Viewing Britain as a nation of Begbies

The Home Office proposal to replace pint glasses with plastic cups sums up its suspicion of animalistic Brits.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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‘Another pint of Stella please, mate. One thing though – I don’t s’pose you could pop it in a plastic glass could you? Yeah, that’s right, plastic. It’s just I don’t trust myself holding a glass glass, what with all the hard surfaces and people about. Glass glass plus rock-hard tables plus people… that’s just asking for trouble. Before you know it, I’ll have gouged someone an extra smile. That’s what I’m like, you see. An absolute animal.’

You’ll never hear anyone say anything like that, of course. And that’s not just because Begbie-like psychopaths are thankfully very rare; it’s also because no one, except the under-fives, actually prefers drinking from a plastic beaker to drinking from a pleasantly sturdy glass. Not that such quaint notions as pleasure or quality of life will inhibit the UK New Labour government when it comes to policymaking – its knowledge of what’s best for us will always trump what we may actually prefer. And so it was that this week the Home Office, aided and abetted by the Design Council, made a drink-spilling announcement: it is seeking to replace glass-drinking vessels with a safer, shatter-proof plastic alternative. Not only will pubs and bars be smoke-free, it seems they will potentially be glass-free, too (1).

As part of the sinister-sounding Design Out Crime initiative, the Home Office’s plastic-fantastic future is justified by the number of people attacked with bottles and glasses every year: 5,500 (2). It seems like a large figure, and being bottled or glassed can undoubtedly be very nasty. But as a percentage of the UK’s adult population of just over 50million it means that bottling or glassing incidents affect something like 0.01 per cent. Seeking to replace glass as the drinking medium of choice, even if the Home Office isn’t making it mandatory yet, doesn’t really seem the best way to deal with a category of violent crime that affects so few.

The principal objections haven’t been drawn from statistics, however, but from pleasure. As a spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association put it: ‘For the drinker, the pint glass feels better, it has a nice weight and the drink coats the glass nicely. That’s why people go out for a drink, to have a nice experience.’ (3) It may be a difficult idea to grasp for Home Office apparatchiks institutionally predisposed to view the masses as boorish imbeciles, but people go out to pubs and bars to ‘have a nice experience’, to enjoy themselves. They do not, as a rule, go out to glass someone.

Iain Loe from the Campaign for Real Ale takes the aesthetic case further: ‘As any drinker of quality beer can attest, the taste of a beer from a glass vessel is ultimately superior to that of any substitute. Some may argue this is letting romanticism cloud the actual taste differences, but one need only speak with any beer writer or taster worth his/her salt to learn how a “tacky taint” from plastic glassware can spoil any good brew.’ (4)

Loe has a point. Drinking from a plastic glass does diminish the enjoyment of having a drink. But an intuitive dislike of plastic glasses is not enough of an argument against them. Taste evolves. After all, it’s not as if the drinking vessel of choice hasn’t changed over time. Pewter tankards were used right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, before glass took over. And even then, the glasses used in the first half of the century weren’t like the pint pots we’re used to now; because of their handles they were more like jugs, with, at first, 10 sides, and then a dimpled design.

What’s different about this proposed change is that it hasn’t arisen because of any especially practical need. In the past, the opposite was the case. In the 1500s, with post-bubonic-plague concerns about the spread of disease, the pewter ‘steins’ then popular were fitted with lids to keep flies out. Later, the desire to see what and how much was being poured into one’s tankard led to the emergence of glass mugs. And more recently, the disappearance of handled glasses derived from the difficulty of stacking them.

But the proposal to replace the glass with its plastic alternative is driven not by practical need or popular demand. It’s driven by the needs of officialdom. In the ominous words of Nick Verebelyi, the designer commissioned to come up with new designs, ‘there is often opposition [to change]… but there’s going to be quite a push behind this in terms of the Home Office’ (5).

It may seem a trivial proposal, but that doesn’t make it any less significant. For in this Home Office-sanctioned, officially designed pint pot, one can discern the transformed relation between the state and the individual. It may be news to the Home Office but it is actually already illegal to slice through a fellow drinker’s skin with glass, or indeed anything else. It has been for years. If you do glass someone, you will be held to account, and quite probably punished. This is because we live under the rule of law, a relationship between state and individual that conceives of the citizen as a morally responsible subject, free to behave as they decide under the rule of law. If we transgress, say, by bottling someone, then as morally responsible individuals we can expect to be held responsible for our actions and for our decision, no matter how lacking in premeditation it may have been.

But under New Labour the relationship has been transformed. We are not seen as morally responsible subjects; in fact, we’re barely seen as subjects at all. Instead, we, as civil society, are seen as little more than an agglomerate of potential problems to be managed. From New Labour’s perspective, give a man a glass and you give him a weapon. And because we’re not deemed morally responsible enough, indeed autonomous enough, to decide not to do wrong by someone, New Labour prefers to pre-empt those decisions. The result is not freedom under the law, but an environment in which certain actions are pre-emptively ruled out, whether it’s to have a punch-up or just to spark-up. To Design Out Crime, is, at heart, to rule out freedom.

In vino veritas. In a plastic pint glass, there’s the essence of New Labour.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Joe Jackson wondered how killjoys had colonised Britain’s public houses? Anna Travis took a look round ban-happy Brighton. Josie Appleton showed how drinking control laws allow the police to behave like gangsters. Brendan O’Neill thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Tim Black argued that Scottish plans to tax drinkers amounted to a sin tax. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) Pubs warn over plastic pints, BBC News, 24 August 2009

(2) See Pubs warn over plastic pints, BBC News, 24 August 2009

(3) Pubs warn over plastic pints, BBC News, 24 August 2009

(4) Pubs hit a glass ceiling, Guardian, 25 August 2009

(5) Farewell to the British pint glass… Hello to the plastic safety cup, Inside Catholic, 25 August 2009

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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