Bring back Toby Belch

Read spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the UK government's 'National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy'.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

I thought that politics was supposed to be about how best to create the Good Society. To judge by this week’s reaction to the Government’s anti-booze crusade, it is now about how to create a café society.

The ‘National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy’ from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit is enough to drive any sober-minded liberal to drink, proposing a strong cocktail of policing and publicity initiatives, with the threat of stiffer measures to follow. Hazel Blears, the Home Office Minister, said that the aim was to create a ‘continental café bar culture’. A Cabinet Office spokesman said the message is that ‘it’s not cool to be drunk’.

It is a sign of our illiberal times that the main criticism of the strategy has been that its proposals do not go far enough. ‘Be stricter on us!’ the nation cries.

When did it become the Government’s job to dictate the type of bar where we should spend our leisure time? What business does the Cabinet office have telling young people what might or might not be ‘cool’? If anybody in Whitehall seriously believes that either older chronic drinkers or younger binge drinkers (the target groups) will be moved by this sort of thing, they really ought to get out more. A far better way to put young people off their drinks would be for Tony Blair to declare his passionate belief that boozing is cool and good for Britain.

We might wonder what has blurred the vision of government experts so badly that they define dangerous ‘binge drinking’ as more than four pints of beer for a man or four glasses of wine for a woman. The man and woman in question are more likely to consider that a normal (and possibly a quiet) night out. As for Ms Blears being shocked to discover that young people are ‘actually going out to get drunk’; one can only presume that she enjoyed a more sheltered upbringing than I did in suburban Surrey.

Tucked away in the Government’s 100-page report are the facts that in Britain we still drink less than many Europeans, and far less than we did in 1900. We were more restrained in the period around the Second World War – but probably as a function of austerity rather than probity. There are also admissions that ‘there is no direct relationship’ between how much you drink and the levels of harm you experience, and that many who drink more than the official guidelines ‘will not suffer harmful effects’. These, for some reason, have not made any headlines.

The real target of the latest crusade is not to save us from drowning in a vat of alcohol, but to stamp down on what we must now call the ‘antisocial behaviour’ of young people. With young drinkers now packing into town centre superpubs, the report notes that there are increased risks of drinking in ‘a crowded and noisy environment’. The very thought of such proletarian excess strikes fear into the heart of new Labour’s continental café culture set.

Just as the campaign against fatty foods targets burgers but not foie gras, so the binge-drinking campaign is aimed at those quaffing pints and shots in a crowded and noisy bar, not a good Chablis in a quiet café.

As the Government retreats into the petty authoritarianism of ‘lifestyle politics’, the most daring proposal it can come up with to improve life in modern Britain is to ban the happy hour. Yet, as predictable as the shout of last orders, the cry for more of the same goes up from health charities and professionals who want to tax fatty foods, outlaw tobacco altogether and double the already-onerous taxes on alcohol. They would like to put the booze back on the top shelf, safely away from the great unaware.

This week’s debate has been wrecked by those drunk on their own immoderate sobriety. We await a Sir Toby Belch for today, to demand of them ‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more Red Bull and vodka?’

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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Topics Politics


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