Men behaving badly
What is it about happy hours that gives the UK government the shakes?
According to home secretary David Blunkett, the government has extracted an agreement from the drinks industry to curb pub happy hours and cheap drinks promotions (1).
The Home Office’s vision of happy hours is probably something like hell. Crowds of people lured by half-price beer, lining up the drinks, knocking them back, falling over, picking a fight. For an isolated and insecure government that feels out of touch with people, specifically working-class people, happy hours must seem like a nightmare.
Bars in London often invite punters to get ‘trashed on Mondays’ between five and six. This is exactly the kind of ‘irresponsible’ practise to which the Home Office objects, an encouragement of drunken mayhem. ‘If you promote violent and anti-social behaviour, you’re not going to get away with it and we will use a raft of powers to shut down your premises’, Home Office minister Hazel Blears threatened pubs and bars (2).
Yet these ‘trashed on Mondays’ nights are almost empty. Pam Elliot, the supervisor at a Farringdon pub who has worked in a variety of pubs and bars over the past 10 years, said that happy hour is usually ‘the quietest hour; it’s to get people in. There’s no rowdiness’. The handful of punters didn’t seem too affected by the offer of half-price drinks. Paul, 40, said: ‘I haven’t witnessed people getting steaming drunk. I don’t think people drink any more than they normally would in an hour – although they might finish a bit quicker.’ Thirty-three-year-old Darren couldn’t see what the government had against happy hours: ‘It’s pretty quiet’, he said, scanning the pub.
Those who were out to get drunk would probably do so regardless. ‘Happy hour is every day’, said Michael, 35, who then launched into a slurred rant and tried to plant a kiss on my cheek. Perhaps students organise their life around happy hour – but most people drink when they want to, when they’re out with their friends or when something is going on. And if they want to get steaming drunk, that’s up to them. ‘It’s a free choice’, said Geoff, 22, ‘you can’t make people responsible for you’.
The war on happy hours comes as part of an eight-week government crackdown on ‘alcohol-related disorder’. According to the Home Office, the police will use a raft of special powers to take action against ‘irresponsible drinkers and vendors who are fuelling antisocial behaviour’ – including closing rowdy premises for 24 hours, issuing £40 penalty notices for being drunk and disorderly, and using under-18s in sting operations (3). The government argues that pubs and bars should take more responsibility for the crime and disorder that results from alcohol, by contributing to the policing and clean-up costs of the local area.
The war on ‘alcohol-related disorder’ isn’t about crime. There are already laws against that. Instead, it’s more about the political class’ anxieties about social disorder. Home Office minister Hazel Blears said that the government wanted to bring about a ‘culture change’ so that it would be ‘less accepted by society for young men and women to go out and drink until they can’t remember who they are, to start fights in taxi queues, and cause violent, drink-fuelled scenes’ (4).
The government seems uncomfortable about these ‘drink-fuelled scenes’, fearful of rowdy crowds of people letting themselves go. For a political elite that feels detached from society, these spontaneous expressions of passion become threatening; in its mind, drunken groups walking the streets at night are strangers let loose. The aim of the ‘culture change’ is perhaps to breed a nation of restrained sophisticates, who enjoy a glass of wine with a meal but don’t ever lose their heads.
These initiatives abolish the traditional division of responsibility between the police and publicans, between what goes on inside and outside the pub. Instead, it is about encouraging both pubs and police to be on constant lookout for social disorder, and to help rein it in.
Publicans have often acted as a kind of stand-in sheriff, refusing to serve anybody who they think has had too much and barring anybody who causes trouble – mainly to avoid getting the place smashed up. ‘A good landlord knows when somebody’s had enough’, said Pam Elliot. But once people have left the pub, it is seen as the police’s responsibility to deal with any trouble. ‘Once somebody’s out of your grounds, it’s down to the police and themselves’, said Elliot. Paul agreed: ‘Once it’s in the street, it’s nothing to do with the pub.’
But New Labour is trying to make pubs more responsible for what goes on in the streets, picking up the bill for any nuisance caused. And it wants the police to keep an eye on drink promotions in pubs, to check that they aren’t getting out of control. Meanwhile, the punter is supposed to keep a constant eye on his or her own behaviour and drinking. You end up with a situation where everybody is supposed to be watching everybody, to ensure that we’re all being suitably restrained. Nobody is supposed to let themselves go, and they certainly shouldn’t cause any ‘drink-fuelled scenes’.
It’s not surprising that many police forces have seized this government initiative with gusto. Chief constable Steve Green from Nottingham Police Force sent out a warning to pub owners at the start of the eight-week crackdown: ‘We would lay down the law to them, and say: “This is unacceptable – stop”.’ (5) He said that ‘the number of forces who are taking part in this campaign demonstrates the strength of feeling of chief officers that alcohol is a major contributor to violent crime in this country’. It certainly must be easier for the police to stop anybody being a bit rowdy whom they suspect is ‘up to no good’, rather than having to work out who has actually committed a crime (and prove it in court).
The happy hour could use some defending against all this official miserabilism and meddling. We shouldn’t let the government’s fears ruin our fun.
(1) Time to be called on happy hours, Guardian, 10 July 2004
(2) Police begin blitz on alcohol crime hotspots, Labour Party website, 8 July 2004
(3) Police begin blitz on alcohol crime hotspots, Labour Party website, 8 July 2004
(4) Police begin blitz on alcohol crime hotspots, Labour Party website, 8 July 2004
(5) Police blitz on ‘happy hours’, This is Nottingham, 8 July 2004
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