License to drink – soberly

'The new licensing laws may exercise less control over WHEN we drink, but will only bring about more controls on HOW we drink.'

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

‘How typical and opportunistic of New Labour to revisit this in the run-up to the election’, fulminated UK shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe.

Quite right, Ms Widdecombe. An election campaign that stumbles into action with a focus on crime or asylum is indeed typical and opportunistic. But wait – these are exactly the most typically opportunistic issues the Tories have long favoured. So what could parliament’s most solid shadow be talking about?

The licensing laws, of course. Just when the Opposition thought it could get the voters with its biting critique of the New Labour government and everything it stands for, the buggers wreck it all by wooing the electorate with the prospect of all-night drinking. With such a potent alcoholic carrot, the Tories don’t stand a chance.

It’s nice to see that Ann ‘Sobriety’ Widdecombe has such faith in her voters that she has managed to miss the resounding lack of jubilation surrounding the government’s proposed licensing law reforms, over the three years the Home Office has been rabbiting on about them. (If there was one area of life where you really could accuse the government of being ‘all talk and no action’, it is the ongoing promise to liberalise England’s drinking laws). It is also reassuring to see that, in True Blue fashion, the shadow home secretary has managed to miss the central point of these reforms.

If you think there’s something very un-New-Labour-like about proposals to relax lifestyle laws and let us chill out and enjoy ourselves, think again. The new laws may exercise less control over when we drink, but will only bring about more controls on how we drink. In one of New Labour’s great paradoxes, we will be able to stay out all night drinking – provided we remain sober.

When the UK government announced its intention to overhaul England’s antiquated licensing laws, thereby allowing some pubs to stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it never pretended to be motivated by a desire to let the inhabitants of this cold, miserable country hang loose and enjoy ourselves. The major concern was always with public order.

In his foreword to the government’s April 2000 white paper, Time for Reform (1), home secretary Jack Straw explains how ‘public order issues have always arisen whenever large groups of people gather together, particularly at night, to enjoy popular pastimes’. That is why, he says, ‘We now need modern laws to deal with what is a very old problem’.

So what have been promoted as open-all-night pubs will in fact be staggered-closing-time pubs, to prevent drinkers from staggering simultaneously on to the streets. As the government announced in last year’s Queen’s Speech, police will have powers to issue £100 fines to people seen to be committing ‘disorderly behaviour’, and they will have powers to shut down ‘rowdy’ pubs. Drinking on the street will be banned. There are even plans to call time on Happy Hour. The message is clear, and down-the-line New Labour. Everything in moderation.

You can drink, but you can’t get drunk. You can have fun, but you can’t be rowdy or appear ‘anti-social’. You can hang around with groups of people, but not too many people. Everything in moderation. Or to put it another way – you can have fun, but….

Just listen to Mr Straw introducing the white paper. ‘Citizens and visitors to this country alike want – and should have – the opportunity to enjoy themselves with a drink or meal at any time, reasonably close at hand, without fear of violence, intimidation or disorder.’ And again: ‘[New laws] should allow people to enjoy their leisure as they wish, provided that this does not disturb others.’ Anybody would think he was talking about a life-long learning programme, rather than a night on the town.

Then you have Home Office minister Mike O’Brian saying that he hopes the reforms will ‘encourage the more sensible drinking culture seen in other European countries’, and you have the government promotion of ‘family-friendly pubs’. Yes – European drinking culture is nicer and more relaxed; yes, family-friendly pubs are great for people with kids; yes, sharing a night bus with a pissed-up crowd of pissed-off people whose drinking time has been cut short is not one of life’s most pleasant experiences.

But there is a world of difference between drinking as you do in Europe and being told to conform to the UK government’s sanitised stereotype of European café society. While some people like family-friendly pubs, it is not a sin to prefer an all-adult drinking environment. Our current licensing laws are stupid, but a crowd of people in party-mood on the streets does not always mean violent crime, and can generate something of a buzz. Why does New Labour have to deregulate only so it can regulate more? Why can’t it just let people have a drink, and be done with it?

The trouble with promoting ‘everything in moderation’ is that there are some things that occasionally benefit from not being done in moderation. Sometimes, you just have to go for it. Unfortunately, our uptight government is so busy preaching moderation that it sees anything else as extremism. Cheers – or should we now say, ‘Good health’?


Read on:


Queen’s Speech – it’s criminal by Jennie Bristow


Why Irish eyes aren’t smiling by Brendan O’Neill


(1) Time for Reform white paper

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