Booze causes violence? Let’s Czech the facts

The Czech Republic gives the lie to the idea that booze fuels crime.

Gerald Heys

Topics Politics

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To gain some first-hand experience of prison life, George Orwell went out to the Mile End Road in London one Christmas with the aim of getting himself arrested for being drunk and incapable. A day or so later, when Orwell was waiting to go into court, the sergeant told him: ‘Lucky for you Mr Brown isn’t on the bench this morning. Teetotaller he is. He don’t half give it to the drunks.’

That was 1931, but in his various guises, Mr Brown has been giving it to the drunks for a very long time. It’s odd, of course, that people who drink should get it more than anybody else. But that’s Brown in a nutshell: drinkers are worse than other offenders, more culpable somehow. Drink taints crime with sin. It is the demon, the root cause of so many of society’s ills.

Brown’s view of the world doesn’t always dominate public policy, but it’s frequently endorsed by expert opinion. The compilers of the Cardiff University report into violent crime trends, for example, suggest that the recent drop in violent crime is linked to a decline in alcohol consumption, which, they say, may be due to rising alcohol prices. They add that to reduce dangerous drinking further, the cost of booze should be jacked up even more.

The researchers, however, offer no proof of a connection between crime and alcohol. This is no surprise because such a direct relationship has always been hard to establish. As Professor Roy Light reflects in his 2010 book, Transnational Criminology Manual: ‘The perceived wisdom on the part of the government, media and many criminal justice agencies seems to be that there is a simple causal link between alcohol, crime and disorder. Further, that the problems are caused by a minority of drinkers and licensed premises that behave irresponsibly. There appears to be little or no reliable evidence base for these assumptions.’

But for Brown and his ilk, it is axiomatic that cheap booze drunk in large quantities must lead to crime and disruption. To test this viewpoint, it might be worth looking at a country where people drink quite a lot more than the British do, and see how they cope. In 2011, the Czech Republic came second on the World Health Organisation’s per-capita list of drinkers, and number one for the consumption of beer. And by quite a way. In addition, a half-litre of Pilsner costs around thirty crowns in the Czech Republic – which translates to about a pound a pint; it is literally cheaper than water. The bars in the Czech Republic also open and close when it suits them. By Brownian logic, this should mean constant fisticuffs in Wenceslas Square. However, the violent-crime figures are notably low. On the Global Peace Index, the Czech Republic comes in at number 13, out of 162 nations.

Now, these statistics themselves can be questioned on the basis that violent crime is, after all, not classified in the same way in every country. However, the same pattern emerges when you look at less equivocal indicators, like the murder rate. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) intentional homicide ranking for 2013 places the Czech Republic as the eighteenth safest nation for homicide out of 192 – lower even than places that are traditionally thought of as peaceful, such as Denmark or New Zealand. (Incidentally, it’s also very easy to get hold of a gun in the Czech Republic.)

Of course, there are rules governing Czech alcohol consumption, and some of them are very strict. You cannot drink so much as a drop and then drive, for example. What’s more, while gun laws may be liberal, carrying a gun when drunk is against the law. Nevertheless, the attitude towards alcohol in the Czech Republic is not nearly as uptight as in the UK. Rob Cameron, who has been the BBC’s correspondent in the Czech Republic for 10 years, has said that while there are murmurings about the dangers of booze every now and again, most of the time people are relaxed about their reputation as champion beer drinkers. He suggests Czech people are also pretty relaxed when they drink it, rarely displaying any of the sort of aggression many health campaigners like to associate with alcohol. For young Czechs, alcohol is not really seen as a bad thing. Not only is ‘binge drinking’ not regarded as a problem, but there seems to be no word or phrase for it. ‘It would be quite difficult to translate that concept into Czech’, Cameron said.

Even if drinking doesn’t necessarily lead to criminal violence, the perception remains that some Brits are inclined to get nasty when drunk. So why don’t the Czechs? The social anthropologist Kate Fox suggests that the loutish behaviour of some British drinkers is the result of cultural factors. In effect, we are more likely to behave unpleasantly when we drink because we believe that drink makes us behave unpleasantly. If it’s all in the mind, Fox argues, there is no reason why we can’t change. Culturally, the British have shifted a great deal over the years in a number of significant ways. Why can’t we, like the Czechs, have a more relaxed relationship with alcohol?

In his 1945 essay, ‘In Defence of English Cooking’, Orwell wrote that Britain would be a decent place to visit if it wasn’t for our miserable Sundays and the difficulty of buying a drink. ‘Both of these are due to fanatical minorities who will need a lot of quelling’, he wrote.

Mr Brown will probably always be among us. That doesn’t mean he can’t or shouldn’t be quelled.

Gerald Heys is a writer based in Gloucestershire.

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Topics Politics


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