A licence to bash the masses

The only debate over Britain's licensing laws is about how to keep pissed proles in their place.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Nothing better illustrates the political establishment’s fear, loathing and plain old bemusement towards the masses than the debate (for want of a better word) about the licensing laws. Yesterday the Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges, made up of 636 judges who hear cases in the Crown Courts of England and Wales, warned that government plans to relax licensing laws and allow booze-serving establishments to remain open beyond 11pm will lead to more ‘drink-fuelled violence’, such as rape, grievous bodily harm, ‘and worse’. One judge said that getting drunk for the hell of it is ‘highly disagreeable, highly anti-social and we don’t want to see it get any worse’ (1).

However, the government plans that so rattled m’luds are also motivated by a desire to keep the apparently rapacious masses in line. According to the government’s Licensing Bill, which will come into effect on 24 November, the aim of allowing pubs and bars to remain open beyond 11pm if they wish is to stagger closing times and thus ‘minimise public disorder’. In short, it’s about avoiding a situation where hordes of drunks pour out of pubs at the same time – 11pm – and go on a collective rampage. According to culture secretary Tessa Jowell, the new licensing laws are about ‘encouraging a more civilised culture in pubs, bars and restaurants’, and will be accompanied by ‘tough new measures to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder’ (2).

Britain’s bizarre and outdated licensing laws certainly need reforming, or better still abolishing. They are the most restrictive in Europe. And they’ve been on the statute books since the First World War, when they were brought in ‘to keep the munitions workers sober’ (3). But don’t fall for the idea that there is a serious debate about creating a more liberal environment where adults can choose for themselves where, when and how much to drink, with New Labour relaxers on one side and killjoy judges on the other. In fact there’s widespread agreement, everywhere from political circles to the courts to the media, that Britons – especially of the young, male, working-class variety – are binge-drinking themselves into depravity and that Something Must Be Done. The only disagreement is over what that Something ought to be, and whether relaxing the licensing laws will keep these proles in their place or make them go even more mental.

It’s always a certain class of people who are seen as the problem. It’s not the middle-class wine quaffers – even though, according to the UK government report Family Food 2003-04 published last week, households with a high income spend 13 per cent of their food and drink budget on booze, compared with the 11.7 per cent spent on average by the rest of the UK. Rather it’s working-class boozing that is frowned upon, when individuals get wasted at the weekend for the sake of getting wasted at the weekend. Our masters are bemused by this. Home Office minister Hazel Blears has expressed astonishment that young people are ‘actually going out to get drunk’, often in a ‘crowded and noisy environment’ (ie, a pub). Yesterday, one of those Crown Court judges said he was shocked to find that ‘people drank for pure leisure’ (4). Can you imagine it?

The government wants to impose a more middle-class standard on our drinking habits. Ministers openly declare that they want to create a ‘continental café bar culture’, as if new ‘cultures’ can simply be imposed from on high; perhaps they’d also like young British drinkers to swap their Burberry caps for berets and ride bicycles to the pub instead of piling into hired-out white limousines on a Saturday night (5). But the government’s critics say there’s no point trying to impose a new culture because British drinkers are beyond redemption. Judge Charles Harris of the Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges said yesterday: ‘The trouble is, continental-style drinking requires continental-style people, who sit quietly drinking away at café tables, not standing up shouting at each other in crowded bars trying to consume gallons of beer at a time.’ (6) So that’s what Britain needs: new people. Maybe we should ship the chavs out and replace them with middle-class Europeans.

This deep snobbery towards British drinkers is best captured in a cartoon in today’s Guardian showing Brits drinking at a ‘Continental-Style Bistro’. One wears a Burberry cap and Union Jack t-shirt; another is vomiting into a plant pot; yet another has a boil-ridden, reddened face and is wearing a white string vest, saying ‘Another glass of Chateau Popskull mon ami?’. The message is clear: it’s the people who are the problem and we won’t quell their nasty habits by plonking them in a wine bar instead of a Superpub. According to Geethika Jayatilaka of Alcohol Concern, relaxing the licensing laws will not give rise to a new continental culture but will speed our descent into debauchery, and more likely turn our town centres into ‘Faliraki rather than Florence’ (7). To which one might respond (if one had taken a few drinks): ‘Well, fuck off to Florence then.’

All of this boozer-baiting brings to mind the Victorian snobbery towards the lower classes and their penchant for getting pissed. In 1850, one Victorian journalist complained of the working man who ‘is crushed by drunkenness, profligacy and poverty, and sinks from one stage of vice and misery to another, till the intellectual faculties become dimmed, all moral and religious feeling expires, the domestic affections are destroyed and all regard for law or property is lost’ (8). A century-and-a-half later, they might use more acceptable phraseology such as ‘anti-social behaviour’ and ‘drink-fuelled violence’ to describe the antics of drunken workers, but the tenet of the debate seems much the same.

This widespread fretting over young people who drink is not a response to any terrible rise in the consumption of alcohol or anti-social behaviour. As the government admits in a report published last year (the ominously-titled National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy), Britons still drink less than many Europeans, and far less than we did in 1900. We should also question the tagging of young people as ‘binge-drinkers’: the Department of Health defines binge-drinking for men as having six or more units in one session, and for women as the consumption of four or more units. That is about two pints of strong lager for blokes, and three small glasses of wine for women. Who can put their hand on their heart and say they aren’t a ‘binge drinker’ by those definitions? And even if some young people do drink more than they ought to, perhaps from a sense of alienation and frustration, is the solution really to label them drunks and restrict access to booze?

Rather, the handwringing in political and media circles about strange town centres where young people do weird things like get drunk on purpose – and the tortured debate about how we might change this behaviour – expresses the establishment’s own sense of dislocation from the masses. They are bamboozled by us, seeing us as peculiar creatures who do peculiar things; we’re even more foreign to them, it seems, than actual foreigners, who at least drink in sedate cafés rather than in rowdy Superpubs. Britain’s apparent binge-drinking crisis is really the fevered imagining of an elite that feels it has little connection with certain sections of the public, especially the youth (the judges yesterday described young people’s behaviour as ‘inexplicable’) (9). That is why they obsess over the boozing issue in particular: we are even more foreign to them when we’re drunk, when we consciously seek to go a bit wild and when potentially anything might happen.

The judges also warned the government that people’s drinking habits ‘could not be changed overnight’. But what business is it of the government’s to change our habits? In a free society made up of morally autonomous individuals we should be able to decide for ourselves what to do in our free time – even if it does seem ‘inexplicable’ to the Great and the Good.

Read on:

Bring back Toby Belch, by Mick Hume

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) New drinking laws will end in violence, warn judges, The Times, 10 August 2005

(2) Reform of pub hours is ‘common sense’, Labour Party, 15 November 2002

(3) The changing face of the London pub, Dulwich Society Newsletter, Summer 2004

(4) Blunkett offers concession on drinking hours, Guardian, 11 August 2005

(5) Binge-drinking culture confronted, BBC News, 15 March 2004

(6) Blunkett offers concession on drinking hours, Guardian, 11 August 2005

(7) Blunkett offers concession on drinking hours, Guardian, 11 August 2005

(8) ‘Supply of water to the Metropolis’, W O’Brien, Edinburgh Review, April 1850

(9) Blunkett offers concession on drinking hours, Guardian, 11 August 2005

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Topics Politics


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