MAKE no mistake,  this dry-as-dust-sounding minimum alcohol pricing victory is as important and totemic for drink-sozzled Scotland as legalising divorce and same-sex marriage have been for Ireland. As a nation that’s prone to excess, we are about to collectively go cold turkey. It’s brave and about time.

Over recent decades, sustaining self-harming, substance-related addiction has become Scotland’s real national sport – the only one at which we consistently excel.  But it wasn’t always that way. Our drinking habits only became truly problematic in the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher started to dismantle the industrial base and social fabric of  working-class Scotland. Now, finally, a Scottish Government has dared to stand up to the market forces she unleashed, the battalions of expensive lawyers and the cynical, concerted delaying tactics by cheap alcohol manufacturers fronted by the couthy-sounding Scotch Whisky Association.  The Scottish Government has done what no-one expected – it has taken on the drinks industry and won.

All the evidence suggests that dirt-cheap alcohol from supermarkets has ramped up consumption so that people of all ages have been “preloading” at home and arriving drunk at city-centre destinations, or staying at home, legless.

In 2012, the Scottish Government’s bold plan for a minimum unit price was backed by the Commons Health Committee, every NHS Board in Scotland, the police, doctors, the World Health Organisation and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

But the alcohol industry opposed change. It set some fine hares running about job losses and £600 million in missing exports – all unverifiable since its research was not made public, unlike Sheffield University’s study which underpinned the minimum-pricing case.

So to survive a challenge under EU and UK competition law, Scottish Government’s lawyers had to prove minimum pricing was proportionate, effective and fair in tackling Scotland’s booze epidemic.

Mmm, let’s see. Back then there had been a 700 per cent increase in chronic liver disease amongst women in their twenties since 1990. Alcohol was a factor in 35 per cent of all A&E cases and up to 70 per cent at the weekend. Thousands of kids were calling Childline to help cope with the caring and survival issues that arise from having incapacitated, inconsistent and alcohol-dependent parents.

Did that not sound like a serious national health problem, justifying market intervention? It did to everyone except the drinks manufacturers and a few politicians, who argued it would be better if a new UK Government adopted the policy, returning extra tax to the Treasury instead of supermarkets and drinks companies through higher prices. But ironically enough, an across-the-board increase in excise duty would threaten jobs in whisky production, while minimum pricing will not because branded whisky already sells at more than 50 pence per unit. In any case, financial losses to the Exchequer are trivial compared to the pain, loss of confidence, energy and productivity that alcohol dependency brings.

The Scottish economy loses £3.5 billion a year and around3000 folk through alcohol-related illness. The Sheffield University study suggests 1000 deaths might be saved with a minimum price of 40p per unit.

Another criticism was that minimum pricing alone won’t solve everything – and education is more effective.

Really? Some years ago, the Scottish Youth Commission on Alcohol revealed the pervasive influence of alcohol products on social media. A Wkd (Wicked) Facebook group had 78,000 members boasting about their “wasted” behaviour and 600 related “user-generated” sites.

With the relentless growth of social media, those drink-till-you-drop networks are now larger and more socially impactful. “Education” alone won’t alter such deeply embedded behaviour – that’s why legislation was needed to stop smoking in public places.

Is drinking to oblivion any different? “Passive drinking” means cyclists can be knocked flying while trying to avoid drunken pedestrians, or the semi-permanent coatings of smashed glass that lie outside every club or late-night pub in Scotland.

Many non-drinkers (like myself) have simply surrendered public space completely after dark. And of course the alcohol-related health budget removes money from other health service functions we all need.

The big-drink companies also objected to the Catch 22 nature of minimum prices. They asked how 40p per unit could possibly have a modest impact on pockets but also make a large dent in Scotland’s drink problem. One drinks company director suggested a 40p minimum price would only represent the price of an extra pint per week and asked – “Are [harmful drinkers] really likely to be put off by that?”

Maybe not. Maybe that’s why Shona Robison is consulting on a 50-pence-per-unit figure. But this argument concedes the most basic point about minimum pricing – alcohol is presently dirt-cheap. And the Catch 22 the drinks giants must answer is how a 50 pence minimum price per unit can BOTH be destructive of Scottish jobs AND make no difference to hardened drinkers.

Indeed, the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) legal bid was backed by the European Spirits Organisation, because if Scotland becomes an alcohol price-rising pioneer other countries will follow. Now that looks very likely because the market is no longer seen as sacred. Now the “right” for big multinational companies to trade as they see fit, freed from all public challenge and government regulation, is thoroughly discredited.

And this is perhaps the most significant aspect of this week’s legal victory by the Scottish Government.

It represents the culmination of decades of collaboration between health experts, civic society campaigners, civil servants, government lawyers and Scottish politicians working together to restricted an o’er powerful marketplace.

One of the most influential figures was the late Evelyn Gillan. Just before she died in 2015, this fabulous, feisty feminist and former head of the ground-breaking SHAAP (Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems) predicted it would take 10 years of legal shenanigans before the SWA backed down.

It’s a tribute to her and the SHAAP team, including Petrina MacNaughton, Bruce Ritson, Peter Brunt, Peter Rice and Lesley Graham, that their canny combination of research, advocacy, policy-influencing skills and medical knowledge saw off one of the world’s biggest businesses in half that time.

Public opinion is on the move – and the drinks industry has been left behind. Of course the big companies are still happy to “work in partnership” on schools projects or glossy advice leaflets to tackle problem drinking.

But when society decided tougher action was needed, the gloves finally came off. The SWA board took an incredible gamble with the reputation of its members, and lost. Bear in mind that the Scottish Government which started legislating for minimum alcohol pricing was elected with a landslide majority in 2011. The result was so overwhelming that Alex Salmond’s political rivals conceded his right to hold an independence referendum. But even though minimum pricing was included in that same manifesto, the Scottish drinks industry thought it could oppose the will of the Scottish Parliament, the process of electoral democracy and the grain of public opinion.

No longer.

Minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland is not just a little local skirmish about booze. It’s an international battle about the forces of globalisation against the power of individual states to protect the health of their citizens. It’s free trade versus the re-regulation of public life in the wake of scandalously damaging decades of laissez-faire. Let’s be clear. The Alcohol Bill’s sunset clause means that if Nicola Sturgeon’s research is wrong and minimum pricing does not lead to 60 fewer deaths, 1600 fewer hospital admissions and 3500 fewer crimes in Scotland within one year, the mechanism will fall five years later.

That’s fair, pioneering and a huge step forward in the modernisation of Scotland.