Are British stag nights really wrecking Riga?

The annual silly-season attack on British stags in Latvia is, once again, based on snobbery rather than facts.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

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It may be tiresome, but the annual silly-season obsession with boozy-Brits-abroad stories does have a certain logic. As many UK citizens head off for their holidays during the summer months, it makes sense that the politics of behaviour, complete with a brochure of Foreign Office guidance and advice, goes with them. If they can’t look after themselves at home, so officialdom’s thinking goes, how are the imbeciles going to cope abroad? Well, by boozing, shagging and pissing everywhere, if this week’s comments from the mayor of the Lativian capital Riga are to be believed.

Mayor Nils Usakovs’ principal target was that bete noir of the self-styled guardians of civilisation, the stag party. More and more British stags and their friends are descending on Riga, and the mayor is not happy. He said: ‘If we also had other tourists, then British visitors who piss about all the time would not be as noticeable. Let’s not be politically correct… this is their speciality.’ (1)

This isn’t the first time the Latvian authorities have sought to stymie the stag. In 2006, Latvian MEP Oscars Kastens branded those catching cheap flights to Riga from Liverpool John Lennon Airport as ‘savages’. ‘I’m welcoming people coming to visit my country’, he said, ‘but not just for stag parties’ (2). In 2008 Latvia interior minister saw fit to call Brits a ‘dirty, hoggish people’ (3). The occasion for this slight was the decision of a British tourist to empty his bladder on Riga’s freedom monument, erected as a tribute to those who fought and died for Latvian independence in 1918-20. ‘These people think it is a tradition to mar our monument. They are pigs, those British. A piggy nation’, the Latvian minister said. This week a spokesperson for the mayor continued: ‘The most popular thing [for British stag parties] was using our monument of liberty as a toilet.’ (4)

While not wishing to defend an act of insensitive urination, one also wonders if such behaviour is really a tradition amongst stag-doing Brits. In May 2007 a British man was indeed arrested for peeing near the monument (5). By February 2008, four more Brits had been arrested for a similar offence. So, in the course of 10 months, five Brits, possibly on stag dos, possibly not, had been arrested for weeing near the freedom monument. That’s right, five. Not 500. Not 50. Five. When you consider that over the course of a year over 100,000 Brits visit Latvia, the vast majority to Riga, that is a pretty insignificant figure (6). As traditions go, it’s hardly up there with kissing the Blarney stone. Anecdotally this is backed up, perhaps predictably cynics may say, by Paul Luke, Eastern Europe sales co-ordinator for stag party tour operator Playing down the furore, he blamed the reputation of Britons in Riga on a tiny handful of notorious incidents.

As for the bad behaviour of Brits in Riga more generally, hard statistics are hard to come by, mainly because Latvia doesn’t actually feature in the top 10 places where British consular assistance has been needed. So, in lieu of figures for Latvia it’s perhaps useful to look at that other mecca for the British stag do, the Czech Republic. Between 1 April 2005 and 31 March 2006, there were 813,000 visitors from the UK. Of that rather large number of potentially pissheaded barbarians, a paltry 36 were arrested. As the figure of 445 missing passports shows, the biggest problem for the drink-sodden stags and their pissed cohorts is not violence or rape or public indecency, it’s the drunken man’s folly: losing stuff. To put the behaviour of stag dos into perspective, with 650,000 British visits during the same period, Australia – a destination out of the financial reach of most stag parties – recorded a higher number of arrests of Brits: 48 (8).

So why all the fuss? For Lativian ministers and officials, there are probably good, pragmatic reasons. If income from tourism is slackening, and there’s a sense that a perception of Riga is putting off potentially more lucrative tourists, it might be an idea to change that perception. Unfortunately, the comments from Latvian officials play into the hands of those who think and expect the worst of Britain’s budget-flight-taking masses. For those of a snobbish disposition, the mayor of Riga’s outburst is manna from a beautifully furnished heaven.

This is why those travelling to Australia are not subject to the same bilious attention, despite the higher arrest figures: Australia is not a cheap destination. Budget flights are limited, and bars and hotels are more expensive. It attracts a different clientele, a different type of Brit, the type who does know how to behave, who can be trusted; a gap-year student, perhaps. For the snob, there is little to be said of people like themselves. Eastern and Central Europe, on the other hand, attract a far more downmarket version of the British tourist. These are cheaper people, propelled across Europe by cheap flights to destinations with cheap beer and cheap clubs. They are the type that, were they at home, would be subject to endless dietary and alcohol guidance. They, it is assumed, cannot be trusted. They might now be able to consume things that were previously only the preserve of the wealthy, like foreign holidays, but they don’t really know how to do it properly, to consume well. They lack that key quality of the snob: taste.

Hence the commentary almost always pays homage to a beautiful, historic backdrop, now sullied by the holidaying lower orders. ‘They might be able to fly to Riga, but they don’t know how to consume it, to observe and enjoy it, like I do’ – that is the snob’s thinking. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Charles Starmer-Smith is quick to feel the mayor of Riga’s pain: ‘I have cringed myself on seeing groups of drunk Britons treat the beautiful old towns of Eastern and Central Europe with utter distain, urinating in the streets, exposing themselves and offering girls money for sex.’ (9) Likewise, Roger Boyes in The Times talks of how ‘cathedrals, lovingly protected during decades of atheistic communist rule, provide useful cover for projectile vomiting’ (10). Before budget flights made such places accessible to the British rabble, they were not just the preserve of those with taste; they also allowed the tasteful to escape the barbarians at home. No more; the uncouth are abroad, and, God forbid, drinking lager.

That the behaviour of Brits abroad, exaggerated beyond all recognition, should be the subject of so much snobbish glee should not be a surprise. It is merely the open form of the surreptitious snobbery that informs so much of the domestic obsession with the masses’ behaviour, be it our diet or our alcohol intake. While not wishing to defend pissing in public, for the most part those travelling to Riga or Prague, whether on stag dos or not, are just having fun. While it might not be everybody’s idea of fun, it is not the decline of civilisation either. That, I suspect, begins far closer to home.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

(1) Riga plans crackdown on British stag parties with tourist police, The Times (London), 5 August 2009

(2) Latvian brands tourists ‘savages’, BBC News, 4 August 2006

(3) Prison for the ‘English pig’ who urinated on Latvia’s Freedom Monument, Baltic Visitor, 3 March 2008

(4) Riga plans crackdown on British stag parties with tourist police, The Times (London), 5 August 2009

Caught on camera: Briton urinating by Latvia’s holiest monument
, Monsters and Critics, 19 March 2007

(6) In 2006 90,000 British nationals visited Latvia. In 2007, it had risen to 112,000. See p26, Transport Travel and Tourism – Quarter 2008, Office for National Statistics

(7) Cited inMayor of Riga latest to hit out at behaviour of Brits abroad, Guardian, 5 August 2009

(8) See British Behaviour Abroad, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 9 August 2007

(9) Stag parties: ‘badly-behaved Britons is a price Riga must pay’, Daily Teleraph, 5 August 2009

(10) Stag party backlash unlikely to last despite Latvia’s best efforts, The Times (London), 5 August 2009

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