Time gentlemen, police
The government's plans to liberalise the licensing laws will further regulate the way we drink now, says spiked editor Mick Hume.
Reading the Government’s plans to liberalise the licensing laws could be enough to make anybody turn to the bottle. A Bill that purports to ‘sweep away red tape’ looks set to impose more mean-spirited regulations on the way we drink now.
Of course Britain’s ridiculous licensing laws need reforming. With evening hours that have hardly been touched since chucking-out time for the Kaiser, they have long stood as a sort of compulsory bedtime for adults. Yet it seems wise to keep our wits about us when liberalisation and late-night drinking are championed by new Labour ministers without a liberal bone in their body politic.
The Culture Ministry’s proposals confirm that its priority is not to expand individual liberty, but to extend social control. Reforming the drinking laws is proposed as part of the Government’s crusade against antisocial behaviour, to allow people to ‘sleep easy’ in their beds (and not after imbibing a skinful).
The prime aim of longer opening hours is apparently to ‘minimise public disorder’. New Labour has not been persuaded by the drinking public, but by police chiefs who claim that it will be easier to control the streets if staggered closing times stop everybody staggering out together by 11.30pm. There will be new powers for the police to close rowdy pubs on the spot, and for the courts to close all licensed premises in an area where disorder might occur (which could mean just about anywhere). Residents will also have a say in licensing decisions, raising the prospect of legal battles between those who want a pint and those who want a quiet night’s sleep – both of which the courts have previously recognised as a ‘human right’. The overall message appears to be that we can spend longer in a pub as long as we show no signs of having had a drink.
No doubt it will be nice for parents to be able to take children into licensed premises more easily. But it was bizarre to hear Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, announce that the most important part of the new law would be ‘tough measures to strengthen protection for children’. In pubs? Perhaps this obsession with child safety explains why licensees, like school staff, will now be vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau.
Ms Jowell says that people ‘deserve to finally be treated like grown-ups’. But she goes on to make clear which class of grown-ups she has in mind. ‘If they want to go for a drink after watching a film or a show at 11pm they should have that option.’ And what of those carousers who do not relish the prospect of a quiet drink with Ms Jowell and friends? Presumably they can expect to be treated more like naughty children.
The government proposals talk repeatedly about encouraging a more ‘responsible’ and ‘civilised’ attitude to drinking. In a truly civilised society, however, responsible adults should be free not just to enjoy a small wine with a post-theatre supper, but to drink, fall down, throw up and even wake up in a hedge if they choose, so long as they take responsibility for their actions (and do not try to sue the barman).
Such a concept of the responsible citizen is alien to Whitehall’s modern equivalent of a Methodist watch committee, which believes not in liberties but in ‘rights and responsibilities’, otherwise known as ‘the Government giveth, and the Government taketh away’.
The bloodless new breed of ‘safe pubs’ (no smoking, no swearing, no sexist remarks) already seem designed to drive drinkers back home by 10pm. With its fresh crackdown on street drinking, and an attempt to make people in public houses behave as if they are having tea in the parlour, new Labour is on a mission to sanitise and sober-up our public spaces. The Bill will even include more powers to control drinking on trains (which should make those long journeys jollier still), and at takeaway restaurants.
As a latter day Sir Toby Belch might say to the Culture Secretary: ‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more curry and lager?’
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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