THE Finance Minister lays into her own government. The Circular Economy Minister says it’s all-systems-go for a policy we know will be scrapped, delayed or amended. What a strange time this is. We are caught between a present that’s over and a future that hasn’t begun yet, and all we can do is watch the clock and wait.

But this weird period in politics is an opportunity as well, isn’t it? An opportunity for a new First Minister to look over their shoulder at the laws and policies that were either bad or badly done and ask: how else could we do it? The sectarian law. The hate crime law. The gender bill. You know the list.

The same applies to the booze ban on trains. You probably remember how it happened. It was November 2020, during the pandemic. ScotRail said they wanted everyone to travel safely and that people were less likely to keep their masks on or observe the distance rules if they were drunk. In other words, the rule was supposedly to stop the spread of the virus.

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But then, in July last year, we got mission creep: part one. ScotRail announced they had agreed with the Government that the ban would stay in place for the foreseeable future. ScotRail said the ban had been successful in containing some of the antisocial behaviour alcohol causes. In other words, the justification appeared to have shifted from trying to stop the spread of the virus to trying to stop drunken behaviour more generally.

And now it looks like we have mission creep: part two. Instead of asking whether a policy introduced in an emergency should, without much examination, carry on once the emergency is over, Transport Scotland has recommended that the alcohol ban on trains should be enforced more strictly. They have also suggested the penalties for non-compliance should be strengthened.

Transport Scotland make the suggestions in a report on the experience of women and girls on public transport around safety – as the report points out, it’s an area where research has been sparse and it’s a serious subject that must be taken seriously. The report recommends, among other things, more staff at stations, better lighting, and more accessible information on what to do and who to contact if you feel threatened or unsafe.

But in also recommending an effective doubling-down on the alcohol ban, the report is making some fundamental mistakes about how public policy works. The first is that policy should be based on evidence. So has there actually been a drop in antisocial behaviour since the ban was introduced and if so, what’s the evidence that the alcohol ban is the reason? The other obvious question is to what extent drunken behaviour is caused not by drinking on trains but by people drinking before they get on trains.

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Enforcement and penalties is the other big issue. I’ve been on trains where people are getting rowdy – I’m sure most of us have – but I wouldn’t like to have been the one to have to enforce the no-alcohol rule. So why should we expect ScotRail workers to do it? Train staff have enough to do already without having to enforce a law that was supposed to be an emergency measure.

Something similar applies to the question of penalties. You can ramp them up as much as you like – threaten life in prison for taking a sip of lager on the 7.45 from Motherwell if you want – but if there isn’t public understanding or support for the policy, and it isn’t being enforced, the penalties end up being symbolic rather than practical and that’s not what people need in the face of antisocial behaviour: they need something that actually works.

We should also learn the long-term lessons of policies such as the alcohol ban, the first of which is that it’s easy to introduce such rules but hard to get rid of them. Good policy should also be proportionate (is a total ban really justified?) and based on good evidence (does it work?) And finally, this: freedoms, even apparently trivial ones such as having a drink on the train, are important and the case for restricting them should be overwhelming. Hopefully, a new First Minister will understand that.