The new tyranny of temperance
Some government officials will only be happy when Britain resembles a giant Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Whether it’s ‘hidden alcoholics’, middle-class professionals ‘for whom one glass of wine after work is never enough’, or yobbish working-class drinkers causing a nuisance in public, the attempts by government and campaigners to root out and tackle those deemed to be drinking ‘excessively’ have never been more aggressive.
From the prime minister to the media, there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on: Britain’s boozing has reached ‘scandalous’ proportions. ‘This is a national problem, it needs the government really to focus on it’, UK prime minister David Cameron declared last week, referring to what he called the ‘rising tide’ of irresponsible drinking across the country.
But it’s not just loud yobbish drunks going out on the lash and injuring themselves and others and winding up in hospital casualty departments on Friday and Saturday nights that are the problem: it’s also the ‘hidden alcoholics’, the middle-class wine drinkers who sup several glasses of sauvignon blanc on the sofa at night. Tonight on the BBC’s Panorama, former New Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell will confess, once again, to having been a secret alcoholic himself, and will highlight the fact that ‘nearly 9,000 people’ die each year from alcohol-related diseases. He will also wheel out an assortment of medical experts who will diagnose a ‘health crisis’ in the country.
But, given we’re all going to die of something, surely we should have the freedom to shorten our lives a little by having pint or two too many if we like? Apparently not. As well as emphasising the ‘anti-social behaviour’ alcohol causes, the government and campaigners alike are quick to point to what the Observer yesterday called ‘the intolerable burden being placed on the health services’. Even by overindulging on the vino by ourselves at home, we are apparently being irresponsible and causing a public nuisance – by potentially contributing to what David Cameron claims could be between £17 billion and £22 billion per year spent on ‘alcohol-related costs’. Campaign group Alcohol Concern has claimed that each taxpayer stumps up £1,000 of tax per year to tackle this problem.
The precise way such figures are arrived at is questionable. It is certainly the case that the amount of revenue brought in through taxation on alcohol covers the NHS bill for alcohol-related issues, with a couple of billion pounds left to spare. And, strikingly, the increase in hype about a drinking ‘epidemic’ in Britain coincides with a significant decline in per capita alcohol consumption. According to the Office of National Statistics, since 2002 there has been a steady drop in the amount of alcohol drunk by people of all ages.
Exactly why and how an increase in excessive drinking coincides with a fall in alcohol consumption is currently a source of confusion. But, regardless, the political and media classes are convinced they know the solution: to drink even less. While welcoming the drop in alcohol consumption as ‘good news’, an Observer editorial declared ‘a strong strategy is still urgently required if we are all to learn when put a stop on the bottle’.
Many have already given up on the idea that we can ‘learn’ when enough booze is enough, however. Increasingly, drinking more than the government’s recommended units of alcohol each week – which, notoriously, was a figure plucked out of thin air – is being portrayed as the result of addictive behaviour. As Alcoholics Anonymous famously put it, we are ‘powerless over alcohol’. Our addiction has apparently impaired our rationality. Typifying this trend was Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, who last week spoke of his decision to go tee-total after discovering to his youthful horror that he would often drink alcohol on social occasions. This was diagnosed as alcohol addiction, best tackled by abstaining completely.
Later this year, the coalition government is set to unveil an alcohol strategy which will outline ways to curb people’s drinking habits. While David Cameron has argued that ‘this isn’t just about more rules and regulation’, it is evident a barrage of new rules and regulations are coming our way. He has expressed a personal desire to introduce minimum pricing of alcohol, to have police patrolling hospitals and to introduce US-style ‘drunk tanks’ where people deemed to be too drunk are incarcerated until they’ve sobered up. Some campaigners go even further, with one suggesting that drinking licences should be given to everyone on their eighteenth birthday. These would then be revoked should a certain number of points be obtained through irresponsible drinking.
While such a proposal seems not to be on the cards just yet, the fact that campaigners feel sufficiently emboldened to make such illiberal proposals shows the extent to which the new temperance movement is gaining force in Britain today. Alcohol is set to get more expensive; anyone getting drunk in public could be banged up; and those choosing to drink at home will be increasingly stigmatised as alcohol addicts. To many anti-alcohol campaigners, this is simply a small step in the desired direction: to get the whole country to adopt an Alcoholics Anonymous mindset.