Politicians Just Lost a Fight Against Buckfast, Scotland's Favorite Cheap Caffeinated Booze

The drink that "gets you fucked fast" is blamed for many social problems, but the SNP just stopped a Labour attempt to get it banned.

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Nov 13 2015, 4:40pm

A bottle of Buckie. Photo by John Beck

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Fans of Buckfast can sleep easy tonight. A mammoth crusade by Scottish Labour to effectively ban Buckie fell apart this week, after Scottish Government ministers flat out rejected moves from an MSP that would've seen imports of the tonic wine halted at the Scottish border and, presumably, returned to the Devon monks who famously produce it.

Not that sleeping is ever easy after drinking Buckie's heady combo of caffeine and 15 percent ABV, and that's precisely why there's been a clamor among Scotland's political class, the police, and polite society to do something about the drink and its "wired awake drunks" for so long. But Buckfast seems safe for now, and the SNP are its unlikely saviors.

Recently, the Health and Sport Committee at the Scottish Parliament has been considering legislation from a Labour backbencher, Dr. Richard Simpson, that would see a legal limit introduced on the amount of caffeine allowed in alcoholic drinks. His proposed limit of 150mg per liter is less than half of the 375mg in every liter of tonic, meaning the Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey would either be forced to adapt their long-established recipe, or Scottish shops would simply have to stop selling it. Fears of a cross-border black market in illicit Buckfast have been swept aside, however, after the SNP Government confirmed they won't be supporting any aspect of the Alcohol Bill. This means it's doomed to fail even if it makes it beyond committee stage and reaches a vote in Parliament.

It's a famous victory for Buckfast and another bad moment for Scottish Labour, who've spent the last few years stumbling between various crises in the face of an ascendant SNP. Yet strangely, the SNP's usually formidable media operation hasn't swung into action here; there's been no overconfident press releases about Sturgeon Standing Up For Buckie or the usual tsunami of cybernat memes ridiculing Labour on the issue. It's unlikely that Buckfast will prove to be the defining issue of next year's Scottish elections but even so, there are surely some votes to be won in having secured the future of a drink affectionately known by its admirers as Wreck the Hoose Juice? Does saving Buckie in a nation of Buckfast lovers count for nothing?

Instead of trying to win (or perhaps lose) votes on the issue, the Scottish Government opted for a far more boring strategy of pointing out actual flaws in the plan to limit caffeine content, including the unclear evidence surrounding it, and have said that EU trade legislation might make such a ban impossible anyway. The official response doesn't even mention Buckfast by name, although when it says that "focusing on only one product misses the real problem," there can be little doubt about what "product" is being referred to.

This isn't the first time Labour in Scotland have tried to push through a law limiting the amount of caffeine in alcohol. In November 2010 the issue came to a vote in Parliament, although with only Labour and the Greens supporting the Buckie ban, it never came to pass. Still clinging on to the policy, MSP Richard Simpson launched another motion in 2012, that was finally thwarted this week. But the reasoning behind their continual efforts goes back a decade earlier, when Labour were in power in Scotland and waging a self-proclaimed "war on neds," via hysterical tabloid headlines, throwing around ASBOs, and getting into a war of words with, predictably, the producers of Buckfast.

This line of attack has rarely stopped since, with numerous attempts to connect Buckie with the idea of "youth crime." A freedom of information request revealed that over the three years to 2010, Buckfast was cited by Strathclyde Police in "5,000 crime reports", while a 2009 study said that 43 percent of young men in a Scottish young offenders institution had been under the influence of Buckfast while committing their offense.

The result of all this? "My view is that the discussions around tonic wines may in fact have made things worse," said Dr. Peter Rice, an NHS Consultant Psychiatrist, while giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament health committee a few weeks ago. "They may have established a reputation for a particular product that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

While it's hard to believe that the only reason people drink Buckfast is to stick it to the politicians, it's probably true that constantly telling everyone how bad it is has consolidated its cult status and gifted it an iconic position in popular culture. In effect, Buckfast doesn't need an advertising budget when Scottish Labour are prepared to do the job for them.

It's likely also true that just because there's a correlation between young people drinking Buckie and committing offenses, it doesn't mean that tonic wine is actually creating a nation of caffeine-frenzied criminals. It could­ just be that people like drinking Buckie, and that deep seated reasons for crime and anti-social behavior—like, I don't know, social alienation, mass deindustrialization, and ever rising inequality—are harder to explain than an extra 200 mg of caffeine.

The SNP are probably not going to launch into next year's Holyrood election with billboards of Nicola Sturgeon downing Buckfast, particularly when it's not been that long since the party was proposing to ban under-21s from liquor stores. But tonight, this evening, this afternoon,—because it's always a good time for some tonic—Scotland's Buckie aficionados can raise a glass to the SNP, reluctant defenders of Buckfast tonic wine.

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