London’s illiberal, intolerant new rulers

Boris Johnson’s ban on booze suggests we can expect more New Labourite privileging of ‘social rights’ over real freedom under his regime.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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You can tell a lot about a political leader by his attitude to alcohol. Historically, your position on the Booze Issue – including the freedom of people to buy it, to consume it, and even to vomit it up again in a hedge if necessary – defined where you stood on individual liberty itself, and on the trustworthiness of the mass of the population to make choices and to live with their consequences.

Where illiberal, elitist, suspicious and quite often Christian outfits sought to restrict people’s access to alcohol, great defenders of freedom and civil liberties groups emerged from the struggle against prohibition. John Stuart Mill’s impassioned defence of freedom, On Liberty, was written ‘in the midst of the growing power of Christian temperance groups’ (1); the American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920, also the year in which the American government prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of all alcoholic beverages (2).

So the fact that the very first act of London’s new Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, has been to declare a ban on drinking alcohol anywhere on the public transport system reveals more about his new regime than he thinks. Boris (or ‘BoJo’, as he is, hopefully temporarily, referred to in the press) wants his booze ban to demonstrate that he will be tough on anti-social behaviour and singular in his determination to restore respect, good manners and possibly cap-doffing to the streets of London. In fact, the ban reveals that, post-Ken, petty authoritarianism and distrust of the London masses is still rife in City Hall.

As of 1 June, it will be illegal to consume booze on the Tube, buses, trams and the Docklands Light Railway. New posters will warn commuters: ‘Drinking alcohol is prohibited on public transport: Making everyone’s journey more pleasant…’ The ban is a proverbial sledgehammer designed to smash a few nutcases. Boris says he is enforcing the ban because ‘people are scared of taking the Underground late at night because of aggressive behaviour by drunken yobs’ (3). Yet despite all of the posters on the London Underground warning commuters not to punch members of staff (which admittedly is very tempting) and to watch their own backs, too, the chances of being a victim of yobbish or violent behaviour on the Tube are miniscule.

In 2007, there were a whopping 1.6 billion passenger trips on the London Underground, and only 1,806 reported assaults. That is one assault for every 449,690 commuters – what statisticians might refer to as a ‘statistical insignificance’. There is one assault on a member of staff for every 1.64million commuters.

It was reported earlier this year that the London Underground is safer than Perth Railways in Australia – the sunny land Down Under where, ironically, some people who are tired of London (and presumably also tired of life) escape to when they’ve had enough of the capital’s greyness, grime and crime. There were 161 assaults on Perth railways last year – and taking into consideration the fact that there were 35.8million boardings on Perth railways, that means there was one assault for every 222,360 commuters, compared with one assault for every 449,690 commuters on the London Tube. In short, you’re twice as likely to be punched in Perth as you are in London. As one Australian who has lived in both cities put it: ‘In London, there are plenty of people who use the train until the early hours. And there is always a sense of security with numbers.’ (4) That is how many of us feel on the London Underground: not terrified, but secure – even, dare I say it, relaxed.

Boris’s ban is mad because it is also hard to tell how many of the assaulters on the public transport system – and the small numbers of pickpockets, graffitists and women-fondlers – were drunk at the time of committing their crime. The British Transport Police said that in 2005 that there had been a ‘30 per cent rise’ in alcohol-related crimes on the transport system, but it didn’t say what the booze-driven crime rate had risen from and to (5). Preventing people from drinking alcohol on public transport will do nothing to prevent drunken bad behaviour. Like most London commuters, I have encountered drunk people on Tube trains, most of them loud’n’rowdy rather than criminal or violent, but they very rarely actively drink on the Tube. They get drunk in pubs or clubs (where consuming alcohol has not yet been prohibited) and then stagger and slur their way on to the last train in a desperate bid to get home before their legs give way and their stomachs give up their sloshing contents. Unless you’re going to make it a crime for drunk people to board buses and trains, you’ll never outlaw drunkenness and its strange little friend, misbehaviour.

What’s more, in case Boris hadn’t noticed, it is already an offence in England and Wales to be ‘drunk and incapable in a public place’ or to be ‘manifestly drunk’ in a public bar or club, in private while in charge of a child under seven years of age, or while commanding a car, bicycle or any other vehicle. Quite why we need a new byelaw also to make it an offence to hold an open bottle of beer in your hand – regardless of whether you’re off your trolley or just sipping on a Corona on your way to a soiree – is beyond me. The only people who regularly drink from cans on the Tube and buses are tramps. Good luck to Boris and his new army of ‘visible’ police officers in their efforts to arrest people of no fixed abode who may have mental health problems and suffer from alcoholism.

Yet while Boris’s ban might be insane – the kind of thing his policy team surely dreamt up after they’d had one too many bottles of Bollinger – it also speaks to today’s authoritarian climate. For years, when he was a columnist and editor, Boris posed as a defender of liberty against New Labour’s petty encroachments into our personal lives and habits; he was an ardent critic of the government’s ban on smoking in public places (6). Now he has instituted a booze ban that is the smoking ban’s demented cousin.

Just as the smoking ban was justified by bullshit science on the dangers of ‘second-hand smoke’, so Boris’s prohibition on trains and buses is built on dodgy facts and stats about dangers on the transport system. And where the smoking ban revealed the government’s desire to interfere in and control public space, the booze ban sends the message that public drunkenness is unacceptable, that people should behave in a City Hall-approved manner whenever they venture into the public realm. Not surprisingly, Alcohol Concern – that modern-day temperance outfit – joyously welcomed Boris’s ban, on the basis that it will ‘send a strong message that public drunkenness is socially unacceptable’ (7). Boris’s ban is driven by the politics of behaviour, by a kneejerk desire to institute new byelaws in order to ‘send messages’ (please stop sending us messages) about how we ought to conduct ourselves and enjoy ourselves: calmly, politely and absolutely with no staggering, shouting or snogging. How very New Labour.

Boris and his Conservative Party leader David Cameron have both claimed to be fans of John Stuart Mill. Yet the London booze ban is a drunken smack in the chops for everything Mill believed in and argued for. Writing at a time when temperance movements were on the march, Mill knew only too well that government attempts to regulate alcohol consumption were attempts to regulate the people themselves.

One temperance movement of Mill’s time – the UK Alliance for the Legislative Suppression of the Sale of Intoxicating Liquors – argued that: ‘If anything invades my social rights, certainly the traffic in strong drink does. It destroys my primary right of security by constantly creating and stimulating social disorder.’ (8) This is precisely the argument used by Boris, and by New Labourites, to justify bans on public smoking and drinking: that individual debauchery threatens the ‘rights’ to security and peace of mind of society as a whole. Mill was scathing in his assault on the temperance movement’s idea of ‘social rights’. It was a ‘monstrous principle’, he said: ‘[T]here is no violation of liberty which it would not justify; it acknowledges no right to any freedom whatever… The doctrine ascribes to all mankind a vested interest in each other’s moral, intellectual and even physical perfection, to be defined by each claimant according to his own standard.’ (9) In short, ‘social rights’, the right of society to sobriety and security, have become a weapon to be wielded by special interest groups to suppress individual liberty and choice.

Mill also recognised the killjoy nature of restrictions on alcohol. He described ‘sin taxes’ – attempts to make booze too expensive for certain people – as a form of ‘prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price; and to those who do, it is a penalty laid on them for gratifying a particular taste’ (10). That is, people are taxed for having fun – just as people will now risk being arrested in London for having a sneaky swig from a bottle on a chilled-out night out. Mill supported the government regulation of pubs, but argued that any other form of regulation – such as making alcohol ‘difficult to access’ or ‘diminishing the occasions of temptation’ – were suited ‘only to a state of society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages’ (11). Boris’s ban is an attempt to ‘diminish the occasions of temptation’, by outlawing the sipping or drinking of booze on buses and trains, and thus treats London’s commuting classes as potential unpredictable savages.

Of course, many of us have had the painful experience of coming face-to-face with pissheads on a train – yet so long as they are only talking bollocks rather than committing a criminal offence (and I mean a real criminal offence rather than the new offence of drinking from a can of Stella Artois) then they should be left alone. As Mill argued, most of the ‘harm’ from drinkers’ actions is really just an ‘inconvenience… which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom’ (12). That we have a new mayor who is willing to enforce kneejerk new bans, treat the citizens of London like children and depict the inconvenience of public drunkenness as some terrible threat to civilisation suggests Boris-led City Hall will be a profoundly un-Millian, intolerant and illiberal institution.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill asked the real Boris to stand up. Elsewhere, he thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Bruno Waterfield looked at how the success of the smoking ban had encouraged health officials to discuss the idea of ‘passive drinking’. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) John Stuart Mill and the liberty of inebriation, The Independent Institute, Volume 7, No.2, Fall 2002

(2) See the ACLU website.

(3) Boris would ban alcohol on Tube, Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2008

(4) London Underground safer than Perth rail lines, Perth Now, 19 April 2008

(5) Drink ‘fuels transport violence’, BBC News, 24 August 2005

(6) Boris in smoking ban row, London Evening Standard, 17 April 2008

(7) London’s mayor bans alcohol on trains, buses, Reuters, 7 May 2008

(8) On Liberty, JS Mill, 1859

(9) On Liberty, JS Mill, 1859

(10) On Liberty, JS Mill, 1859

(11) On Liberty, JS Mill, 1859

(12) On Liberty, JS Mill, 1859

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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