Let’s stagger to the barricades

All those who value choice, liberty and enjoying a pint should resist the killjoys’ war on ‘boozy Britain’.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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’Twas the season to be jolly? Not for Britain’s MPs and burgeoning healthocracy it wasn’t. For this group of misery guts, the Christmas and New Year festivities appeared as little more than a confirmation of Britain’s booze-fuelled descent into ill health and irresponsibility. Vomit-coated city centres, impromptu STI-transmitting ruts, hospitals brimful of chundering New Year survivors… In this view of modern Britain one thing is certain above all: we cannot be trusted. Our decisions almost always have baleful, often sick-flecked consequences.

Even by today’s joyless standards, the rash of behaviour-controlling reports and proposals over the past week has been impressive. On New Year’s Eve, the think tank Policy Exchange released a report exclaiming that ‘alcohol misuse in Britain is at a level where it constitutes a public health epidemic’. One solution it recommended was that anyone submitted to hospital with acute alcohol intoxication should pay for their own costs, which amounts to something in the region of £532. It’d be far cheaper to soil a boutique hotel for the night. Not to be outdone, the National Health Service Confederation and the Royal College of Physicians also released a report, this time on New Year’s Day, claiming that alcohol-related incidents cost the NHS £2.7billion a year.

And to cap it off, this Friday the House of Commons health select committee is expected not only to report soaring rates of alcoholism, with resultant costs to the NHS, but also to recommend a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol (1). While this won’t affect pricing in pubs, it will affect what you can buy in an off-licence or supermarket. This means that not only will a four-pack of five per cent lager cost over £5, but special offers will become a thing of the past. No more three-for-two offers on wine, no more specials on Stella Artois – in short, no more bargain booze. In every sense, that’s prohibitive.

When it comes to lecturing people on their lifestyles, the hypocrisy of the political class should never surprise anyone. Still, to be preached at by those who enjoy the unlicensed joys of the many bars at the Houses of Parliament does stick in the craw. In fact, I’d wager that those continually ramping up fears of Bacardi Breezer barbarism drink at least as much as the rest of us. It’s not as if there’s no evidence for this. From Winston Churchill’s drip-fed diet of brandy and champagne to the whisky-sozzled eloquence of former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, politicians have rarely been teetotallers.

But the hypocrisy speaks to something deeper. It captures something of the elite contempt for those ‘not like us’, for those who lack the manners, the civility, to handle their booze: that is, those on lower incomes, those concerned not just with a wine’s bouquet but its price tag. In this sense the minimum pricing policy ceases to appear simply as practical solution to a perceived problem of alcohol abuse. It becomes a snob’s answer to the perceived problem of the masses and their feckless, reckless choices. While those who can afford as much Glenfiddich as they like are deemed rational enough not to misbehave during a night on the sauce, those whose incomes are considerably lower are deemed less capable. It’s not the booze that is deemed the real problem here, but the type of person drinking it.

Of course, these stealthily prohibitive measures are not justified in such openly disdainful terms. They are justified in terms of our health. Hence the head of the Royal College of Physicians, Ian Gilmour, argued that ‘the role of the NHS should not just be about treating the consequences of alcohol-related harm but also about active prevention’ and ‘early intervention’. If that involves trying to price people out of own-brand vodka, so be it.

The rhetoric of health, and the authority of medical experts, allows policymakers to talk as if they know what is best for us. Our decisions – in this case, about what we drink – are judged according to the impact they will have on our health. All other ends, all other rationales, are ignored. Perhaps we get drunk at a party because it’s fun, or perhaps we drink because life, for whatever reason, doesn’t bear thinking about at that moment.

Yet for this unholy alliance of healthy-crats and politicians, such decisions are not ours to make. Our reasoning is unreliable, our judgements untrustworthy. That’s why we need state-sponsored medical experts and ministers to speak and act on our behalf, on behalf of our livers, our kidneys, or whatever internal organ suits the policymaking purpose. Without the state intervening to offer its guilt-inducing advice, and to tax our sins through minimum alcohol pricing, it is assumed that we would continue to live against our own interests, our best calorie-counting, unit-watching selves.

What such thinking wilfully ignores is that the best people to decide what are really, genuinely in our interests is not a health select committee, or the Royal College of Physicians, or the British Medical Association. It’s us. Not for nothing has liberal thought, from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, always sought to defend the individual from the incursions of arbitrary state power – because the fount of reason was never the state, but the individual himself. To accept that our behaviour needs to be regulated by an external authority, even if it’s done surreptitiously in the nudging form of alcohol price-fixing, is to accept our own diminution. It is to relinquish yet more control over our existence to politicians and bureaucrats.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black argued that Scotland was merely trying to tax the sinners. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick urged doctors to refuse to become the high priests of the new anti-boozing temperance movement. Lee Jones analysed the moralistic myth of the ‘demon drink’. Josie Appleton argued against all booze bans. 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) Bring in 50p minimum price for alcohol, MPs urge, Guardian, 3 January 2010

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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