Doesn’t this government know its limits?

The latest campaign against 'binge' drinking shows New Labour desperate to connect with, and control, young people.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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Having won the arguments, and passed the legislation, against public smokers, the government is stepping up measures against certain drinkers, too. This week saw the launch of a £4million campaign targeting 18- to 24-year old ‘binge drinkers’. The TV adverts, with the tagline ‘Know your limits’, portray young people falling victims to horrific accidents, rapes and assaults after a night out. Cheers.

The government wants ‘young people to understand the system of units which determines if they are over the limit’. (1) Such an ‘awareness’ campaign is the latest, and by no means the last, measure to target those deemed as ‘irresponsible’ drinkers. While pubs may now open longer, the government’s tolerance of working-class youths who drink in them grows ever shorter.

Such irritation and bewilderment of ‘these people’ has been a growing theme of the binge-drinking debacle. Two and a half years ago, then Home Office minister, Hazel Blears said in astonishment that ‘young people actually go out to get drunk’ (2). Such laughably naïve comments revealed a minister astonishingly wet behind the ears. Blears isn’t alone, either. Last week, the public health minister, Caroline Flint, also seemed to speak in the language of Mary Poppins. In a tone of saucer-eyed bewilderment, Flint said ‘an estimated 5.9million people drink to get drunk’ (3). Well, it isn’t knocked-back to counter hair loss.

Despite such mumsy comments, Blears and Flint clearly have a harder-edged agenda here. What they’re attempting to combat are groups of working-class youths roaming from superpub to superpub in Britain’s town centres. As with attempts to ban ‘vertical drinking’ (ie, standing up) in Preston, Flint’s anti-binge drinking campaign aims to quell boisterous youth from getting drunk and out of control. So a checklist of rapes, assaults and murders are flagged up to suggest these are just a binge-drink away.

What’s truly frightening is that a government minister seriously believes young people will swallow this pantomime guff. Despite the flimsiness of the campaign, it’s notable that the government is not overtly using ‘health’ as a cover. Instead, Flint wants to popularise ideas that youths who are ‘over the limit’ in pubs (never mind drunk) are a problem-in-itself. How long before there’s a ‘tougher crackdown’ on superpub dwellers altogether?

What Flint seems oblivious to is that Saturday night punch-ups and puke-ups are as old as pubs themselves. In The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Frederick Engels described scenes of alcohol-induced mayhem as commonplace. ‘On Saturday evenings, especially when wages are paid and work stops somewhat earlier than usual, when the whole working-class pours from its own poor quarters into the main thoroughfares, intemperance may be seen in all its brutality. I have rarely come out of Manchester on such an evening without meeting numbers of people staggering and seeing others lying in the gutter. On Sunday evening the same scene is usually repeated, only less noisily.’ (4)

The difference today is that in a society bereft of cohering values and clear boundaries, especially between adolescence and adulthood, today’s climate only aggravates such nihilistic and empty behaviour. After all, once the hangover has cleared, what exactly is there to be anchored to and be part of?

The problem with Blears’s and Flint’s hand-wringing over Saturday night rituals, though, is to blame individuals, and in particular working-class individuals, for problems rooted in society. Such government campaigns also give the green light for prigs of all stripes to take the moral high ground, and worse. Indeed a popular perception among Muslims appears to be that all white working class Britons are, as one letter by a Muslim correspondent put it, ‘permanently incapacitated through drink’ (5). There’s no doubt that working-class youth engage in antics that are hardly cause for celebration. But equally millions of people are not guzzling themselves into an early grave, either. Social drinking is a fixture in people’s lives because pubs are primarily places that put a premium on conversation and belonging to others. Paradoxically for as much as pubs are a perceived threat to public order, they also provide a ‘connecting’ opportunity for the government.

It is worth recalling that pubs have always been regulated and often disapproved of by officialdom. When industrialisation, and with it the working-classes, expanded in Britain’s major cities, many leisure activities took place in public rather than in private. As they existed outside the direct discipline of the workplace, official rules, regulation and ‘permission’ (ie, a licence) had to be in place, otherwise state institutions would be deemed to lack authority and legitimacy in society. The notion of licensing laws was primarily about bringing public space under state and government control.

So long as this was accepted, however, the smoking-and-drinking activity in them was largely of no real concern. In fact, pubs were viewed as grassroots vehicles for Britain’s political culture, which is why Labour and Conservative clubs exist almost everywhere in the UK. As a consequence, there was also a certain freedom of expression allowed in them, too. The rough and tumble atmosphere associated with pubs often reflected the bitter ideological divisions raging in society. Thus in pubs and clubs there was often greater autonomy from state approval and regulation than, say, in the family or over children’s schooling. In this context, pubs are (or perhaps were) the last gasp of a world where adults could behave as free-willing, non-sanctioned subjects.

Not surprisingly, this is precisely why New Labour is keen to colonise and remould them accordingly. The smoking bans in operation in Scotland, and enforced in England from summer 2007, are one such signpost. Another is Flint’s campaign to make young people ‘aware’ of how many units they are drinking and not to go ‘over the limit’. Yet such campaigns do not, as many commentators believe, contradict last year’s expansion of later licensing hours, either. This week the UK police authorities have said that extended drinking hours have, in terms of fewer late-night punch-ups, had a ‘positive’ impact on people’s behaviour.

Alongside this, it is also becoming accepted by drinkers that pubs and clubs should be tightly regulated anyway. In Yeovil in south-west England for instance, young drinkers entering the town’s six main late-night drinking and dancing joints are asked to register their personal details, have their photograph taken and submit to a biometric finger scan. Such a scheme is to weed out drink-fuelled violence. The details of anyone getting into a fight or causing a nuisance will be entered on to a computer, so the next time the customer goes to a pub or club involved in the scheme, the details will be flagged up by the finger scanner at the entrance and the customer can be turned away. According to one report, many young drinkers ‘seem keen when you tell them what it’s all about. It’s not about spying on people – it’s about doing all we can to provide a safe venue.’ (6)

Individuals sacrificing autonomy and rights for the sake of nodding approval from PC Plod could not have happened if young people were stuck at home. Far from the government aiming to outlaw pubs altogether, they are simply being re-cast for the twenty-first century; from smoky, noisy debating dens to places where regulatory ‘behavioural’ binds are forged. This is why cigarettes and alcohol use are currently targeted far more than, say, class ‘A’ drugs like heroin or cocaine. After all, you can’t extend the therapeutic state’s tentacles by focusing solely on society’s margins.

The government’s ‘awareness’ campaign on youthful ‘binge-drinking’ reveals their view of young adults as essentially bestial. Notions of being attacked, raped or even killed after a few pints are obviously the exception rather than the norm. Such crude scare tactics, however, won’t exactly put off boisterous proles from a night out on the lash. It also can’t disguise the government’s attempts to connect in order to popularise government-sanctioned lines on acceptable behaviour. Having stubbed out cigarette smoke; now it is the turn of watching ‘unit consumption’ and demonising ‘drinking to get drunk’. Surely when it comes to relentlessly controlling individual autonomy, this is one government that doesn’t have any limits.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) ‘Campaign aims at young binge drinkers’, Guardian, 14 October 2006

(2) ‘Official: the cost of binge-drinking’, Observer, 14 March 2004

(3) Guardian, 14 October 2006

(4) The Condition of the Working Class in England, Frederick Engels, Foreign Languages Press (1975)

(5) Metro, Wednesday 11th October 2006

(6) ‘Fingerprint scanners call time on yobs in Britain’s Wild West’, Guardian, 1 May 2006

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Topics Politics


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