Editorial: Tokenism at the till

To suggest that the problems our society faces are complex is hardly a controversial proposition. Were they not complex we would surely have solved them by now. So it is remarkable how often we are asked by politicians and bureaucrats to accept simple-minded solutions that don’t have the slightest chance of success. These are futile token gestures, designed to distract, and doomed to fail. Installing CCTV cameras in Lerwick to tackle people’s fear of a crime wave that doesn’t actually exist: that’s a good example. And here’s another one.

Next year I will be marking my thirtieth birthday, and I don’t think I look particularly young for my age. (Please note: the picture on this page is four years old. I keep it here partly to flatter myself.) So it came as something of a surprise recently to be asked for identification when buying alcohol in one of our local supermarkets. It was, I’m afraid, the more ethically-challenged of the two.

As it was a fine day I had left my jacket at home, and my wallet with it. I had only a ten pound note in my pocket, and no means of proving that I was old enough to use it. The man at the checkout assured me that he was only doing his job (what awful crimes this world has seen, and so often excused with these same words). I could speak to the manager, he said, but I would be told the same thing.

My gut reaction was to be annoyed. Here was a man who was clearly abusing the responsibility that he had been given, I thought, and losing his employer money in the process. “We have to ID anyone who looks under 25 now” he explained, sensing my irritation. I tried to counter that, while on a good day I might just about pass for 25, it was patently obvious to both him and the increasing queue of customers behind me that I was not 17. But it did no good. I just left, and I took my ten pound note elsewhere.

This was not, I should add, an isolated event. I have a friend who, shortly before this incident, had been asked for identification when buying . . . wait for it . . . a tiny bottle of vanilla essence. Now, I am quite sure there are people out there so desperately addicted to alcohol that a bottle of vanilla essence might, in some dark and dreadful moment, provide an almost adequate alternative to the desired drink. But vanilla essence is not an alcopop. And unless someone is trying to walk out of the store with 53 bottles of it, I don’t think it’s really worth asking questions. After all, what exactly are we trying to achieve with this rule?

Shetland has a big problem with alcohol. It is a problem that it shares with many other parts of Scotland, and it is one that is passed, inevitably, onto younger generations. Much work needs to be done to improve the situation, and that work needs to be taken far more seriously than it has been up until now. But the root of the problem is cultural, which makes it difficult to tackle. It is propagated behind closed doors, where the fingers of the law find it hard to reach. So instead of well considered cultural policy, we are offered token gestures and expected to welcome them as progress.

Putting up signs warning that anyone under 25 will be asked for ID does have a useful purpose. It discourages teenagers from taking their chances at the till, and it will probably catch out a few older-looking teens. But the man at the ethically-challenged supermarket knew fine well that I wasn’t underage. He admitted that as he spoke to me. He was asking me for identification not because he thought I might be too young, but because I looked like I could, possibly, be under 25. So a rule that should be applied with discretion and common sense was instead being applied in a ludicrously inflexible way, thus turning the entire exercise into little more than a farce.

If shopkeepers really wanted to assist in the fight against underage drinking then there are things they could do that would make a big difference. For a start, they could refuse to sell alcopops, Buckfast and other such drinks, which are targeted at youngsters and which virtually no one over 18 actually wants to consume. But that, of course, wouldn’t be good business. And so we are left with irritating, pathetic tokenism.

Malachy Tallack


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