece I saw in the media. The drop was 8% year-on-year. Is this really a slump? Considering how much other business sectors have been affected in this recession, I’d say that only an 8% fall means that beer is still a pretty important part of the British way of life.

The story claimed that the “slump” was partly due to an excise duty increase earlier this year, which put an extra 1p on a pint of beer. Shock, horror! When most pubs round here charge an average of £3 a pint, an extra penny is 0.3%. Who would seriously say that they gave up or reduced beer drinking based on a 0.3% increase? Does the brewers’ trade association or the media think we are stupid? There are many other factors; the extra penny can’t be that important.

Since reading that story I heard from a friend, whose work involves scouring the various business pages, a fact that this media story didn’t include, i.e. that the “slump” has mostly been in cheap lagers rather than ales. I seem to recall that we were told, not long ago, that it’s lager that is responsible for the majority of binge-drinking, with its concomitant effect on casual violence. Isn’t one of our leading brands of lager widely referred to as “the wife-beater”? Maybe this “slump” could be good news from a health and a public order viewpoint. Not good news, I realise, if you own or run a pub and your business’s viability depends on the volume of lager sold. You don’t have to go far to see pubs that have closed down due to changes in drinking habits and the smoking ban.

I should, finally, declare an interest. I like beer as much as the next man or woman. Although I have spent enough time in Scandinavia and Germany to appreciate lagers of various kinds, to my taste real ale is the real thing. So if this latest piece of news could be described as good (or at least less bad) news for brewers of traditional ales, and bad news for binge-drinking, with its effects on health and on the depressing incidence of domestic and other violence every Friday and Saturday night, then I’ll drink to that. Or, to quote Benjamin Franklin: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”. Happy, please, not in prison or hospital.