Buckfast: Scotland's major problem?

Submitted by Matthew on 5 February, 2010 - 4:06 Author: David McDonald

Violence, religious conspiracy, boozy teenagers. The Buckfast Code certainly provided low-brow entertainment. Unfortunately, it also missed an opportunity to explore poverty in one of Europe’s most deprived “prosperous nations”.

Buckfast remains relatively unknown to the majority of Britain, perhaps because 60% of sales are concentrated in Scotland. A low quality wine costing the same as the average supermarket red; at 15% it is also similar in alcohol volume. What separates it is the 281 micrograms of caffeine per bottle.

That mixing alcohol with concentrated caffeine provokes aggression is hardly counter-intuitive. However, the effects of Buckfast on Scottish communities are notorious. It is synonymous with youth and gang violence. At a young offenders institute, 43% of inmates interviewed in 2007 said they had drunk Buckfast before committing their offence.

This documentary highlighted these issues, albeit with a level of sensationalism and emotive rhetoric which
compromised claims to investigative journalism. The programme’s tabloid feel was highlighted in scenes from YouTube where youths downed whole bottles of Buckfast in seconds accompanied by ironic captions saying “Don’t Try This At Home!”. More disappointing though was the fact that no real attempt was made to examine the political context of these communities’ problems. A naive, if not downright obtuse, causal link was attributed solely to Buckfast.

Inter-generational unemployment and tribalist gang warfare compounded by chronic failure to invest in housing, community education and local amenities were all reduced to one easily convenient root.

It seems that Buckfast-fuelled violence is not a symptom of living in forgotten often hopeless, neglected communities. Buckfast is in fact the cause, completely divorced from poverty and inequality in one of Britain’s most grossly polarised regions.

While the association between anti-social behaviour and Buckfast cannot be denied, pertinent questions about the relationship were ignored. First, why is there a concentration of Buckfast sales in working-class areas? The predictable response inevitably cites market economics, relations of supply and demand. Apparently, this would account for the over-representation of off-licences in these communities too. Buckfast’s suppliers simply identified a market and responded accordingly. Even so a further question remains: why are the damaging effects of Buckfast confined to deprived areas?
Buckfast’s popularity in these areas is well documented but not exclusive. One can buy it in Oddbins too. Middle class youths and university students drink it, some emulating “hardman” media images, others having an “oh-so-ironic-pop-at-the-proles”. Why then do we not have issues of violence and vandalism in suburbs and students unions? If Buckfast is a constant variable, the relative difference in income and opportunity could, just maybe, be a key influence.

Buckfast suppliers, Chandler and Co, did receive a grilling on the programme. Their representative hardly covered himself in glory with his spurious use of statistics. Apparently Buckfast only accounts for 0.5% of alcohol sales in Scotland. What’s the saying? Lies, damned lies and Buckfast’s market share? It would be interesting to see Buckfast’s share of alcohol sales in working class neighbourhoods compared with more affluent areas. Their share of broken glass littering streets of deprived areas is close to 50%.

That Chandler and Co. ply their trade in socially vulnerable areas is unsurprising. As is the fact that the Benedictine monks who make Buckfast exploit tax loopholes to maximise profits drawn from these areas. This kind of exploitation and the moral flexibility required to perpetrate it are age-old. More staggering is the inability to address polarisation of wealth and the effects of poverty in working class communities. It seems easier to blame the victims than to face the truth.

In Scotland one in five children live in poverty. The nation’s poorest 10% control 2% of its wealth while the richest 3% control more than half. Perhaps Buckfast is not Scotland’s major problem.

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