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Forcing Britain to sober up

The proposed ban on pub ‘happy hours’ is a metaphor for the government’s miserabilist disgust with fun.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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The economic downturn, and the UK government’s tax-juggling efforts to resolve the crisis, has led some to proclaim that ‘macro’ politics and economic management are back. Surely the financial turmoil means that the government will be too preoccupied to meddle in our day-to-day lives via hectoring advice and heinous bans? Surely politicians will now be forced to concentrate on bigger issues than what parents put in their kids’ lunch boxes or how many units of alcohol Brits drink on a Saturday night? Dream on. It’s business as usual for New Labour.

This week, the government will announce a new set of bans and regulations that will do nothing to stimulate the free market but will help to stifle a free society. Once again, the government’s determination to demonise alcohol and drinkers is at the top of the agenda. As the ‘season to be jolly’ approaches, the government’s response is to crank up the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge even higher this year. Even though cash is tight for many people, politicians have decided to add to our fiscal woes by banning ‘happy hours’ in pubs – those rather misnamed sessions where punters can drown their sorrows at a discount, usually for a couple of hours or more. From this week, pub landlords and club owners will no longer be allowed to sell alcohol at reduced prices at any time. So pubs and clubs can no longer attract punters with promotional offers, such as two-for-one or half-price drinks.

This policy comes after the UK chancellor of the exchequer, Alastair Darling, recently announced tax and spending changes to provide a boost to the ailing economy. While UK sales tax – value added tax (VAT) – would be cut from 17.5 to 15 per cent for a period of 13 months starting on 1 December, Darling said he would raise duty on alcohol further, in order to keep it at the same price despite the drop in VAT. This blow for the pub industry follows the nine per cent increase in beer duty announced in the last Budget in March with a promise of rises at two per cent above inflation for the next four years. The proposed ban on ‘happy hours’ is yet another device to keep the price of alcohol artificially high with the hope of curbing ‘anti-social behaviour’.

Gerry Sutcliffe, the licensing minister, told the Commons Culture Select Committee last week: ‘If it [happy hour] is a promotion causing people to get drunk and causing problems then it is right that we should act.’ (1) If Sutcliffe is worried about disorderly conduct, such as punch-ups at pub closing time, then there already exist enough laws to deal with such aggravations. It seems the government’s real concern is that people choose to go to pubs with the full intention of getting drunk. For the government, unhealthily preoccupied with its citizens’ personal conduct, such outrageous behaviour simply won’t do.

Under the proposed codes, brewers will be forced to print warnings on drink labels and pubs will have to display the number of units of alcohol in each type of drink served, just in case pub patrons are too dim to realise that whisky is pretty strong compared with beer. The new rules would be enforced by local government trading standards officers and the police, who will have the power to place conditions on the issue of licences and to remove licences where premises breach the code.

On top of all this reprehensible pettiness, the government is considering forcing brewers to reduce alcohol content in drink, while suggesting that tax on alcohol should be linked to the strength of alcohol content. Furthermore, the government is seeking to reduce the drink-drive limit to zero for drivers who are under 21 years of age – if a blood or breath test shows any alcohol in their bodies, that will be an offence.

Officialdom always likes to justify such restrictive measures in the only way petty officials know how – through soulless and dry statistics. Apparently alcohol ‘misuse’ costs the National Health Service more than £2.7billion a year, while the economy suffers a £25billion blow every year through lost working days.

Well, here are some other figures that the government conveniently ignores: major brewers in the UK saw their profits slump by 78 per cent between 2004 and 2006, suggesting we’re not quite a nation of public lager guzzlers. Thirty-six pubs close every week, on average, due to the smoking ban and the relentless hikes on the price of alcohol. The Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) estimates that such closures have cost 44,000 jobs over the past five years, and 43,000 are projected to be lost over the next five. There have been 37 major brewery closures, accounting for 25 per cent of all brewery employees. This year alone, 13 pub operators, operating 960 pubs, have gone into administration (3).

No doubt the economic downturn has affected pub sales of food and drink, but it is the government’s war on alcohol that is ultimately to blame for destroying the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. For the government, it seems, forcing landowners and brewery employees into penury is a price worth paying if it gets citizens to behave in a sanitised and soberly manner on Saturday nights. After all, the new measures that will be introduced this week will only further increase pub closures and redundancies. So much for trying to kickstart the economy.

Indeed, all of this proves that far from New Labour returning to old-style social democracy and economic management, its obsession with micro-managing our lives continues at an alarming pace. Although some of these new measures, such as the drink-driving ban for under-21s, won’t have a direct impact on most drinkers, they do help soften up public opinion for more wide-ranging bans and controls in the future. The government admitted over the weekend that some of its proposals, such as stopping cigarettes from being displayed in newsagents or vending machines, won’t have any impact on public health and these initiatives have now been dropped at the last minute.

Nevertheless, the sheer relentlessness of these measures and proposals helps legitimise the notion that it is perfectly acceptable for government to restrict public space and personal freedom. That assumption is also based on the poisonous and corrosive notion that British citizens are inherently problematic, especially when we’ve had a few drinks. It is this genuine fear and barely concealed disgust for us that propels New Labour to carry on restricting our autonomy at every opportunity.

That fear and loathing is itself a product of New Labour’s peculiar development in British politics, as a self-referencing clique of managers and technocrats with no genuine roots or connections in wider society. As such, their isolation from ordinary people has generated a succession of Labour ministers who are, at best, embarrassingly unworldly about adult life or absolutely petrified of the city they live and work in. One minister, Caroline Flint, said she ‘couldn’t believe that people actually go out to get drunk’; Harriet Harman couldn’t face touring the London district of Peckham – an area she has represented in parliament for 26 years – without wearing a stab-proof vest. This would be funny if New Labour’s jittery nerves didn’t have such destructive consequences on our freedoms and our lifestyles.

Anyone hoping for a return to ‘macro politics’ and the end of New Labour petty meddling will be sorely disappointed. Although the government realises that Britain’s economy is in a dire state, it still thinks most of us are sinking even lower in our personal lives. Having uncorked the sour whine of micro-management, it seems this government hasn’t tired of pouring out strong regulation measures just yet.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick urged doctors to refuse to become the high priests of the new anti-boozing temperance movement. Lee Jones analysed the moralistic myth of the ‘demon drink’. Josie Appleton argued against all booze bans. Brendan O’Neill thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) Pubs and clubs told to end happy hour, The Times (London), 26 November 2008

(2) UK beer sales tumble to the lowest since 1975, Daily Telegraph, 27 June 2008

(3) Calling time, Guardian, 21 October 2008

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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