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Friday, August 12, 2005

 

Mine's a large one

This week's moral panic is about alcohol. It has become a headline story again because judges and police chiefs have declared that the imminent change to Britain's licensing laws will increase violent crime.

In the wake of these claims,
both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have quickly leapt on the (band)wagon by demanding a halt to the implementation of the new law.

The law in question (the Licensing Act 2003, which applies only to England and Wales) will, from 24th November this year, allow licensed premises (both pubs/bars and off-sales) to apply to extend their opening hours beyond 11pm or possibly even for 24 hours. However, the current panic is odd, given that the government announced its intentions four years ago and that the Act passed into law two years ago.

Following the protests of the judges, police and opposition politicians comes the most ludicrous complaint of all. In the wake of last month's London bombings, a group of newly-elected Tory MPs has declared (in a letter to the Spectator) that
"Muslims who criticise the 'decadent' nature of British society are right". Among the things cited as evidence of Britain's lapse from "traditional values" is binge drinking. It is all the fault of "wooly-minded liberals", apparently.

This debate is taking place on a false premise. In fact, three completely false assumptions:

  1. That excessive drinking is a new problem;

  2. That excessive drinking is the preserve of the young, the working class, or more probably the young working class; and

  3. That excessive drinking is a function of the licensing hours.
Let's deal first with false assumption no.1.

Tory leader Michael Howard stated this week, "We have said that the [Licensing] Act should not be brought into effect until binge-drinking has been brought under control." Well if he wants to wait for the British to stop binge drinking, he'll have a bloody long wait.

The British have been binge drinking for centuries. Why else would the
Temperance Movement have been such a powerful force in Britain a century ago? Going back further, Hogarth's famous caricature Gin Lane depicted the widespread abuse of alcohol in the mid-eighteenth century. Before that, the problem was sufficiently bad for the Elizabethan scholar Thomas Nash to write about The Eight Kinds of Drunkennesse and, in 1606, parliament passed 'The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness'. Earlier still, throughout the medieval period, most English peasants spent much of their time pissed out of their skulls.

A
letter in today's Guardian notes that,

The English have been castigating each other for allegedly drinking too much since St Boniface in the 8th century compared our consumption unfavourably with the Franks, Gauls and Lombards.
So it would seem that the British passion for getting drunk predates somewhat the advent of the "wooly-minded liberal". Those moralistic Tory MPs need a history lesson; one of our most "traditional values" turns out to be an unhealthy passion for the sauce.

Over the centuries, drunkenness (and our attitudes towards it) may have taken different forms but excessive drinking has remained a popular pastime. Binge drinking is nowadays a common feature of Protestant Northern European cultures, where people tend to veer between abstinence and excess, unlike Catholic Southern Europe, where public drunkenness is almost unknown (except among young British and Scandinavian tourists).

Heavy drinking is deeply ingrained in our culture, and there are limits to what politicians and other moralists can achieve. We can warn people of the dangers and we can try to limit the social impact of public drunkenness, but that's about it. Just as authoritarian measures won't work, neither will well-meaning attempts to introduce a 'continental cafe culture'. As Judge Charles Harris QC said this week, "Continental-style drinking requires continental-style people".

The second myth is that this is a working class or youth problem.

If we middle-aged, middle class British people are honest, we are knocking back prodigious quantities of booze ourselves, even though we may not be fighting or vomiting in the High Street on a Saturday night.

Adam Nicolson, in an article titled
Mad dogs and drunken Englishmen in yesterday's Guardian G2 supplement, described "the huge English middle-class wine-drinking habit". He pointed out that, while the media and political focus is on the minority who become violent when drunk, little attention is paid to the less threatening comatose state of the rest of the nation.

It is a weird and scarcely acknowledged fact that very nearly the entire nation ends its days in an alcohol-induced fug. Most of us never see it because we are in it, too. The strangeness of it struck me last year when I had to catch a train late at night from King's Cross in London. I had not touched a drop that evening and I arrived at the station to find the inhabitants of the capital wandering in a soft and befuddled way between the ticket office and the platforms, WH Smith and Burger King. It was as if the place were full of half-beings, semi-aware, semi-articulate, half-asleep, clumsy and, on that occasion, totally unthreatening, even rather sweet, like an exhausted pack of bleary old dogs staggering from the bed to the water bowl and back again, deeply loved by their owners but really not much good for anything else.

I know this is not exactly the violent aspect of alcohol currently exercising judges and the government, but it is intimately related to it. Immoderation may turn some of us into comatose labradors, but in others it releases the urge to aggression and violence. The key is in the quantity. A few sips of Pernod would not change behaviour in the way a skinful of Stella or a magnum or two of Jacob's Creek does. This is not something limited to a particular class. It affects all of us, so the deep and underlying question about the English and alcohol is not why we are aggressive when we are drunk, because not all of us are, but why do we slug it back in such extraordinary quantities, which all of us do?
Last night's edition of BBC1's Should I Worry About... covered similar ground. Presenter Richard Hammond (solidly middle class, even if he does also present Top Gear), measured his own drinking habits to discover that he drank over 50 units a week, in common with one-third of British men.

Face it, we're all doing it. The fact that it's Australian Shiraz rather than lager or Bacardi Breezers doesn't necessarily make it any better. So let's stop pretending this is purely a problem with 'chavs'.

Finally, let us consider the third misapprehension, that excessive drinking is a function of the licensing hours.

The overall amount of alcohol drunk in British pubs and bars is actually in decline. The increased consumption is in alcohol drunk at home, where there is no statutory closing time. It is noteworthy that, of all the licensed premises that have so far applied for a 24-hour licence under the new law, the vast majority are supermarkets, not pubs or bars.

Regarding drinking in pubs and bars, there is a strong argument that the 11pm closing time encourages people to drink more quickly to beat a deadline. The pubs all empty at the same time, making it more likely that fights will break out. Meanwhile, the middle classes, drinking after 11pm legally in restaurants and private clubs (or at home), or illegally in rural pub 'lock-ins', face no such curfew.

More flexible licensing hours tend to work better (as the experience in Scotland has demonstrated). The British Beer and Pubs Association
points out,

Applications for extended hours are generally for an extra hour or so on a Friday and Saturday night, from community pubs, and not from city centre locations.

Scotland has recently reviewed its licensing hours which are much more flexible than in England and Wales. Neither the police nor the judges asked for a return to English hours, let alone something more draconian.

Every New Year's Eve, for the last three years, flexible hours have been tried and tested. The result has been less disorder, and fewer problems than on the average Friday night.
There is a serious problem in many British town centres on Friday and Saturday nights. The root cause, however, is not drinking but our attitude to the city. Unlike in every other European country, we choose to let teenagers occupy our city centres after 6pm. Maintaining the 11pm curfew won't solve this problem. Instead, creative policies that bring back mixed housing, civilised restaurants and entertainment, and other grown-up amenities into our city centres are the only way to end this occupation and take our city centres back.

If there is one major criticism of the new Licensing Act, it is that it is highly prescriptive. Local residents may object to a licence extension application only on the grounds of a specific applicant. The law rules out objections based on general arguments relating to issues in a particular area, such as the character of a neighbourhood.

In effect, the new law gives local authorities responsibility without power. They have been made responsible for policing the new licensing system but the law's prescriptiveness does not allow sufficient local discretion. A genuine devolution of power, which gives local people control over licensing, would be a significant improvement. But its benefit would be to give people the power to prevent night-time disturbances or to protect the character of their neighbourhoods. It can't stop heavy drinking per se.

No licensing system, no matter how well conceived, will end Britain's love affair with alcohol.

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