Prohibition by stealth

First they came for the lager-drinkers; now they're coming for champagne socialists. New Labour's battle against booze is heralding a new era of miserabilist puritanism.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

With less than a month until England goes ‘smoke free’ – that is, bans smoking in places of work – the New Labour government has stepped up its campaign to make the country booze-free too.

Yesterday, the Home Office and the Department of Health published a report on the next phase of the National Alcohol Strategy, Safe. Sensible. Social. The report includes a binge of ‘triple measures’ against what the authorities see as a rogue’s gallery of pissheads and winos. As part of its ‘three-pronged strategy’, the government aims to breathalyse the usual suspects, including the working masses and teenagers – but now it also has stern words for middle-class stay-at-home vinophiles, whose boozing is apparently problematic too. With the middle classes now under regulative scrutiny, the question must be asked: is nobody safe from intrusive meddling?

The new strategy document proposes, in many ways, more of the same: more education campaigns, more advice, more treatment facilities, and more of a crackdown on drunken behaviour. The targets include underage drinkers and 18- to 24-year-olds; the report also suggests targeting ‘harmful drinkers, many of whom don’t realise that their drinking patterns damage their physical and mental health and may be causing substantial harm to others.’ That includes you people who neck a couple of bottles of wine at home as well as those who get drunk and disorderly in public.

When the government was softening up public attitudes to the smoking ban in pubs, articles on spiked had already identified that alcohol would be the next target (see Doesn’t this government know its limits? by Neil Davenport). Indeed, the government has admitted as much, with newspapers reporting that ‘ministers want drunkenness in public to be as socially unacceptable in ten years’ time as smoking or drink-driving is today’ (1). To back up its miserablist puritanism, the government bandies around titanic figures about the cost of boozing to the National Health Service (£1.3billion, £1.7billion, any takers for £1.9billion?), as if dry facts and figures will correspondingly dry out a nation of drinkers.

If that fails, the British Medical Association has suggested putting even higher taxes on alcohol, as if there aren’t enough already. Elsewhere, there are calls for pubs and restaurants to display ‘warnings’ on how many units of alcohol are contained in drinks served by the glass. This would probably have little effect on alcohol consumption, though it would help novice drinkers to see what will intoxicate them the quickest.

The latest move to lecture home drinkers as well as public drunks follows on from two recent official reports warning of the dangers of excess alcohol, including alcohol-related deaths and injuries, as well as the increase of alcohol consumption amongst young women (2). There was also an article in the Lancet recently suggesting that drinking alcohol was ‘worse’ than taking the drug ecstasy (3).

Now the government wants to warn seasoned wine guzzlers about their alcohol unit footprint. ‘We want to target older drinkers, those that are maybe drinking one or two bottles of wine at home each evening’, a Whitehall source said. ‘They do not realise the damage they are doing to their health and that they risk developing liver disease.’ (4) The source scandalously omitted any mention of the environmental damage drinkers cause, particularly from the increase in their flatulent CO2 omissions.

Such idiotic statements from the government reveal how isolated it is today, not only from the masses that it instinctively fears and loathes, but even from its own supporters. The argument that older, middle-class drinkers can’t really distinguish between wine and water is shockingly naive. It shows how far the government is losing any sense of political moorings. It is one thing to demonise chavs and kids for their alcopop-frenzied ways (always a reliable way to get both the liberal Guardian and the conservative Daily Mail on your side), but it’s another thing for the government to call on the middle classes to get their act together. Some commentators have already argued that lumping together ‘respectable drinkers’ with ‘irresponsible pissheads’ is a step too far.

This is all the logical outcome of the ‘politics of behaviour’ – New Labour’s drive to change the way we think and act. Once human action is judged only to have a detrimental impact on others – and on the environment and ourselves – then it follows that nearly everybody has something to feel guilty about. That is the same assumption that underpins the sermonising on climate change: that our actions are destructive, and thus we must always think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The latest anti-drink campaign aims to have a similar insidious effect on our day-to-day lives as the orthodoxies of environmentalism.

It is notable that while the government wants to make drunkenness in public ‘socially unacceptable’, a major theme of its latest whinge binge is the problem of drinking in the home. Yet again, the authorities are trying to smash down the divisions between public and private. The private sphere is being re-defined as part of the ‘social’, a place where we can be monitored and hectored by the powers-that-be. How long before we have an In Your Home Office, alongside the old Home Office? At the same time, the government is redefining ‘the social’ to mean an area where people cause a costly amount of damage (either fiscal or environmental) that the government has to mop up. So our homes are coming under the government’s watchful eye, while public spaces are having all the fun and spirit sucked out of them.

The latest campaign is also notable for its explicit targeting of older people. While young people will still go out and get hammered, some sections of the youth have internalised the government’s anti-drink message. They believe that ‘watching what you drink’ is commonsensical, like recycling or not leaving your TV on standby (5). For older drinkers, things are rather different. From experience, they know that a few bottles of wine won’t kill you or drag you down into a spiral of alcoholism. So now the government has to ‘persuade’ these people otherwise.

Having cleared the air of smoke, clearing our livers of booze is the government’s latest and biggest whinge to binge on. And alongside demonising ‘undesirables’, the government now seems to view its own supporters as a menace to the public finances. It’s all a sign that this government has had one too many.

Neil Davenport is a writer and researcher based in London.

Previously on spiked

Dolan Cummings reviewed Paul Watson’s film about alcoholics – they’re much rarer than we think. Jamie Douglass argued that the government scares us with legless stats. Robin Walsh felt patronised by government advice to student drinkers. Or read more at spiked-issue Drink and drugs.

(1) Crackdown on middle class wine drinkers, The Times (London), 5 June 2007

(2) See Alcohol-related death rate highest in Scotland and Strategy Unit Alcohol Harm Reduction project, Interim Analytical Report, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit

(3) Alcohol worse than ecstasy on shock new drug list, Guardian, 23 March 2007

(4) Crackdown on middle class wine drinkers, The Times (London), 5 June 2007

(5) Just Say ‘No’, Observer Magazine, 23 October 2005

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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