Does Britain have a drinking problem?

Take one shot of reality, add two shots of panic and a mixer of self-loathing, and you have the licensing law debate.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

‘Late-night drinking: the backlash’ read a front-page strapline of The Times (London) on 24 August, promoting a two-page news piece on the likely fallout from the new licensing laws in England and Wales, which come into effect on 24 November.

The Times reports that local councils have been ‘swamped’ by last-minute applications for new licenses to sell alcohol, which will give little opportunity for the public to object; that four pubs in the centre of Sevenoaks, Kent, will now shut at midnight, making a mockery of the hope that more flexible closing times will result in a ‘staggered’ chucking-out time that will reduce violence on the streets; and that despite having new powers over unruly drinking establishments, the police have been able to block applications for late licences without evidence that the premises are linked directly to disorder.

And so it goes on – what must surely be the longest-running pre-emptive backlash in British history. It will still be three months until the new late-night opening has any effect, yet not a day goes by without a new voice of doom warning of the dire consequences to come. On 24 August, British Transport Police argued that late-night drinking will fuel violence on public transport (1). The market analyst Mintel reported that alcohol sales are rising in Britain while the French and Germans are buying less, leading to yet more angst-ridden discussion about Britain’s bad behaviour compared to its Continental cousins (2).

A fortnight ago the Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges, made up of 636 judges who hear cases in the Crown Courts of England and Wales, warned that relaxing the licensing laws will lead to more ‘drink-fuelled violence’, such as rape and grievous bodily harm. It’s only a matter of time before we read reports of publicans complaining that the new licensing laws will make their lives hell, and young drinkers bemoaning that the end of the official grown-ups’ 11pm bedtime puts them under more peer pressure to drink all night.

Take one shot of reality, add two shots of panic and a mixer of self-loathing, and you have the current licensing law debate. No wonder it’s making us fuzzy-headed. For the more organisations that join up to the media-sponsored backlash, the less clear it becomes as to what this debate is actually about. As what we drink, where we drink, how much we drink becomes subject to never-ending complaint and scrutiny, one has to ask the question: is drinking really the problem here, or is the discussion about something else?

Yes, Britons drink. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that in 2003/2004, two fifths of men and nearly one quarter of women in Great Britain exceeded the ‘recommended amount’ of alcohol (defined as more than four units a day for men, and three units for women) on at least one day in the previous week. Of people aged 16 to 24, 37 per cent of men and 26 per cent of women had drunk over double the recommended amount – defined by the authorities as ‘heavy drinking’ (3). Mintel’s recent statistics show that alcohol sales in Britain have risen by five per cent since 1999 – fuelled, says a report in the Daily Telegraph, ‘by the inexorable rise in women drinkers’ (4).

That’s the shot of reality: more Britons drink more than they used to, and women and young people particularly drink more than they used to. This situation is widely assumed to be at the root of Britain’s drinking problem – but is it necessarily a problem? Some historical perspective is required: Britons drink more than they did in the time of rationing, when nobody was consuming much of anything – but in fact we drink less now than we did a century ago. And while the medical authorities might blanche at the numbers exceeding their recommended amounts, the stingy recommendations need questioning: for a woman to have drunk more than half a bottle of wine once in the past week hardly puts her on a slippery slope towards alcoholism and death.

For women to be drinking regularly at all, and especially in public, is in many respects a mark of their equality. Who wants to go back to the days when allegedly teetotal housewives sneaked cooking sherry from the sideboard at home while their husbands enjoyed a pint after work? That young people have more disposable income is generally seen as a good thing, in the narrow confines of our consumer society.

Contrary to the snobbish belief, routinely aired by politicians, judges and commentators around the reform of the licensing laws, that the wrong people are drinking too much, drinking is a middle-class activity. The ONS reports that in 2003/04, 82 per cent of men and 71 per cent of women in managerial and professional households had had a drink in the previous week, compared with 68 per cent of men and 50 per cent of women in routine and manual households. The proportion of people in managerial and professional households drinking on five or more days in the previous week was twice that of adults in the routine and manual group (24 per cent compared with 12 per cent) (5).

And while Mintel’s report on the European drinking league was widely interpreted as yet another example of why Britain is a problem, Mintel itself had a different take. ‘[I]n Britain, there is a new “cosmopolitanism” that has helped drive what has been perhaps the most outstanding feature of the UK drinks markets since the 1990s – the rise and rise of wine consumption’, said the report. ‘Sales of wine in the UK are now larger than sales of spirits and the market has been driven by rising incomes, more “aspirational” drinking habits, a trend towards home entertaining and by a massive promotional push.’ (6) Viewed in this way, our increased drinking (caused by the rising popularity of wine) could be seen as the first step towards the ‘Continental café-style culture’ that the British government is so keen on creating.

In our post-Puritan era, it is hard to see what it is about the reality of Britain’s drinking habits that should make it such a concern. But this is where the two shots of panic come in. The fact that some individuals drink too much and smash up their friends and town centres, abuse transport staff, and vomit on the pavement, has provoked a string of worst-case scenarios from the authorities and the media about what could potentially happen when these individuals are drinking in pubs for longer. Yet few stop to question the judges’ glib assertion that the new licensing laws will lead to ‘more rapes’ (a scary thought, certainly, but causation might be difficult to prove), or the British Transport Police’s fear that pubs staying open for longer will lead to more violent incidents (even though much public transport shuts down at midnight).

No doubt the new licensing laws will bring their share of disorder, especially at first, as young drinkers adjust to their newfound freedoms and everybody else is on the alert to report any problem to the authorities or in the papers. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine the kind of drink-fuelled social breakdown that is being predicted across the board. Will the good folks of Sevenoaks, Kent, really find themselves terrorised by drinkers who have been given the time for two more pints?

The overreaction to the new licensing laws indicates that the debate about Britain’s drinking culture is motivated by something other than the facts about what we drink and where we drink. Skulking underneath all these worst-case scenarios is a deeper worry about why we drink – what it is about modern life that sends us to the bar and encourages us to stay there. There is a fear that the much-vaunted boom in Britain’s leisure industry is really a euphemism for aimless, irresponsible, rootless behaviour; that the rise in disposable income marks the aggressive march of our shallow, aggressive, consumer society; and that the happy drunks we see through the windows of the new Super Pubs are wearing alcopop masks to cover their loneliness and depression. This is the mixer of self-loathing.

Magnus Linklater, writing in The Times, discusses the Scottish Executive’s reform of Scotland’s licensing laws – which, he points out, ‘starts from an entirely different premise’ to the discussion in England and Wales: ‘“Scotland”, [the Executive] says, “is a country in denial over the impact of alcohol on everyday lives. In denial that our cultural dependence on drink is so advanced. For too many Scots, drink is the lifeblood, the shield, the excuse”.’ (7) While the English and Welsh drinking debate has been dominated by fears about law and order and the nation’s health, the Scottish Executive is more therapeutic in its concerns, worrying about the damage done by drink to individuals’ psyche. If the Scots see drink as ‘the lifeblood, the shield, the excuse’, what does this say about Scottish society? A nation hooked upon the escapism of alcohol must be one that is profoundly uninspired by real life, and disengaged from the real world.

Though it is rarely so bluntly expressed, this is the concern that underpins much of the debate about the licensing laws in England and Wales, too. Commentators peer through the windows of Super Pubs in the north of England to see crowds of young people engaged in ‘vertical drinking’ and screaming above the noise of the music (if they even bother to talk at all) and are struck by the anti-social emptiness of it all. They watch the thirtysomething women, the wives and mothers of yesteryear, staggering home from another night on the lash and find it all rather unwholesome. They see men, so docile at work and compliant at home, ruddy-faced and rowdy after more pints than any right-thinking person can imagine buying, let alone drinking, and they worry about where all this pent-up testosterone will go. Here, on a Friday night, seems to be a grim snapshot of the best that modern society has to offer its citizens – more opportunity to get pissed out of their minds. Is this really the world we want?

Well, no. But as with the law’n’order, ‘women will get raped!’ discussion, a reality check is needed. Britain’s drinking culture reflects changes in our society that, in broad terms, are quite uncomfortable. For example, the relentless expansion of the student scene has resulted in a section of young society that has disposable income gained from disposable jobs, and little to do with their time. The rise of singleton society and the falling birth rate have contributed to the erosion of domestic life – your thirtysomethings getting drunk all night with their colleagues don’t have homes to go to, so they stay in the pub.

The decline in social bonds and solidarities mean that people have fewer inhibitions about losing their inhibitions on a regular basis, and the stultifying character of public life and work make the pub one of the few arenas in which people can let off steam. The petty obsession by the authorities in policing personal behaviour means that acts that, in the past, would have been brushed aside as low-grade rowdiness now become big issues, labelled ‘anti-social behaviour’ or ‘violent crime’.

All of these trends do represent a problem, in the sense that our society is becoming more atomised, idle and illiberal. Yet many of those who bemoan Britain’s drinking culture champion the broader trends behind it as new expressions of freedom, self-fulfillment and more effective social policy – as though life is so much better than in the past, and all people need to do to recognise that is to stop drinking and indulging in their other nasty personal habits.

Our fragmented consumer society is not caused by drink, and nor is it solved by attacking people’s drinking habits. The fact that people continue to come together in public spaces, like the pub, to get to know their friends and colleagues is surely a good thing. The fact that people drink alcohol to take the edge of a fairly unsatisfying everyday life is surely not a bad thing. If there is a problem with Britain’s pubs at all, it is that too few other areas of public life offer anything more attractive. And if there is a problem with Britain’s drinking culture, it is not that people drink too much or too often – it is that they are not doing much else as well.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) Drink ‘fuels transport violence’, BBC, 24 August 2005

(2) Britain shooting up European drinking league, Sarah Womack, Daily Telegraph, 24 August 2005

(3) Social Trends 35 (.pdf 4.97 MB), 2005

(4) Britain shooting up European drinking league, Sarah Womack, Daily Telegraph, 24 August 2005

(5) Social Trends 35 (.pdf 4.97 MB), 2005

(6) Britain shooting up European drinking league, Sarah Womack, Daily Telegraph, 24 August 2005

(7) ‘Last orders for licences: yet another fiasco in the great legislation binge’, Magnus Linklater, The Times (London), 24 August 2005

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Topics Politics


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