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So What’s This State-Run Liquor Store I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This State-Run Liquor Store I Keep Hearing About?

Published June 17, 2013

The Icelandic government, like governments in most of the Nordic countries, several US states and some other countries around the world, runs a chain of liquor stores. It has a monopoly on the sale of alcoholic beverages with more than 2.25% alcohol content. The liquor stores have limited opening hours, none being open past eight in the evening, some in the countryside only open for an hour on weekdays, and all of them closed on Sundays.
BUT I NEED MY SUNDAY MORNING HAIR OF THE DOG! THIS IS BRUTAL OPPRESSION!

You are not alone in feeling this way. Recently the leader of the Reykjavík youth organisation of the right-wing Independence Party caused a stir when she said that people should have the right to buy white wine to have with their Sunday lobster.
YOU’VE GOT TO HAND IT TO RIGHT-WINGERS; THEY NEVER LACK THAT COMMON TOUCH.
This caused a predictable enough online bilestorm, with some going too far because the internet ruins everything, even the simple fun of mocking rich people. The right wing, especially the youth organisation, has long been obsessed with ending the Icelandic state’s monopoly on alcohol retail. In fact, it can be argued, rather tentatively though, that this obsession triggered the 2009 protests that toppled the government then in power.
THIS IS MY DUBIOUS FACE.

The protests started on January 20, 2009, when the Icelandic parliament returned to session after its Christmas break. This was during the depths of the financial crisis and people were looking for any kind of action from parliament that might give them reason to hope. Into that situation stepped youthful Independence Party MP Sigurður Kári Kristjánsson with a bill to allow grocery stores to sell alcoholic beverages less than 22% alcohol by volume, offering the kind of hope you get from an affordable glass of wine.
THERE IS NO BETTER COMPANION TO HAVE IN A DARK PIT OF DESPAIR THAN A LARGE BOTTLE OF CHEAP BOOZE.

While that is true, Icelanders reacted like a cartoon snob who had ordered Chateau Le Fancy and been served Maison de Pisse. They banged their cutlery on the nearest saucepan and demanded the head of the person in charge. The bill that the young MP proposed could not have been more symbolically inapt. To be fair to him, this was just the latest iteration of a series of proposed bills that neoliberal MPs had tried to get passed since the mid-90s.
THE FREEDOM TO BOOZE IS THE FOUNDATIONAL PRINCIPLE OF THE TWO GREAT ISMS TODAY’S YOUTH FLOCK TO, NEOLIBERALISM AND ALCOHOLISM.

Quite. The problem in January 2009 was that nobody was flocking to the banner of market deregulation, except perhaps to rip the banner from its pole, set it on fire and then douse it with Maison de Pisse. Neoliberalism was widely considered to blame for the financial crash and that parliament was spending its time on a neoliberal hobbyhorse did little to soothe the post-crash anger felt by most.
THEY SHOULD’VE GONE FOR A LITTLE BIT OF NEOLIBERALISM, AFTER ALL NOTHING SOOTHES A HANGOVER LIKE A SHOT OF VODKA.

I think you may have a problem. In many ways it is a bit surprising that the neoliberal right-wing never fulfilled their ambition given that they generally had few problems with other changes they wanted to make during their 18 years in power. One possible explanation is that temperance has been a fairly popular movement in Iceland. It was the people that voted for prohibition in 1915 through a national referendum.
OF COURSE SOBER VOTERS WIN A REFERENDUM, YOU CAN HARDLY EXPECT DRUNK PEOPLE TO TICK A TINY BOX WITH A BLUNT PENCIL.

Being too drunk to vote is a problem. Prohibition was only lifted in 1923 because Spain, a major purchaser of Icelandic fish, made it a condition of a trade agreement that Iceland would import Spanish wines. Icelandic parliament decided that if they needed to go against the wishes of the majority of the population, it would be unseemly that private enterprise would make money from it.
WHAT A STRANGE DECISION!

Well, no one rioted over that one. Over the course of the 20th Century, alcohol sales were liberalised in stages, starting with hard liquors and ending with beer, which was banned in Iceland until 1989. Nevertheless, Icelanders have never stopped thinking of alcohol as a forbidden fruit. Sure, it is considered okay to get smashed every weekend, but should you have a glass of wine with your Wednesday dinner, be it lobster or haddock, you are considered to be well on your way to rehab.



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