‘We will put a stop to the easy availability of cheap booze that has blighted Britain for too long. This is a comprehensive strategy to take back our town centres from the drunken thugs and to restore them to the law-abiding majority.’
So declared British home secretary Theresa May during a surprise ministerial announcement last Friday. This is only the fourth time in the past 10 years such an announcement has taken place on a Friday – the other times being about Libya, swine flu and Iraq. Critics have suggested that the timing of this announcement was a tactical attempt to divert attention from damaging stories about the budget, and they may well have a point. But given the heady rhetoric May was using, you could be forgiven for thinking that this ‘blight’ of cheap alcohol was on a par with declaring war or combating a putative pandemic.
This war on cheap booze comes despite the fact that levels of drinking in the UK are actually on the wane, rather on the rise. As I have pointed out previously on spiked, the increased hysteria about a boozing ‘epidemic’ in Britain actually coincides with a steady decline in per-capita consumption of alcohol since 2002. Since when was something an epidemic when the ‘problem’ is on the decline?
Such apparently trivial facts couldn’t stop May in full flow, however, as she painted a picture of drunken thugs running amok in town centres across Britain. The cause of this phenomenon, May said confidently, is the habit of ‘pre-loading’, a faux-scientific term for drinking loads of cheap booze at home before going out in order to save money in the pub. May proposes that slapping a minimum price of 40 pence – or maybe more, if the forthcoming consultation suggests it would be more effective – on every unit of alcohol, alongside banning special offers such as buy-one-get-one-free deals, could help solve the problem. If people could no longer afford to do this as readily, the logic seems to go, then they couldn’t get as trollied. Those weekend city-centre streets, so often compared to William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, would become civilised, family-friendly places, perhaps similar to la passeggiata in Italy.
Except, of course, this is nonsense, as swathes of young people interviewed by the media have pointed out since the announcement. A few extra quid won’t stop people from getting trashed if they want to. They’ll either have to, as one girl told The Times, ‘buy less food’ and cut their spending on other things. Or, if the price gets prohibitively high, they will, as another told the paper, get more of their kicks from illegal drugs like ketamine, mephedrone or MDMA instead. It has also been suggested people would go back to home brewing, common in Scandinavian countries that have sky-high taxes on alcohol. The idea that, as the government argues, minimum pricing of 40p per unit will cause ‘50,000 fewer crimes each year and 9,000 fewer alcohol-related deaths over the next decade’ assumes that people won’t find alternative means to get mashed or find more money to pay for their drinks.