Scotland is a nation in love with alcohol. It is a love story with a long history. Look back at the shopping lists of our ancestors and the amount of alcohol purchased is striking. It is a love story that often ends in tragedy. People in Scotland are twice as likely to die from an alcohol related death as elsewhere in the UK. It has always had a contested role within our culture. There have been huge anti-drink movements, such as the Chartists in the nineteenth century and teetotallers in the twentieth. Yet, the extent to which people defined themselves as drinkers or non-drinkers says as much about the importance of alcohol to our culture than anything. In the past, drinking alcohol has been linked to degenerative behaviours, the working class, ill-health and poverty, and currently it is associated with young people, anti-social behaviour and high-mortality. The truth is, however, that while drinking patterns do change with age, drink is a problem amongst all social groups and all age-groups. It is at the heart of our culture. Drink is brought out at all social occasions, whether organised by families, institutions or the state, often with no alternative given. It is given out as a reward or bonuses in the workplace based on an assumption that everybody drinks alcohol. Not drinking alcohol can exclude you from a large part of Scottish social life, and, if drink is calculated at cost, refusing alcohol can be refusing a (sometimes significant) part of your wage. Alcohol is at the heart of Scottish culture and it’s costing us as a nation.
So, what is the solution? Well, the Scottish government has suggested raising the drinking age to 21. Because criminalising behaviour is always the solution to social problems. Underage drinking is already a fact of life in Scotland. Raising the age limit just criminalises the behaviour of another group of people with no real reduction in behaviour. Let’s face it. The people who make a drunken scene on a Friday night in most Scottish city centres are by no means exclusively aged between 18 and 21. Indeed, most studies on the effects on alcohol on anti-social behaviour either classify young people as anyone under 24 or anyone under 35. There are no studies that have pointed to this age-group as particularly culpable compared to any other group under 35. If this change in legislation is about health benefits, then, yes, younger people tend to drink more than older people, but again I am not aware of any studies that say alcohol consumption peaks between the ages of 18 and 21. Indeed, in my experience, people in my age group (mid to late twenties) drink more alcohol overall as we have more disposable income and have not yet got the responsibilities of family.
More problematically, however, is what criminalising the behaviour of a group of adults based on their age says about our society. At a certain point, we grant people in society the rights of adulthood, which include the ability to make choices about their lives, whether or not they are good ones. What age do we want to set adulthood at? There is already considerable social discussion about the ever-increasing boundaries of youth as people put off marriage and family until their late-thirties, allowing them the freedoms of adolescence for longer and longer. Do we want to institutionalise youth into the twenties? The fact is society has a responsibility to protect its young people due to the fact that we restrict their behaviour. It is the pay off we make for not allowing them full human agency. If we raise the age limit for adulthood, we remove full human agency for a larger group of people and thus we change their role in society. We infantilise them and we cannot expect people who are not allowed to be adults in one area of their life to behave like adults in another. Are we willing to take on that responsibility? Furthermore, should we? If we can agree that, in Scotland, people over fourteen can make legally binding contracts, that people over sixteen can have sex, marry without parental consent, leave school, live in their own homes, be held criminally responsible and tried as an adult, work and pay tax, that people over seventeen can drive, that people over eighteen can smoke and have mortgages, credit card debt and all the other rights and responsibilities of adulthood, then why should there be a separate rule for drinking? Especially when drinking is so central to our culture that to make it illegal would effectively cause people to lose out on work related rewards, prevent them from networking with older colleagues and generally prevent them from being full members of society.
I am not saying that we should be proud of the role alcohol plays in Scottish culture. It is undoubtedly damaging to the nation’s health and frequently to our levels of social order. But we cannot deny it. Raising the drinking age pretends that alcohol related problems are about the irresponsibility of youth, while simultaneously reclassifying a group of adults as young people to solve a fictional problem. Our love affair with alcohol is a widespread social problem, institutionalised into our culture, and effecting people at all social levels and in all age-groups. If we want to reduce the harms caused by drinking, we need to change the significance of drinking to Scottish society, not redefine what it means to be an adult.