Don’t drink if you want to be merry

With undercover cops spying on pub staff, and everyone else conforming to official wisdom on 'binge-drinking', Xmas boozing might be a rather flat affair.

Anna Travis

Topics Politics

When you’re sipping a festive pint in your cosy local this Christmas, beware the figure lurking behind you, strangely interested in your trips to the bar. In Blackpool, England, recently, police piloted a scheme where undercover officers spied on patrons and bar staff. The underwhelming result of this dragnet was that two bar staff were fined for serving drunk customers. Now it looks like this scheme could be heading to a boozer near you (1). But it’s not just the forces of law and order watching our behaviour that we should be concerned about – it’s the little puritan voice inside our heads, as scripted by health campaigners and moral guardians.

The plainclothes surveillance scheme in Blackpool is one of a recent barrage of initiatives and commentary aimed at Britain’s apparently frenzied and deadly alcohol consumption. The campaign on drink driving isn’t just for Christmas anymore, it’s for life. Other government-funded adverts remind us that while we may feel superhuman after a drink or two, that’s precisely when we’re more likely to have an accident. Then there’s the constant advice to count the number of units you consume (as if you could count after a session).

The media draw daily on Dantesque visions of our streets as ‘the playgrounds of puking post-adolescents’ (2) where ‘weekend droves pile into chain pubs and the police have been known to set up mobile holding rooms’ (3). While ‘confessions of a middle-class binge drinker’ columns sniggered at recent panics about ‘respectable’ home drinking, the drive for behaviour modification has continued apace. Even the homely Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) now defines pubs as ‘the proper place to enjoy a drink in a responsible and regulated atmosphere’ (4).

The attack on our drinking habits is part of a wider process in which the political class and lifestyle authoritarians, lacking any grander vision of the world, turn the banal facts of existence – like the things we consume for sustenance and pleasure – into morally charged issues because they have little to offer us in any other sphere. And whether they are haranguing us about public behaviour or private habits, the space they really want to colonise is inside our heads: our guilty consciences.

This potent cocktail of conformity is two parts misanthropy to one part health neurosis. When we swallow this mix – apologising for that next glass, fretting about another cigarette or worrying about the letch at the Christmas party – we are doing the puritans’ work for them. As Dolan Cummings argued in a recent essay, when smokers say they welcome the ban on public smoking because it will help them quit, they ‘express a peculiar sort of resolution: one which they claim to be incapable of exercising without external compulsion. By banning smoking in pubs, we collectively save ourselves from temptation.’ (5)

An Australian business venture provides a startling illustration of this increasing rejection of personal responsibility. In 2004, Virgin Mobile responded to an apparent Aussie epidemic of embarrassing drunken calls to exes and colleagues. Their service allowed customers, before drinking, to dial ‘333’ followed by the number they wanted to avoid ‘drunk dialling’. For 25 cents, attempts to phone blacklisted numbers initiate a message: ‘This call cannot be connected; this is for your own good.’ Psychologist John McIlroy believed ‘it could come in handy for Americans who know themselves well enough to not have self-control over their impulses’ (6).

This version of the human subject as incapable of personal restraint leads to obsessive use of the term ‘binge’ in alcohol coverage. The hysterical portrayal of bingeing also exposes the root of anti-alcohol culture: a fear of human agency and by implication humanity itself.

Alcohol becomes the locus for behaviour politics because it removes inhibitions, acting as social glue. Drink can make us feel fearless, free or profound. At the right pitch of tipsiness, alcohol exaggerates our great qualities; we’re perhaps more animated, articulate or communicative. Whether that’s about anything of substance is another matter. Alcohol can also magnify morbidity or aggression, it is true, but current policy is founded on the assumption that these murkier qualities will emerge in the first sip of a pint. The assumption is that everyone needs some kind of rules and regulation because we can all suddenly ‘get out of hand’ (7).

The heightened sense of freedom alcohol provides is precisely why it’s troubling – and the pleasure it provides so baffling – to increasing numbers of official killjoys. Current ‘drink responsibly’ public information films betray fears that the demon drink will unleash the violent, vile core lurking beneath the thin veneer of polite social intercourse. The evolution of attitudes to smoking from a private matter to a public scourge reveals how potent the desire to control our conduct has become. Below I have listed what I consider to be key rhetorical stages in the journey from liberty to prohibition – best illustrated by the bans on public smoking but increasingly defining the discussion of alcohol, too:

Availability phase: availability is problematic, with the suggestion that we’re bombarded with advertising seducing us to rabidly consume cut-price crates. Youth, it is said, are hit hardest.

Health/crime phase: consumption, we are told, leads to ill-health or criminality. The proper priorities are to extend your life and to relieve your financial burden on the state, showing you’re a morally worthy individual by demonstrating health preoccupations. Because disease/crime can result from consumption, such behaviour is therefore inherently bad. Redefining previously acceptable consumption as ‘abuse’ or ‘addiction’ is key.

Anti-social phase: consumption is discussed as anti-social, displaying offensive disregard for sacred environmental and psychological concerns; it pollutes air and relationships. This phase overlaps with the health/crime phase because ‘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’ (8).

Misanthropic momentum phase: warnings are issued that control-measures only go part of the way to addressing much deeper problems that require further bans/legislation/education, particularly surrounding people’s ability to parent.

Common sense phase: in the run-up to a ban, and in the period after, the defining outlook is silent compliance. To argue that the ban is an infringement on freedom is to challenge the health position, and is therefore an affront to common sense and ‘The Science’.

For those who don’t believe that restrictions on public intoxication are likely, it should be noted that drunkenness in public is already illegal in many US states. Serving an intoxicated patron has been illegal in Australia since 1998. The increasingly aggressive implementation of intoxication law in these countries serves as sobering examples of how the campaign against drunkenness could play out in Britain.

In Virginia, during Christmas 2003, local police launched a sting on 20 neighbourhood bars and restaurants to ‘apprehend “drunk” patrons before they try to drive’. Officials said evidence could have been based on ‘unflicked cigarette ashes, an excessive number of restroom visits, noisy cursing, or a wobbly walk’. Police in Dallas have performed similar sting operations on the publicly legless. In 2006, agents entered 36 bars and arrested 30 people for public intoxication (9). In August 2007, San Diego City Council banned alcohol on all city beaches and parks for a year trial period.

An essay by American sociologist William Sumner, written in 1883, throws light on the deadening logic of behaviour manipulation policy. In the essay, entitled ‘On the Case of a Certain Man Who Is Never Thought Of’, Sumner notes: ‘The fallacy of all prohibitory, sumptuary, and moral legislation is the same. A and B determine to be teetotallers, which is often a wise determination, and sometimes a necessary one. If A and B are moved by considerations which seem to them good, that is enough. But A and B put their heads together to get a law passed which shall force C to be a teetotaller for the sake of D, who is in danger of drinking too much. There is no pressure on A and B. They are having their own way, and they like it. There is rarely any pressure on D. He does not like it, and evades it. The pressure all comes on C. The question then arises: who is C? He is the man who wants alcoholic liquors for any honest purpose whatsoever, who would use his liberty without abusing it… He is the Forgotten Man again… what each one of us ought to be.’ (10)

The public tap on the back from bar-room spies is overtly Orwellian, yet it’s the internal spying we really have to watch: measuring yourself against ‘concerning’ statistics; suddenly reassessing intake; seeing others as vulnerable. So, for example, daft drunken antics are now reframed as potentially psychologically damaging. This is why staff Christmas parties were vetoed by nine out of 10 employers last year over fears they could lead to tribunal claims. A survey of 4,915 companies showed most managers fear that employees may behave inappropriately and drink too much alcohol at the office party. The striking majority of respondents (86 per cent) said they’d received complaints from staff due to a Christmas party incident (11).

The new prohibition project – whether it relates to smoking, drinking, or interpersonal office relationships – relies on making us internalise ever-restricted norms of what is ‘healthy’ and ‘dangerous’ activity. We could ignore the momentum of behaviour politics and adopt the state’s dim view of us: as forever in need of protection from ourselves and each other. It would be better, however, to forget what our indiscretions might cost the National Health Service and remember the social cost of perceiving everyday freedoms and interactions as little more than potential occasions for harm.

Anna Travis is a literature lecturer based in London.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Bruno Waterfield looked at how the success of the smoking ban had encouraged health officials to discuss the idea of ‘passive drinking’. Brendan O’Neill thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) Home Office plans undercover police ‘spies’ in pubs, Jamie Doward, Observer, 7 October 2007

(2) Britain’s real drink problem is wine at £1.97 a bottle, Philip Hensher, Independent, 16 November 2007.

(3) Our biggest drug problem is an ocean of cheap alcohol, John Harris, Guardian, 26 July 2007.

(4) Pub beer sales slump to low point, BBC News, 20 November 2007.

(5) Smoking Policies A Civilised Approach, Dolan Cummings, Manifesto Club Thinkpiece.

(6) Drunk Calls: Dialing under the influence in the land down under, Daily Aztec, 13 December 2004.

(7) Hat’s not on in this establishment, sir, Neil Davenport, 2 October 2007.

(8) Prohibition by stealth, Neil Davenport, 6 June 2007.

(9) Prohibition Returns! Teetotaling do-gooders attack your right to drink, David Harsanyi, Reason, November 2007.

(10) On the Case of a Certain Man Who Is Never Thought Of from What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other, William Graham Sumner, 1883.

(11) Staff Christmas party axed by nine in 10 employers over tribunal claim fears, Personnel Today, 1 December 2006

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

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today