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.