Last orders for public liberties?

The all-party support for yet another crackdown on drinkers is a sign of the illiberal times – and a far cry from past battles over booze.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

This week the British media finally announced the start of a big pre-election debate between the political parties. Was it over the economy, or Afghanistan, or constitutional reform? Not quite. It is a punch-up over which party can appear toughest in cracking down on drinking.

‘Battleground on booze’ declared the headlines. One report observed: ‘The fact that both Labour and the Conservatives are unveiling their attempts to tackle “Binge Britain” on the same day signals that the issue will be a key election battleground.’

The Conservative opposition wants to impose big tax increases on ‘problem drinks’ such as alcopops, ban supermarket discount deals on booze and make pubs pay a levy for later opening. New Labour on the other hand promises to ban cut-price pub promotions and drinking competitions and bar-room gimmicks such as ‘dentist chairs’, as well as forcing bars to make smaller glasses of wine and beer available and serve free tap water.

So, will it be bigger booze taxes or smaller wine glasses? Should the state make pub customers pay more or stop them playing silly games? Who could claim that there is no alternative or left-right divide today when we are offered such a clash between competing visions?

This is perhaps the most pathetic, piss-weak excuse for a political debate seen to date. But what is even worse is that there has been little or no serious criticism of these proposals, no opposition to the anti-drinking consensus apart from ‘experts’ insisting that even tougher measures are necessary. All sides apparently accept the need for yet more state intervention, regulation and control of people’s lives and leisure activities, and still less liberty to choose for ourselves.

In line with the fashion for justifying policies in the name of Science, the authorities claim that these new proposals are needed on medical grounds. In fact the driving force behind such attempts to ‘save people from themselves’ is not medicine, but moralism. The pious ‘politics of behaviour’ pioneered by New Labour is now accepted across the board. All sides believe in the right and responsibility of government to manage people’s behaviour. There does not appear to be a truly liberal bone in any of the bloodless bodies on the parliamentary front benches. Such is the illiberal climate that to suggest people should be free to make their own decisions about what to drink when is to invite accusations not only that you are irresponsible, but possibly insane.

The ‘great booze debate’ also puts into some perspective the ridiculous notion that there is some sort of ‘class divide’ between the major parties today. Both New Labour and the Conservatives have the same classes of drinker in their sights, their measures all being aimed at the young, poor and potentially out-of-control binge drinkers rather than the respectable drinkers of polite society who behave themselves while bingeing for Britain.

This situation where the authorities and experts are all singing from the same hymn sheet seems a far cry from the past. Once there really were dividing lines over booze – not between different proposals for banning and limiting it, but between supporters and opponents of stiff measures. Moreover, those conflicting attitudes to drink laws reflected important divides on bigger issues, notably over the proper role of the state in regulating public and private life. Those who opposed prohibition and other punitive anti-drinking measures did so not because they believed drunkenness to be a good thing, but because they saw state encroachments on people’s liberties and autonomy as a greater evil than the demon drink.

A hundred and fifty years ago, the champion of liberty John Stuart Mill took on a growing Victorian temperance movement that deployed the sort of arguments you can often hear repeated today. Anti-drink crusaders insisted, for example, that the only right that mattered was the ‘right’ of decent society to be free from the scourge of drunkenness and anti-social behaviour. Mill would have none of this attempt to dress up social control as ‘social rights’. It was a ‘monstrous principle’, he insisted: ‘[T]here is no violation of liberty which it would not justify; it acknowledges no right to any freedom whatever.’

While accepting the need for government regulation of pubs, Mill also understood that the state’s attempt to extend its control over drink and public houses was in reality designed to control the public themselves. Attempts to reduce drinking by making alcohol ‘difficult to access’ or ‘diminishing the occasion of temptation’ were, Mill insisted, suited ‘only to a society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages’. Which sounds as if he could have been reading today’s all-party anti-booze manifesto.

And nor was Mill fooled by attempts – now echoed by the Tories and New Labour – to dress up measures of prohibition as price rises and tax increases. He denounced these attempts to enforce moralism via the marketplace as ‘sin taxes’ on the working classes, a sort of ‘prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price; and to those who do, it is a penalty laid on them for gratifying a particular taste’. Or as the authorities might say today, for failing to make the proper informed choice.

Mill was far from a lone voice in his opposition to the prohibitionists and other anti-booze crusaders in the nineteenth century. There were mass protests against them. In June 1855, for example, Karl Marx wrote a report for the German newspaper Neue Oder-Zeitung about a major violent demonstration in London against restrictions on the liberties of workers imposed in the name of religion. He concluded: ‘We were spectators from beginning to end and do not think we are exaggerating in saying that the English Revolution began yesterday in Hyde Park’ (Marx’s emphasis).

And what were the immediate causes of this ‘anti-Church movement’? Marx observed that the ‘the first measure of Religious coercion was the Beer Bill, which shut down all places of public entertainment on Sundays, except between 6 and 10pm…. Then came the Sunday Trading Bill [which forced shops to close on what was workers’ only free day]…. In both cases there is a conspiracy of the Church with monopoly capital, but in both cases there are religious penal laws against the lower classes to set the consciences of the privileged classes at rest.’ Thus did thousands of working-class Londoners assemble to protest and do battle with the police for their right to shop, drink and do as they please in their own time, recognising a law to limit their access to beer as an infringement on their few liberties.

In the twentieth century, the imposition of Prohibition in America was a bitterly divisive issue that split political parties and stirred enough public opposition eventually to force its overthrow in 1933. As recently as the 1960s in Britain, the Labour government still had a liberal-minded home secretary, Roy Jenkins, who was prepared to argue that ‘the permissive society has been allowed to become a dirty phrase. A better phrase is the civilised society.’

Yet today the cross-party consensus is that a ‘civilised society’ must not permit its citizens to make their own choices – including the ‘wrong’ ones – about what they drink or how they behave. Mill’s own liberal ‘harm principle’ – that anything should be allowed except in rare circumstances where it explicitly harms others – has even been twisted into an argument for regulating and banning anything which others find offensive or unpleasant. Even the New Labour government’s faltering steps to liberalise the UK’s drinking laws were motivated, as spiked argued all along, less by the desire to make people more free than to make them easier to control (see A licence to bash the masses, by Brendan O’Neill).

Of course there are always problems linked to drinking and drunkenness, most of them as old as alcohol itself, some of them products of contemporary culture. But none of them is susceptible to the blunt instrument of more laws and bans and taxes. And none of them is a good enough excuse for the state to intrude ever further into public houses and public life, treating citizens as ‘children or savages’ by trying to dictate what sort of chairs or size of glasses they can be allowed.

If these issues are to be a ‘battleground on booze’ for our half-pint politicians in the General Election, it currently looks like a weird one where all sides are standing on the same side of the battle lines, shouting last orders. Time somebody made a stand for the freedom to think and drink for ourselves.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black critiqued the killjoys’ war on ‘boozy Britain’. 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. 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.

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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Topics Politics UK

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