‘Yeah but, no but’ and the Great British drinking problem

by Stephen Tall on January 22, 2005

What is it about Britain that makes the term ‘drinking culture’ quite so oxymoronic? A brisk walk down through the centre of Oxford (and brisk is the advisable pace) on a Friday or Saturday night reveals the problem. Shouting, fighting, urinating, vomiting… Yes, us Brits can proudly proclaim that we are, without doubt, utterly, pathetically, tediously incapable of holding our drink.

We are not in a unique position, of course. Britain is increasingly aligning with the cold climate ‘vodka belt’ of Scandinavian and eastern European countries which share our self-evident need for regular alcoholic embrocation. In 2004, the average adult consumed 11.2 litres of pure alcohol, up 12% on 1997’s figure. Even so, we lag behind the French in the league table of hard-drinking nations, where per capita consumption of alcohol among adults is almost 50% higher than it is in England.

Indeed, the British appear to have developed our own ‘third way’, combining northern Europe’s proclivity to binge with southern Europe’s sociable, but moderate, street drinking scene. It’s not a happy merger.
We all know the costs of drinking, both economically (£3.3 billion, according to the charity Alcohol Concern) and medically (33,000 alcohol-related deaths a year).

We are now beginning fully to appreciate the clear link between drink and violent crime:
* 13,000 violent incidents in or near licensed premises every week in 2000;
* and assaults by strangers – more than 50% of whom are drunk at the time, according to victim surveys – are among the few crimes to have increased in recent years.

Public concern is on the up, with the red-top tabloids’ screamingly lurid headlines detailing in micro-cosm this macro-cosmic problem. The Government’s response to binge-drinking and its anti-social problems has, until now, been to liberalise Britain’s licensing laws, paving the way for 24-hour cities.

The sensible idea, which had full police support, was that this would enable pubs to operate ‘staggered’ closing times. So, rather than throwing every drunk out onto the streets at 11.20 pm, and then wondering why the streets suddenly feel a tad threatening, the inebriated should be dispersed gradually.

There is an increasing fear that that is not how it will work in practice. The Government’s guidance rules out local authorities attempting to impose staggered closing times. Yet, unless they have this power, it is extremely unlikely the local pubs and clubs will happily agree to closing at different times. Why would you chuck out your paying customers at midnight, if they’re simply going to decamp next door because it’s open for another three hours?

So what to do about it?

The only answer to the immediate problem of drink-related crime is to adopt the liberal economist’s approach to the environmental agenda: ‘polluter pays’. Local authorities should be able to sit down with the police and calculate the operational costs associated with late-night drinking: the price of the licence levied on local pubs, in proportion to their size, would then be set to cover this (and only this).

The Government has gone a step in the right direction by increasing the price of licences for the super-pubs; but it needs to give local councils the discretion to ensure the full costs are met by the ‘polluter’, and are not absorbed by the general council tax-payer.

Yet none of this addresses the root problem: how can we reverse the unhealthy binge-drinking lifestyles of too many of Britain’s citizens? Here I run the risk of sounding like a zealous member of the Temperance Society addressing a Methodist convention… I stopped drinking alcohol last March, save for two occasions since: New Year’s Eve (one glass of champagne); and following a particularly stressful and arduous tent-assembling session in Devon last summer (one pint of cider). There is almost nothing worse than a converted teetotaller, except perhaps a ‘born again’ smoker.

As a liberal, I believe government – and certainly this Government – interferes far too much in individuals’ lives. If you want to choose a lifestyle with which I have no sympathy, whether it be taking drugs or becoming a morris dancer, that is your look-out. It is certainly no concern of mine unless and until your lifestyle harms me.

It is precisely because of the harm binge-drinking does that society has to intervene to halt the rising tide of alcohol-related crime. But it does not legitimise ‘nanny state’ attempts to force those who over-indulge, and who do not commit crime – for their number is legion – to moderate their drinking. They should do it for the sake of their health. But that is their responsibility.

This growing call for government to step in for the individual’s own good on a range of matters, whether it’s obesity or smoking, is a pernicious trait in British society. It feeds what is memorably termed in today’s Daily Telegraph the ‘yeah but, no but’ generation (after the catchphrase made famous by Little Britain’s feckless Vicky Pollard) which believes “their fate is out of their hands and that parents, schools, government or bad luck are to blame for their misfortunes.”

The report is based on research by Dr Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, who used a standard questionnaire in personality tests carried out between 1960 and 2002 on 18,310 American college students and 6,554 children aged nine to 14. The Telegraph notes (I suspect not quoting directly from the study):

“The impact of self-centred behaviour and the victim mentality can be seen across every part of society – from the reluctance to give up seats on public transport to voter apathy. It can be seen when people in debt blame banks for lending them too much money or when fat people blame fast-food advertising or hormones for obesity.”

Personal responsibility is a pre-requisite of a functioning liberal society. Our failure to curb the problems associated with binge-drinking may be a collective one; but the remedy is in the hands of those individuals who comprise our society.