SNP: world-beaters in authoritarianism

The SNP claims to be concerned about Scottish people’s freedom. So why is it always legislating against it?

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics UK

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Since its establishment over 10 years ago, the Scottish Parliament has certainly made use of its devolved powers. Indeed, there’s barely an area of private and public life north of the border in which members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) have not had a significant impact. Impressive is not the word; repressive is more accurate. In fact, informed less by the electorate than by the clamour of campaign groups and myriad professional bodies, the Scottish government has shown itself to be a world-leader in some of the pettiest, mealy-mouthiest authoritarianism around.

Not only has the Scottish Parliament been trail-blazing for state meddlers and moralisers the world over – it is unabashedly proud of it. Speaking in 2004, the then Scottish secretary of the British Medical Association (BMA), Bill O’Neill, was positively beaming as he trumpeted government proposals to ban smoking in public places. ‘Devolution’, he said, chest puffed out, ‘has provided us with an opportunity to lead the rest of the UK in developing this vital piece of public-health legislation’.

And lead they did. So it was that in March 2006, over a year before the smoking ban was implemented in the rest of the UK, smokers were turned out of public places across Scotland. For those mixing and mingling with Scotland’s newly emboldened political class, this was seemingly something of which the nation, or at least those running it, could be proud. ‘This would be remembered’, declared Dr Peter Terry, chairman of BMA Scotland, ‘as the time Scotland took a bold and politically courageous step’. MSPs themselves, backed by the medical establishment and assorted anti-smoking advocacy groups like ASH, certainly seemed convinced that this was their role in Scottish national life – to protect feckless Scots (especially working-class ones) from making what their betters deemed to be the wrong choices. In the words of Labour’s then deputy health minister, Rhona Brankin: ‘The responsibility for politicians is to take action to save lives.’

Of course, back in 2006, when the fag lighters were going out all over Scotland, its parliament was led by that most nannyish of political parties, New Labour. Yet what has been most striking about the attempts to shape and mould people according to some vision of the healthy life – something rather different to the Good Life – is that with the implosion of New Labour, the insidious politics of behaviour have not receded. If anything, the focus on what Scots inhale or ingest or shout at football matches has intensified since the Scottish National Party (SNP) became the largest party in parliament following the 2007 elections.

This should not have been a surprise. The SNP always supported Labour’s mission to squeeze the decision-making out of our everyday existences – or as it used to be known, personal freedom. As First Minister Alex Salmond explained to the BBC’s Andrew Marr in 2009, ‘you know the smoking ban was [New Labour’s policy], but it was a united parliament’. United, that is, in its mean-spirited attempts to regulate the behaviour of those it purports to represent. So it was in 2008 that MSP Kenneth Gibson, backed by the SNP’s public health minister, Shona Robison, argued for the total ban on cigarette vending machines. His justification was both telling and a little chilling: ‘With access, there follows temptation and then consumption. That is why a complete ban on these machines is necessary.’

So let us take the opportunity to give credit where it is due: the SNP has proved itself to be even pettier, even more curmudgeonly, and even more suspicious of our everyday freedoms than even its New Labour predecessors. Whichever way you look at it, that is some achievement.

Chief among the SNP’s authoritarian accomplishments has been the Alcohol Bill, passed in November 2010. Its sole objective was to find ways, ‘sin tax’-style, to ensure that Scots were priced out of excessive drinking. These include a ban on quantity discounts (for example, three-for-two offers), restrictions on ‘happy hour’ alcohol promotions, and a demand that you have to look over 25 to buy alcohol or else be asked for ID. The SNP’s health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, said at that time that this amounted ‘to an important milestone towards changing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol’, before adding: ‘I am also clear that the journey is not over. There is more work to be done and we will not shirk from leading the way in addressing this challenge.’

‘More work to be done…’ What Sturgeon was alluding to was the jewel in the new-authoritarian crown, the coup d’Kaliber, the piece of legislation which would make Scotland’s the first government in Europe to crack down really hard on alcohol consumption: that is, a minimum price for alcohol. That the SNP has so far failed to get this particular piece of legislation through parliament has not been due to any principled liberal opposition. Both the Labour Party and the near-irrelevant Scottish Conservatives share the SNP’s determination to stop Scots, especially the less well-off, from enjoying a drink. It is just that they both objected to the means for achieving the sober end, rather than the end itself. As Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie admitted‘We oppose minimum-unit pricing, not on political grounds, but because we do not believe it works.’ (My italics.)

But now that the SNP, following parliamentary elections last May, has an overall parliamentary majority, expect minimum pricing soon to become a reality for Brits north of the border. Speaking of future amendments to the Alcohol Bill, including the introduction of minimum pricing, last November, Sturgeon said, ‘I will not shirk from leading the way in addressing this challenge. It is time for Scotland to win its battle with the booze.’ Incredibly, as part of the new alcohol bill, there is even talk of banning the sale of alcohol in supermarkets full stop.

And to top it all off, in the shape of its sectarianism bill, the Scottish government has now decided to try to ban football fans from shouting rude chants at football matches. The irony, however, is that this raft of illiberal measures, this glut of policies that routinely suspects and restricts people’s freedom, comes at a time when the SNP is supposedly setting a date for a referendum on Scottish independence. If people, according to the Holyrood clique, are not to be trusted with cigarette vending machines, one suspects that their ability to determine the future of Scotland, free of Westminster, is taken no more seriously. Little wonder Salmond and the SNP are all too keen to sign an independent Scotland up to the EU and to hell with the little people.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics UK


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