We don’t need to be saved from the ‘demon drink’

The old temperance movement was made up of working men who promoted self-control. Today booze-bashing is the preserve of a killjoy elite.

Ours is not the first age when the public has been constantly urged to cut back on the demon drink. But never before has the campaign for public abstinence taken such an elitist and morally vacuous form.

Nineteenth-century abstinence movements were composed almost entirely of working men and women. The English temperance movement launched in 1832 with the total abstinence pledge of ‘seven men of Preston’; these men then journeyed from village to village calling on people to give up drinking and by the 1860s had won a million teetotallers (1). The grassroots temperance movement was set against the entire establishment, since at that time doctors prescribed alcohol to their patients and parliament passed liberalising Beer Acts that vastly expanded the number of pubs per head of population.

In America, meanwhile, it was women who formed the backbone of the 1870s prohibition movement. Attempting to wrest money from the saloon for the family purse, they demonstrated outside (and sometimes inside) saloon bars with prayer sessions and singing.

Now, by contrast, the call for alcohol limitation comes almost entirely from the elite. The main alcohol reduction charities – Alcohol Concern England and Wales, Alcohol Focus Scotland – rely largely on state funding. Only £8,186 of Alcohol Concern’s £1.1 million budget came from public donations; the Welsh branch of Alcohol Concern received £250,000 funding from the Welsh Assembly, while Alcohol Focus Scotland is 44 per cent funded by the Scottish government.

There is a close-knit network of alcohol charities, public-health bodies, licensing authorities, drug and alcohol partnerships, the medical profession, and central government, which has developed an extremely tight consensus about ‘responsible drinking’ that bears almost no relationship to public problems or desires. The alcohol industry’s self-regulatory bodies – Drinkaware and the Portman Group – are a barely distinguishable part of this network (and indeed Drinkaware receives Big Lottery Fund grants).

The concerns of temperance movements reflect their elite or popular origins. The nineteenth-century abstinence movement was concerned about the effects of alcohol on the individual and his family. The English temperance leader, Joseph Livesey, said in 1867 that drink ‘muddles the brain, clouds the intellect, enervates the moral faculties and destroys the spring of all useful action’ (2). Over-drinking was seen as a problem because it destroyed valued faculties such as ‘clear thinking’ and self-control, and also reduced a man’s ability to provide for his family. (This was indeed a real problem, since men were paid in pubs and their wives had to head to the tavern to try to save some wages for food.) Others saw alcohol as a waste of money that could be better invested. A temperance figure in 1780s Connecticut lamented that instead of 10 years’ drinking, ‘a rum drinker could have brought a small farm and stock’, or subscribed to a newspaper to ‘improve himself and entertain his family’ (1).

By contrast, responsible-drinking policy now is almost solely concerned with the costs of alcohol to the state. Alcohol reduction strategies are less concerned with wasted lives or opportunities than with costs to the public purse and threats to public order. Implausibly precise statistics claim that alcohol-related crime costs £7.3 billion per year in ‘emergency and criminal justice services’, and costs to the National Health Service are ‘estimated at £2.7 billion a year’. Meanwhile, limiting alcohol consumption would apparently lead to 97,900 fewer hospital admissions, 45,800 fewer crimes, 296,900 fewer sick days – a total saving to the NHS and other state departments of over £1 billion per year.

Which leads to the most important distinction between old and new temperance: while old temperance was about people’s self-control over their minds and bodies, new temperance is almost entirely about state control of people’s behaviour.

Rather than legislative changes, the nineteenth-century English temperance movement focused on what they called ‘moral suasion’, convincing people to ‘take the pledge’ and mend their ways. Their bands of reformed drunkards would journey from town to village testifying how much their lives had been improved since they put away the bottle. The movement sought ‘self- and home reform, the best of all reform’, and it was their view that until public opinion had been changed, legislative prohibition would be useless. The American temperance movement mainly resorted to legislation when the moral battle had been lost: 1920s Prohibition was a rearguard action by smalltown Puritan America against the swirling exuberance of the metropolis, and was doomed to failure.

Of course, nineteenth-century temperance had its elitist aspect, too. Some factory owners enforced temperance among their workers, to the end of worker efficiency and discipline. Yet this was a localised and not really a national phenomenon.

Current responsible-drinking policy is not concerned with self-control, but with official control of people’s behaviour. Public-health officials seem to recognise no limits to their interventions, and indeed I have heard discussions at alcohol-policy conferences about how they might close down drinks-related Facebook groups or prevent parents from leaving their beer in the garage.

As well as being interfering and patronising, this policy is also remarkably ineffective. It is so imbued with an elite worldview and priorities that, for all the millions spent on ‘responsible drinking’ measures every year, they barely make any impact on public attitudes.

Alcohol policy has two current methods of reducing public drinking: control over alcohol advertising, and education about units and recommended drinking limits. The Mandatory Drinking Code and other regulations prevent ‘irresponsible alcohol promotions’, which includes anything linking alcohol to sexual or social success or encouraging rapid drinking. This has led to a micro-analysis of the meaning and framing of adverts.

Alcohol Concern, for example, brought a successful case against a ‘Wild Africa Cream’ ad, which had the strapline ‘Unleash your wild side’ next to claw marks and an image of a man and a woman passionately embracing. According to Alcohol Concern, this ad associated alcohol with sexual success and enhanced confidence; in its defence, the alcohol company said that the scratches were part of its logo and not scratches on the man’s back. Yet the Advertising Standards Authority decided that the drink had led to the woman seducing the man, and so the advert was banned.

Meanwhile, Alcohol Focus Scotland is spending Scottish taxpayers’ money bringing cases against test-tube drinks, which it claims encourage people to drink ‘down in one’. The claim rests on the test tube’s lack of a flat bottom, which means that it cannot be set down mid-drink (which is hardly necessary given that each tube contains a mere 20ml of liquid and just 0.28 units of alcohol).

The ‘irresponsible promotions’ crackdown has led to industry bans on drinks names such as ‘shooters’ or ‘slammers’, which imply fast drinking, as well as ‘suggestive cocktail names’ such as ‘Sex on the Beach’. ‘Happy hour’ – which irresponsibly associates alcohol with happiness – has been replaced by ‘social hour’ in some quarters.

This obsession with alcohol advertising sees drinkers as responding blindly to ‘signals’ and ‘images’ encouraging them to drink. With all the naivety of media-studies students, policymakers believe that if they can change the signals, they can change behaviour. Yet unsurprisingly, their deleting of suggestive claw marks and cocktail names has not made an observable impact on public attitudes.

The second tack to alcohol policy is to ‘educate’ people in the recommended daily drinking limits of two to three units for women and three to four units for men. These absurdly low (and apparently arbitrary) figures mean that a woman who has a couple of glasses of wine at night is defined as a binge drinker. There is a massive operation to try to convince the nine-million-plus irresponsible drinkers to step back within ‘safe’ limits, including printing units on drinks bottles and handing out drinks calculators. In one year Drinkaware handed out 800,000 calculators and 125,000 drinks diaries, while the NHS boasts an ‘alcohol tracker’, a desktop application that ‘will track the units of alcohol in your drinks and keep track of your drinking over time’.

This medicinal approach treats alcohol as a dosage, with every drink translated into millilitres of pure ethanol and so abstracted from any social context or personal judgement. This is not only meaningless; it bypasses the real ways in which people define acceptable and unacceptable drinking and make their own decisions about cutting back.

I doubt that anybody has reduced their drinking because they transgressed the official limits. People cut back because – for whatever reason – they feel they are losing control: they start to feel they need a drink, or decide that alcohol is costing them too much, or is affecting their mood. People I know who have cut back always made a personal judgement about the effect of alcohol on their lives, saying ‘I was behaving like an idiot’, or ‘I was drinking on my own’. ‘Problem drinking’ is rarely just about the units: drinking vodka on your own for breakfast is a problem in a way that drinking beer with friends after work is not.

In truth, alcohol becomes a problem when it stops us living our lives in the way we want to. We regulate it by the application of willpower, by – in the spirit of those seven men of Preston – reasserting control over a substance when we feel that it is controlling us.

The current anti-alcohol temper is not unique to our times. What is unique is the extent to which this is a purely elite phenomenon and has become so entirely abstracted from people’s inner lives and free will. We need to repopularise the debate on alcohol, taking it back from an estranged elite whose attempts to influence drinking behaviour would be amusing were they not so patronising.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a civil liberties campaign group. Email her .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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Footnotes and references

(1) Drink and the Victorians, Brian Harrison, Keele University Press

(2) The English Temperance Movement, vol 1, Henry Carter, Epworth Press 1932

(3) Alcohol: A social and cultural history, (ed) Mack P Holt, Berg 2006