Friday 17 May 2013

Plain packaging versus minimum pricing

This is a new thing for me: an attempt to write a genuinely short blog post.  (We'll see how that goes...)

Andrew Brown over at Mentor has written a blog post about a YouGov survey looking at various attitudes people have at the moment, which includes some stats on plain (in fact most likely standardised) packaging for tobacco and minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol.

Andrew wonders whether this is to do with the messages around the values behind Public Health, or that tobacco control messages have been around for longer, or simply that people think plain - sorry, standardised - packaging doesn't have a (direct) cost to them, the consumer, where MUP would.

So many thoughts occurred to me that I thought rather than leaving a comment or trying to condense things into a tweet or two, I'd do my usual and expand this out into a rambling post.  I would stress that these are just some thoughts, and I'd love comments or feedback via comments below or Twitter.

My immediate thought was: have they controlled for whether people are smokers/drinkers?  We're obviously going to care more about a policy that directly affects us, so that's quite important.  I can't see any evidence that they have, and this brings us onto a couple of wider points about cultural attitudes.

First, more people in the UK drink than smoke - pretty much the same proportions of men smoked at all as drank at twice the recommended limits in 2011.  That means (and reflects the fact) that drinking is more commonplace than smoking, which is reflected in (and the result of) wider aspects of society.  There's something about the place of alcohol in society and British history that is telling, and this is reflected in literature, for example. I can immediately think of plenty examples of drinking and literature (my personal favourites being Alan Sillitoe and Thomas Hardy), where the only example of smoking taking a prominent role in literature that occurs to me straightaway is Tolkein.  More substantively, we have pubs but we don't really have smoking clubs (at least, not in the aftermath of the ban).

Second, there's an idea of 'safe' drinking, which is crucial.  Despite in my view it being a mistaken and unhelpful position to take, it's not uncommon to hear it voiced that, for example, smoking 'brings nothing but bad breath disease & death'.*  The common argument in favour of the smoking ban over the years is that there is no safe level of (second-hand) smoke.  Contrast this with the impression (sometimes challenged) given by the 'recommended' limits that there is a 'safe' level of drinking.

Drinking, therefore, is not seen as an unequivocal vice.  There is an elusive practice called 'responsible drinking'.  This might be, as Andrew suggests, because anti-tobacco lobbying has been around for longer, but it's also about the importance of alcohol in our culture even before this.  Nights out, venues, 'keying' of time, have long centred on alcohol, and never really on tobacco.  Alcohol is associated with good times and bad.  Weddings and funerals would be (almost) unthinkable without alcohol for many in Britain; the same couldn't be said for tobacco and many social situations.

This takes on crucial importance when we think about how the measures described - plain packaging and MUP - are universal.

I've written previously about how MUP is understood (or at least portrayed) by the Coalition - or more specifically Cameron - as a targeted measure.  James Morris has persuasively argued that the logic of MUP is based on a population model of public health, but equally the debate continues as to who the measure will affect and how hard.

The point here is that these aren't 'Booze ASBOs' or sobriety orders, which target those who are seen to have transgressed.  Under MUP everyone who buys alcohol would do so in a regulated market (and everyone who smokes would have to smoke cigarettes bought in plan packets - though perhaps the market for cigarette cases would boom?).  That is, whether or not there would necessarily be a material effect on all drinkers, which is still debatable, the starting position is that alcohol is by definition problematic.  This isn't an easy fit with ideas of 'responsible drinking'.

In my research, I found that even amongst those going out drinking on a Friday night on the night-time high street, who might be classed as 'binge' drinkers, there was an amazing tendency and ability to distinguish oneself from those 'other' drinkers who were the real issue.  People might drink a lot but they're not about to start a fight.  They might end up drunk, but they'd never drink to get drunk; they drink for the taste and the drunkenness is just an almost irrelevant byproduct.  And so on.

I've argued before that attempts to govern by concepts ('responsible', 'moderate', 'binge', 'excessive') is difficult, because people have a tendency to want to justify their own behaviour to themselves and others, whether consciously or not.  Give them an idea of responsible drinking, and a particular model of irresponsible drinking, and most people won't see themselves in the irresponsible camp.  (And conversely, for those that do, this is often seen as amusing and precisely what's being aimed for: trangression of norms established by perceived authorities such as governments.)

So what's my answer to Andrew's question of why we tend to see MUP as unacceptable?  I think it's because MUP hints that, actually, for every single one of us, alcohol is no ordinary commodity, and, although that's its primary attraction, it's also something we don't really want to hear.

(And there we go, I didn't keep it short.) 

Addition, 17th May 2013
Partly because it doesn’t so directly relate to the public’s perception of drinking versus smoking (though it’s crucial in the background) I’ve forgotten to mention here one of the key points that I’ll often bore people with.  Public Health often draw the key comparison between the two practices, citing how smoking has declined considerably over the past 40 years, and how alcohol policy and harm reduction should learn from anti-smoking campaigns (and sometimes other behavioural changes, such as seat belt use).  (I noticed this at the recent Alcohol and British Society conference, for example.)  The key difference is the idea of passive smoking.  The smoking ban was able to gain public support not as a paternalistic measure, but as a liberal one, in line with JS Mill’s harm principle: your smoking would not just harm yourself, but me too.  Despite this, it is still judged on whether it has lowered general smoking prevalence, and this is partly where the difficulty for the smoking-drinking analogy lies.  Passive drinking, despite the efforts of Liam Donaldson, hasn’t caught on as a concept.  Of course all these aspects of the culture are mutually reinforcing: this difference is partly what allows alcohol to have such a central role in British society, but it’s also that central role that makes us less likely to accept Donaldson’s point.  And so on. 

*I think we have to acknowledge the pleasures of intoxication and trangression, which includes the very thing that motivates Wollaston: smoking kills.  Smokers know this, and this is partly why it is transgressive and offers a devil-may-care allure.  If we ignore these points, then we can't possibly build an effective harm reduction strategy.

**Personally, I think that even the Sheffield work has neglected the fact that pricing policies aren't solely based on cost: if your £3.50 wine becomes £4.50, the £4.50 wine isn't going to stay at the same price; there's an incentive for there to be a differential.  Looking at how tobacco pricing strategies have coped with increased taxes, there's sure to be some complicated dynamics regarding the pricing strategies for the lower and higher ends of the market, but it's certainly hard to say that people currently consuming above the MUP floor won't be affected.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

A Postliberal Public?

Despite it dating from 22nd April, as far as I can see, today has seen the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) publicising – and the media picking up on – a report they commissioned from NatCen based on the British Social Attitudes survey.

As you’ll see if you look at the Guardian and Telegraph links, the story the media have tended to run with is that Labour supporters especially – but the population generally – have shifted from societal explanations for poverty to those emphasising laziness in particular. That is, we’re much more likely to see poverty as an individual’s fault now, as opposed to in 1986 (with the highpoint of societal explanations over that period in the first half of the 1990s).

The survey offered for options for people to answer the question “Why do you think there are people who live in need?”

  • ‘Inevitable in modern life’ (the most popular throughout);

  • ‘Laziness’;

  • ‘Injustice in society’; or simply

  • ‘Unlucky’

I noted in a previous post that recently there’s been a lot of discussion of how postliberalism might be an appropriate way of characterising current political trends in the aftermath of the financial crisis.  Individual decision-making and market mechanisms are viewed with more suspicion than they used to be, according to Will Davies for example.

The findings of this JRF/NatCen report got me thinking again about these ideas.  Although I didn’t state it in the end in the blog post, one initial response I had to these suggestions of postliberalism was that the political elite remained neoliberal, but I could perhaps allow that the British public might be postliberal.*

This is the argument of David Goodhart with respect to immigration: his ‘political tribe of north London liberals’ has been divorced for some time from broader ‘public opinion’.  You’ll also find it in the work of Blue Labour, with Maurice Glasman arguing that ‘The lessons of New Labour are not to have a contemptuous attitude to the lived experiences of people but work within them to craft a common story of what went wrong and how things can be better’.  Or in Philip Blond’s Red Toryism, which argues that we have become a ‘bi-polar’ nation, divided between government and populus.

This idea has particularly come to the fore with the ‘UKIP surge’ in the 2013 local elections.  Max Wind-Cowie, amongst others, has argued that UKIP is picking up votes from those who feel abandoned by the ‘excesses of both social and economic liberalism’ from both Labour and the Tories.  He advises that both parties could ‘grasp the post-liberal nettle’ and win these voters back, and still avoid some of the simply ‘illiberal’ policies that UKIP promotes.

In this sense, these arguments are consistent with what I’ve said before: neoliberalism is still alive and well in the corridors of power.

However, the other side of these arguments about a disconnect between voters and parties is that the public at large is ‘post-liberal’ – and this claim is certainly questionable.

As I’ve mentioned before, Thatcher sought to change the heart and soul of the nation, and in the discussion of her legacy – just weeks before her death – the consensus seemed to be that she had succeeded (‘she changed everything’, The Independent told us); the only question was whether this was a good or a bad thing.  Britain was now a Thatcherite nation.

To some extent, this tension is about the way we see UKIP and Thatcherism.  Max Wind-Cowie obviously sees UKIP as postliberal, but at the same time parallels are drawn between the ability of both Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Farage to win working-class votes with right-wing policies, and there’s certainly a strong case to be made that Thatcherism has more than a little neoliberalism in it.

I’d understand the recent evidence – UKIP voting and British Social Attitudes surveying – as pointing to the possibility that in fact the British public remain in some sense Thatcher’s children, and as such neoliberal.

On UKIP, Farage smokes, drinks and has an idea of a Little England centred around the pub (“every pub is a parliament”) – but his opposition to the smoking ban or minimum unit pricing (MUP) is an opposition not to neoliberalism, but paternalism.  His rationale for opposing the smoking ban, for example, is that it is ‘illiberal’.  This is exactly one of the words quoted from ‘Senior Conservatives and Liberal Democrats’ to explain the Cabinet wobble over MUP.

Immediately, this raises the suspicion that, despite its opposition to the free movement of labour, UKIP is more neoliberal than postliberal.

This impression is only strengthened when I think about how much of UKIP’s brand of euroscepticism rests on opposition to the Social Chapter and all those features that conversely led many within Labour to become pro-European, seeing the EU no longer as a ‘capitalist club’, but more as a brake on 1980s neoliberalism.  This is certainly how I grew up seeing the EU, and was shocked to find such euroscepticism amongst older Labour Party members.

Going back to the British Social Attitudes survey data, a key feature of neoliberalism understood in the way outlined in that previous post is the maintenance and expansion of marketised structures alongside a tendency to place responsibility for any undesirable outcomes on individual citizen-consumers.  That approach would imply seeing poverty as a result of individual failings rather than structural causes, in line with many respondents to the survey.

The prevalence of this worldview, represented by a falling number of people have seen poverty as caused by ‘injustice in society’, is at odds with an understanding that the public are somehow postliberal.  An awareness of how people are interdependent and the importance of solidarity (which are key themes of the work of all three) would surely mean that more people than currently would see poverty and general life chances as significantly determined by a lottery of birth and the structures of the world we live in, rather than reflecting underlying personal value or effort.**

And when I’ve read the work of people like Blond, Glasman and Goodhart I’ve got the impression that they do feel the public is fundamentally postliberal, as I’ve said.

But perhaps this is to look at things the wrong way.  What Blue Labour, Red Toryism, David Goodhart etc are saying is that the flaws of UK† society today are partly the result of politicians’ failures to see the importance of community and local relationships.  Certainly, living in a small town set in the Dorset countryside where I’ve found these elements more accessible has made me happier and more comfortable than living in E15 or E17, where I’d lived the two years prior to moving here.‡

Taking these approaches as recommendations for improving British political life, then, rather than descriptions of the wider polity, maybe there’s something in them.  And perhaps, if Jonathan Rutherford is to be believed and Blue Labour is seen as drawing on some kind of ‘English modernity’ like the New Left of people like EP Thompson and Raymond Williams, then such a political philosophy might tap into that ‘Little England’ theme of UKIP’s – and in a more positive way.  This is certainly what Blond and Glasman would like to see their parties doing.  They understand people as voting UKIP because there isn’t a mainstream party that seems to understand their concerns (even if they wouldn’t articulate them now in quite the postliberal language of the commentariat).

However, it’s one thing to say ‘this is what I would like to see politicians talk about’; it’s another to say ‘this is what will win you elections’.  Postliberalism at the moment, I’d suggest, remains more of a political recommendation than a characterisation of the electorate.  There might be elements within UKIP’s agenda that this approach could tap into, as Max Wind-Cowie suggests, but it’s hard to see postliberalism as an electoral panacea for either Labour or the Conservatives, or to think that it will instantly resonate with the electorate now.

Of course, with Thatcherism in mind, I would argue that it’s possible for particular discourses and policies to in themselves change the weather, so that you make your own luck, but this can take time and power.

At the moment, I’d suggest that David Cameron expresses it pretty well: we’re all Thatcherites now, but then again maybe we’re not.  Certainly the effects of that individualistic (even neoliberal) worldview can still be felt – and not just in the corridors of power.  Politicians maybe aren’t so distant from the rest of us as the postliberals might have us believe.

*Although if they’d never been neoliberal, or even liberal, it’s hard to see how they would be postliberal rather than simply communitarian.
** To some extent the particular decline in the societal explanation amongst Labour supporters might have more to do with tribal loyalty than a particular worldview: wanting to believe that the party has done as much as it can, so any residual poverty will be the fault of the individual rather than the government.  However, in terms of effects, this still amounts to a neoliberal view that at least up to 2010 was remaining pretty resilient.
†In ‘A Note on Language’ at the beginning of his book The British Dream, Goodhart explains: ‘I generally use the word Britain when I really mean the United Kingdom.’  How to wind up someone with (some) Ulster heritage…
‡Though I should point out, in liberal fashion, that living here wouldn’t suit everyone, and some people would probably feel more comfortable and welcomed than others.

Friday 3 May 2013

MUP in Scotland

As you’ll realise if you’ve been able to see anything in the news today apart from the (reliably predicted) UKIP surge in the local elections, the challenge to MUP in Scotland brought by the Scottish Whisky Association and others has been rejected by Lord Doherty.

Plenty has been written about this already by other people (just check the Twitter feed of Stephen McGowan).  What I wanted to do at this point is think through how this relates to what I said the other day about industry involvement in the policy-making process.

Fundamentally, thinking back to my view of the appropriate role of the industry, this ‘petition’ was an attempt to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.  I understand the motivation – to mitigate any effects, avoid setting a precedent, and take a symbolic stand against regulation – but the judgement basically makes precisely this point: all the evidence and arguments have already been discussed, and the decision has been reached on the basis of a perfectly reasonable process.

The whole debate is structured around whether the action is reasonable and proportionate to the problem.  Notably, the idea of there being a ‘problem’ of ‘excessive consumption of alcohol’ is taken as given.  (There would certainly be some mileage in a detailed analysis of how class is understood in this judgement.)

For the industry – and in fact for England in general – this is a great opportunity.  Although the two countries are not identical, this offers that rare opportunity in policy-making: a pilot project with the opportunity for simultaneous comparison.  We can have a look at how MUP works in Scotland, with the English as a (rather unscientific) control group.  Of course, the Canadian case already offers comparisons between different areas with different systems, but if we’re honest a comparison closer to home will always have more impact.  There will of course be complications, such as the economic recovery potentially advancing at different rates, and the fact that we start with somewhat different longer-term trends in consumption, but the comparison should still be instructive.

But this doesn’t mean that the industry should be preparing all the ways to rubbish the evidence from the Scottish case.  First, some research suggests that regulation might benefit both public health and the industry.  Second – and to my mind more importantly – if England did wait and see before implementing MUP (as seems likely even if this isn’t for scientific reasons), the lull would give the industry the opportunity to set aside their attempts to rubbish the evidence on public health, and instead develop and communicate all those arguments that they have thus far strikingly failed to do.

So here’s to a genuinely informed, intelligent, rounded debate…