Against the Booze Bans

The author of a report launched today calls for an end to the state control of public drinking. PLUS: Exclusive extract from a new study on the pub.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Here, Josie Appleton, author of the new Manifesto Club report Against the Booze Bans and the Hyperregulation of Public Space, tells community support officers to butt out of community socialising. Further below, we publish an exclusive extract from a new report on ‘the pub and the people’.

There have always been different social rules for drinking in public: sometimes it’s okay, at other times it is definitely not. In some places, sipping beer in the street is considered acceptable and sociable; in other places, it marks you out as a disrespectful low-life.

Over the past few years, though, cracking open a can in the street became not just rude, but illegal. For the first time in Britain, police gained powers to confiscate your bottle of lager or wine, or to ask you to tip it down the drain, and to arrest you if you refused to comply. The state became the arbiter on a question of social etiquette that had previously been decided by individuals and communities themselves.

The new London mayor Boris Johnson’s ban on Tube drinking is an infamous case, but the illiberal regulation of public drinking now stretches the world over. Booze bans have cast a shadow over both the Fourth of July celebrations on San Diego beach and the Christmas celebrations on Australia’s Bondi beach – these traditionally jolly festive occasions now continue only under the cloud of prohibition.

The land of Hogmanay has fared no better. Drink was banned from many Scottish town centres and beaches this summer, after the Scottish Executive pressured councils to pass booze-banning bylaws covering particular areas. These draconian laws are now pasted on lampposts throughout Scotland: one bans people from carrying around an empty drinks carton, while another prohibits carrying a drinks container ‘when it could be reasonably assumed they would want to drink it in a “designated public place”’ (1).

Areas of towns and cities in the Czech Republic are designated no-drinking; New Zealand has gone so far as to ban driving through ‘no-drink zones’ if you have booze in the boot of your car (police officers say they have the right to stop and search, though if you are caught red-handed you have the option of tipping it down the drain, which is very generous of them) (2).

It was in opposition to this trend that the Manifesto Club – the organisation I head – launched the Campaign Against the Booze Bans. We set up a campaign Facebook group, where more than a thousand people from all over the world have registered their objection to booze bans. In a week’s time, on Bank Holiday Monday, we will launch a report on the rise of booze bans at our Provocation Picnic in Hyde Park, London.

The right to drink in public may not be considered a classic civil liberties issue, such as the right to free speech or the right to protest – but it is just as important now. In many ways, the regulation of public drinking is a litmus test for the state of public freedoms. With the erosion of the right to drink, we see how public space is being organised more around the whims of police officers, and less around the desires and morals of free citizens.

In the UK over the past few years, there has been a creeping growth of drinking-control legislation. Where communities once set the rules on when and where one could crack open a can, police officers and councillors now write those rules from scratch.

Booze bans first started in the late 1980s, when some councils – such as Coventry – passed bylaws against public drinking. But these laws were sporadically enforced, and police officers had no powers of arrest. In 1997, the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act gave police powers to confiscate alcohol and containers from under-18s. This law was extended from minors to adults in 2001: the Criminal Justice and Police Act introduced Designated Public Place Orders (DPPOs), which allowed officers to confiscate drink from adults, and gave powers of arrest if the person refused to surrender their can or bottle.

At first, DPPOs grew only gradually, but from 2004 they started to take off rapidly with a rush of applications from councils and police forces for the right to confiscate booze from local residents. There are now 613 Designated Public Place Orders in England and Wales, covering parks, stations and beaches the length and breadth of the country (3). Every new drinking control zone seems to create more, as councils emulate each other’s regulations, and zones are extended bit by bit throughout towns and cities.

Meanwhile, government legislation has tightened. The 2003 Licensing Act allowed ‘sealed’ as well as open alcohol containers to be confiscated; it also allowed for an emergency blanket ban on alcohol (police recently showed off this power when they threatened to shut down all pubs and off licenses in Torbay in July 2008, after the idea of a beach party was floated on Facebook) (4).

These new regulations don’t reflect a switch in public morals, but a switch in the ideology of the state. The control of public drinking is really the result of officials’ concerns about social order, their fear of uninhibited groups of people. They look at unregulated groups relaxing and drinking in public and imagine a threat to law, civilisation, and much else besides.

We start to see the return of a very nineteenth-century idea: that crime is the result of unruly and uninhibited crowds. Police have implicated public boozing in crimes ranging from murder to domestic violence to robbery. Inspector Colin Mowat from Aberdeenshire said that bans on public drinking could help stop ‘under-age drinking, drink-driving, domestic abuse and street disorder’ (5); after the 2007 murder of Cheshire man Gary Newlove by a gang of drunk youths, the leading police officer called for a blanket ban on public drinking (6). The role of the police is exposed for all to see: not just to identify and prosecute for criminal offences, but also to control and manage groups of people.

Booze control laws are produced entirely from above, and as such they are erratically enforced. There are few guidelines for how the police should use their drinking-confiscation powers, so they tend to use them as they please. During the Merseyside Police’s Operation Beach Safe, officers decided to confiscate booze at the beach entrance in June 2008. Richard Clarke, acting sergeant of Operation Beach Safe, welcomed visitors with the words ‘If you’re coming to the beach to drink don’t bother, go and drink in your gardens or somewhere else’, and his officers posed for trophy photos with their confiscated cans of Fosters (7).

Police also take alcohol away from people they think of as troublesome types – younger people, football supporters, or alcoholics – and, unlike with an arrest for a crime, they have no obligation to justify their actions. If you contest an officer’s request to tip your Carling down a drain, you are committing an offence and could be arrested and fined up to £500. There is no luxury of a defence lawyer.

One post on our Facebook wall discusses the uneven-handed way in which drinking controls are applied in Brighton: ‘Here… the booze ban, extends to basically the homeless. Community Support Officers [CSOs] do not take drink off you on the beach and ignore you basically if you look well-to-do… One homeless man I met the other day says he had his unopened can of cider in his pocket taken from him by CSOs because they “thought” he was “about to” or had “reason to believe” he would drink it in a public place. He was on his way to drink it at his hostel!’ (8)

This shows how the police are playing fast and loose with these powers. At the Manifesto Club, we call for these drinking laws to be challenged and rolled back, and for police powers to be kept on a very tight leash. This is not so much a campaign for public drinking, as a campaign for the public to set the rules for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Basically, for Community Support Officers to butt out of communities.

If you are free on Bank Holiday in London, join us for a drink and picnic in the park. It may not always be the done thing to crack open a can in public, but it should never be illegal.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club. The report, Against the Booze Bans – and the Hyperregulation of Public Space is published today. See the Against the Booze Bans campaign page, for the report, Facebook Group, and details of the Provocation Picnic on 25 August. Email Josie {encode=”” title=”here”}.

The pub and the people

Below is an exclusive extract from a new report by the Social Issues Research Centre in England, commissioned by Greene King.

In the late 1930s, Tom Harrisson and his colleagues at the Mass-Observation Unit conducted what is probably the earliest, and certainly the most extensive, study of pub-going in Britain. For nearly two years, the team of social anthropologists did little else but sit in pubs and observe the complex rituals of behaviour that subtly underlie everyday life in the local.

Their report, The Pub and the People, was not published until towards the end of the Second World War – ostensibly because of paper shortages but more probably because the country had more on its mind than the apparent ‘frivolities’ of the snug or saloon in a Lancashire town. And yet, as Harrisson and his colleagues showed so clearly, the pub as a British institution towered over its rivals for attention, commitment and, indeed, ‘donations’:

‘Of the social institutions that mould men’s lives between home and work in an industrial town, such as Worktown, the pub has more buildings, holds more people, takes more of their money, than church, cinema, dance hall, and political organisations put together’, Harrisson wrote.

Today, little has changed. There may now be fewer pubs in relation to the population and many certainly look different from the vaults and taprooms of old. But the pub retains its unique position in British society, and for much the same reasons as in Harrisson’s day. As he noted then, the pub is ‘the only kind of public building used by large numbers of ordinary people where their thoughts and actions are not being in some way arranged for them; in the other kinds of public building they are the audiences, watchers of political, religious, dramatic, cinematic, instructional or athletic spectacles. But within the four walls of the pub, once a man has bought or been bought his glass of beer, he has entered an environment in which he is a participator rather than a spectator.’

This idea of participation is crucial to understanding what pubs, and locals in particular, are all about – why people are attracted to them and why they endure as a focus for social networks even in this digital age of online communities, texting and other forms of ‘instant’ communication. ‘Having a drink’ (rather than just ‘drinking’) is essentially a social act surrounded by tacit rules – a special ‘etiquette’ that gives us a sense of inclusion and belonging that is independent of our status in the mainstream world.

In this sense, the pub is very much a social leveller – something that was apparent even in the Middle Ages. As Theodore Leinwand notes in his study of Shakespeare’s plays, in the fifteenth century, alehouses, taverns and inns were ‘sites… where people of disparate status mixed…, [which] brought men, high born and low, into relation, fostering a propinquity that might secure, adjust or threaten hierarchies’.

The special features of the local – the layout, the decor, the music, the games, the etiquette and rituals and, of course, the drinking – are all designed to promote positive social interaction, reciprocity and sharing. In this sense, the British pub has much in common with dedicated drinking places in other parts of the world. In Austrian lokals, for example, the anthropologist Thomas Thornton observed that ‘intimate social groups… come into being there, even if only to last the night. Benches surround the tables, forcing physical intimacy between customers. Small groups of twos or threes who find themselves at the same or adjoining tables often make friends with their neighbours and share wine, schnapps, jokes and game-playing the rest of the evening.’

In almost all drinking-places, in almost all cultures, the unwritten laws and customs involve some form of reciprocal drink-buying or sharing of drinks. This practice has been documented in drinking-places from modern, urban Japan and America and rural Spain and France to remote traditional societies in Africa and South America. It has long been recognised by anthropologists, sociologists and even zoologists – so fundamental is this practice to the survival of any social species.

The combination of the special factors of the local and its near equivalents in other countries ensures that it is often at the centre of community life. In Poland, for example, the Karczma is where contracts are sealed, village disputes settled, celebrations held and marriages arranged, while for Guatemalans in the US, the bar is a meeting place where ‘one may seek out others, develop friendships, and if needed, find temporary assistance in a loan or lodging or obtain information about jobs’.

In New Zealand, Theodore Graves and his colleagues observed that ‘the pub is probably the most important working-man’s club. Men from all ethnic groups come there to be with their friends; their alcohol consumption is a by-product of this socialising. This does not mean that the consumption of alcohol is an unimportant part of pub activity. Otherwise a man might as well meet his friends in an ice-cream parlour or coffee shop. One of the major functions of moderate alcohol use is to promote social conviviality. But it is the conviviality, not the alcohol, which is of central importance.’

Countless other studies in many other parts of the world confirm the universality of the role of special drinking places. The British pub, like its ‘foreign’ counterparts, meets timeless and global human needs – that is why it survives and will continue to do so despite the many other opportunities we have for networking.

This is an edited extract from the Social Issues Research Centre report The Enduring Appeal of the Local. Read the whole report here.

Previously on spiked

Suzy Dean raised a glass to freedom of choice. Brendan O’Neill questioned the politics of misbehaviour. Elsewhere, he thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) See the Bylaws for Aberlady here.

(2) New Zealand police news release, 6 October 2006

(3) See the list of local authorities that have introduced designation orders here

(4) Facebook beach party forces alcohol ban in Torbay, Telegraph, 1 July 2008

(5) Booze ban set to hit the streets, Banffshire Journal, 12 September 2007

(6) Police chief calls for ban on public drinking, Guardian, 15 August 2007

(7) Champion Newsletter, 5 June 2008

(8) See Facebook Group here.

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


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