Letter from Edinburgh 03.10.08

THIS WEEK students lobbied Parliament. Nothing new in that you may argue. Students have long marched on the political capitals of the world on issues from Vietnam to grants.

This week they are furious about drink. The SNP is proposing to ban 18-21 year olds from buying alcohol in supermarkets, off-licences or any other type of off-sale. What problem would be tackled by this approach? People of this age can of course drink legally in a bar. They can drink at home and will, I stress will, obtain alcohol.

I am afraid that this government proposal falls in the gesture politics category. No-one denies the need to tackle alcoholism. No-one of any political persuasion. But few agree that this is any more than a stunt. Indeed the Nationalist Student Association is opposed to its party’s position on this matter.

I was grilled by students at the Stirling University Union on Wed­nesday. Young people of all parties were there. But even the SNP members didn’t choose to argue the merits of this case. As one put it, I am not trusted with a bottle, but I am with a ballot paper, or a gun. Yes, you fight for Queen and country in Afghanistan but cannot then come home to Glasgow and buy a carry-out.

I suspect that the government will retreat on this issue. It has annoyed the student lobby by promising at last year’s election to dump the debt that students face. Having now been the government for 17 months nothing has happened. So picking another fight with Scotland’s students doesn’t look clever.

Tackling alcohol is not glamorous politics. It’s about using the licensing laws, tackling supermarket pricing and educating young people. None of this hard, concentrated work lends itself to easy headlines and photo opportunities. And the one thing we have all learned in this past year is our government is in love with easy headlines and photos. That is, I suspect, why they have just got this one so wrong.

The conventional wisdom on transport is that roads matter. More than anything else. So I was inter­ested in a different perspective this week. I went to a meeting in Vidlin on Monday to discuss better broad­band for rural and isolated areas of Shetland. “What is more important?” someone asked. “A road upgrading or faster broadband?”

Speed matters. Not 0-60mph, but bigger bytes of data flowing through the broadband pipe. The BBC i-player is one of the biggest culprits. To watch BBC output over the PC or laptop needs lots of speed. So improving these networks is crucial for businesses across Shetland, particularly outside Lerwick.

But there are upsides for all of us. So what’s more important? A road extension or improving broad­band? Shetland needs to fight against the gravitational pull into Lerwick. Jobs are driving that process. Better broadband for both public and private sector makes sense.

Tavish Scott MSP


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