I drink, therefore I am

Charles Kennedy's public confession of alcoholism was not so far removed from the Saturday night antics of teenage binge-drinkers.

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Politics

Brave. Remarkable. Groundbreaking.

Not the adjectives usually associated with erstwhile Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy – a man previously thought of as middle-aged and boring long before his time. But just these words were bandied about him after he owned up to alcoholism in a public statement on the steps of Lib-Dem HQ in London. From the night of Thursday 5 January, when Kennedy confessed to his addiction, to the afternoon of Saturday 7 January, when he resigned, the Lib Dems had a leader who was considered interesting (more so than at any other time during his period of office), even as his leadership was deemed untenable by party apparatchiks.

In what looked almost like a piece of political theatre, Kennedy came down stage to address the audience (electorate) across the footlights (TV camera arc lights). It was kind of a Diana moment, at which Kennedy joined the ranks of the ‘battered this and battered that’ for whom the princess remains the first and most affecting monarch. Just as She identified herself on BBC Panorama by reference to bulimia, so Kennedy differentiated himself by talking about his drink problem. It may not have been calculated, but the effect of talking about drink and displaying his frailty was to pick him out from the political crowd as if by a personal spotlight.

Ironically, what Kennedy achieved by talking about drinking is what many young people seek to achieve by doing it. Again, there is a strong element of theatricality in their behaviour. As told by tabloid journalists, the ‘blight on our town centres’ comprised of binge drinking, swearing, urinating, fighting, projectile vomiting and street-corner collapse (ie, the whole routine of Saturday Night/Sunday Morning), is a performance – as was fainting by the fairer sex in the 1870s and football hooliganism in the 1970s.

Not that alcohol is without physiological effects; rather there is also a strong, social dimension to drink-driven anti-social behaviour. This means that at any given time young people learn how to drink by following the rituals of drinking pertaining at that time, just as Howard Becker observed people ‘becoming a marijuana user’ 50 years ago; similarly, it means that there is ‘deviancy amplification’, whereby young people’s behaviour is sometimes amplified in response to media coverage of drunken behaviour, as observed by Stan Cohen of teenage violence 40 years ago.

So much for the continuities; what’s changed about the social dimension of drinking in public places is that it has become a display of how much the drinker is affected by drink. After a pitcher of sangria, the pitch is: look at me, I’m out of control, I may need therapy, I’m damaged, deviant and different. All of which is very close to the mode of address in Kennedy’s public statement: look at me, I have been out of control, I need therapy, I am damaged, deviant and different.

This itself is different. I am old enough to remember when the art of drinking was defined by theatrical indifference to the effects of alcohol. The performance was to see how much you could consume without being noticeably ‘worse for wear’. This is the game which Arthur Seaton plays (and loses) in the opening pages of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; I myself played and lost the same plot many times during my late teens and early twenties. On the rare occasions when I won, however, the prize was (temporary) membership in an anonymous club of those who ‘could hold their drink’. Not only indifference to alcohol and its effects, but entry into a brotherhood whose brethren were uniform – that is, undifferentiated, in their performance of indifference.

This was immaturity; and for my life to have remained defined by it would have constituted inadequacy. But it was immaturity of its time and of an appropriately public kind. In accordance with, at that time, the indifference of public life to personality, the goal of my drunkenness was to lose personality and become no more and no less than a man who could hold his drink. By contrast, at a time when public life is increasingly oriented around personality, public drinking is now the screech of personality: not so much desperate for a drink, but desperate for the self-differentiation which drink is currently called upon to deliver.

This too is what Kennedy delivered by his public statement about a personal problem. Whether or not the Lib Dems could have made a success of this failing is moot; but I will not be surprised to see something akin to New Labour’s capitalisation on the failing health of John Smith, Blair’s shortlived predecessor as party leader.

Truly, how we drink and what we drink to says something about the way we live now. Similarly, Kennedy’s statement about his alcoholism said a lot about the performance of fragile personality which much of politics has now become.

Andrew Calcutt drinks in moderation.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

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Topics Politics


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