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20 December 2012

Street Pastor attack raises questions about Scotland’s alcoholism

Street Pastor attack raises questions about Scotland’s alcoholism

Last Saturday night Glasgow City Centre was in many ways like any typical city. Some 50,000 people gather every weekend to hit the pubs and clubs and even more in the run-up to Christmas. Festive cheer, good spirits and copious amounts of alcohol are the order of the day as people let their hair down at the end of a long and difficult year. Unfortunately though Glasgow was also unusual on Saturday for a different reason, as one of the city’s Street Pastors was put in hospital after attempting to help a man who had just been on the wrong end of a beating.

The irony of the story was not lost on the Scottish press. “Good Samaritan is battered in the street as he tries to stop gang attack,” ran the headline in the Sunday Mail (our top selling Sunday paper). In the season of peace and goodwill, apparently not everyone gets to enjoy, least of all one whose purpose that night was to show God’s love to the vulnerable and needy. A quick glance at the comments underneath the article online shows a mixture of revulsion at the attack and gratitude for the work of Street Pastors in the city. That gratitude is not restricted to Glasgow of course as it’s a common theme in any town that has them.

It must be admitted that these stories are incredibly rare and this is the first recorded incident in the four years of Street Pastors in Glasgow (and only the sixth in Street Pastors' history). However looking beyond the story it is one that raises, yet again, uncomfortable questions for us in Scotland as we consider our relationship with alcohol.

The statistics of alcohol consumption are painfully bad. Alcohol sales are now 23 per cent higher per person in Scotland than in England and Wales and recently published alcohol sales data suggests that enough alcohol was sold in Scotland for every adult to exceed weekly recommended limits for men (21 units) each and every week since 2000. The total cost of alcohol misuse for Scotland is estimated to average £3.56 billion every year - equating to £900 for every adult living in Scotland.

In addition in the last few decades alcohol-related hospital admissions have quadrupled, rates of chronic liver disease have trebled and alcohol-related deaths have doubled. Half of all Scotland’s 8,400 prisoners and 77 per cent of young offenders admit to being drunk when committing their crimes.

The Scottish parliament has led the UK on developing proposals for minimum unit pricing as a way of tackling alcohol consumption, a policy that has now been taken up by the coalition government. Though this is a contested policy (and one that is involved in a high level legal battle) it arises from the contention that something must be done to tackle the shocking level of alcohol consumption and havoc that it brings to bear on innocent victims all across Scotland.

It is clear from the statistics that one policy will not change Scotland – this is a problem that is written into our current social fabric. In every social class, among men and women, young and old, Scotland drinks too much. What does it say that in a society where community is fragmenting and individualism growing the way to find fulfilment is increasingly found through drinking more? That in every social grouping from labourers to doctors, lawyers to shop workers the expectation of a good night out is to come home ‘hammered’? This is not just the preserve of the so-called problem drinkers. As a nation: “We are the problem and the problem is us.”

It also presents searching questions for the Church in Scotland. Are we doing enough to help ease one of today’s greatest social problems? What should a redeemed Glasgow city centre look like on a Saturday night? And how do we show an example of that as the community of God?

It is clear that Street Pastors is one God-given response to the current situation we face. It is also clear that the Church has a key role to play, Scotland’s problematic relationship with alcohol is too big for government alone.

As we approach Christmas and reflect on God’s action to rescue us from ourselves it gives plenty to ponder. As many of us go on our own Christmas night out maybe we can be in prayer for the Street Pastors, the emergency services, our work colleagues and our nation and think through our own role in changing this story in 2013.