Raising a glass to public spiritedness
Yesterday’s ‘provocation picnic’ in Hyde Park was a protest against officialdom’s bizarre bans on public boozing.
Yesterday afternoon, on Bank Holiday Monday, a group of around 40 of us gathered in London’s Hyde Park for a picnic.
There was bread, cheese and paté, and plenty of wine and beer. Picnics like this, even under questionable meteorological circumstances, are a British tradition, and we certainly weren’t the only people partaking in the park at the time.
But our picnic was to mark the launch of a Manifesto Club report, Against the Booze Bans and the Hyperregulation of Public Space (1). While drinking alcohol is perfectly legal in Royal Parks like Hyde Park (cheers, your majesty), it is increasingly subject to regulation and de facto bans in public places throughout Britain and beyond.
The most high-profile recent booze ban is the one on London transport, introduced in June as the first act of the once-supposedly-libertarian Tory, and new mayor, Boris Johnson. In England and Wales alone, there are currently 613 ‘Designated Public Place Orders’, giving police the power to stop people from drinking in particular areas and to confiscate their drinks, and implicitly redefining ‘public places’ as those where the public is expected to be on officially-defined best behaviour. There are similar measures in many parts of Scotland, and further afield across the Western world, from the USA to Australia.
The Manifesto Club picnic in Hyde Park
Drinking has always been regulated in various ways, of course, and is still completely forbidden in some parts of the world. What makes these new bans different is that they are being introduced in modern democratic societies, not as the result of public debate (prohibition in the US was at least the culmination of a popular, though contested, social movement), but by official dictat. Indeed, it is the sense that the public sphere is breaking down that underlies the authorities’ desire to regulate things like public drinking.
The Manifesto Club was set up in 2006 with the aim of reimagining politics, and infusing it with what we think of as a ‘radical humanist’ spirit. What we have found is that the issues with the greatest resonance, those that bring out what is new in contemporary society and suggest the possibility of people coming together in new ways, are often not recognised as ‘political’ issues at all. The club’s biggest campaign before now has been against the overzealous vetting of adults who want to work with children, and the culture of mistrust this fosters (2). In both cases, we want to assert a new public spirit against mutual suspicion and authoritarianism.
Of course, measured by the standards of twentieth-century totalitarianism, with its overt censorship, curbs on free association and summary arrests, bans on boozing in public seem rather trivial. And such is the lingering prestige in politics of what might be called the ‘1984 paradigm’ that some commentators seem unable to object to authoritarian measures unless they can somehow be presented as the first steps on the slippery slope to fascism. The booze bans are nothing of the kind. What they do constitute is an impoverishment of public spirit and indeed quality of life in the here and now.
The problem can be seen even in some of the responses to our picnic. The Guardian, not the Daily Mail, reported the launch of our report in advance as a potential riot, as if a group of people can’t get together for a drink in the park without ‘descending into violence’ (especially when these things are organised on Facebook, apparently). Reports about the rowdy conclusion to the final night of legal drinking on the Tube in May also missed the fact that for the most part that gathering of thousands of revellers was a good-natured and rather civilised affair.
The Manifesto Club picnic was all the more civilised. Writers and artists mixed with students, working people and parents with kids in tow, all enjoying a breezy day in the park with or without a couple of glasses of wine – all committed to the idea that we should be free to make such decisions for ourselves. Yards from the bizarre spectacle of Speakers’ Corner, where ‘old politics’ go to die, was a modest but real glimpse of the public as it could and should be.
Dolan Cummings works at the Institute of Ideas and is a founding member of the Manifesto Club.
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) The report can be downloaded in pdf format from the Manifesto Club website
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