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        The politics of drinking

December 12, 2012



Blaming the parents for ‘binge drinking’

Whether it actually happened to me or whether it’s a kind of folk memory I’ve internalised I can’t be sure, but I have a definite feeling that I have sat on a pub doorstep drinking lemonade and eating a packet of Smith’s crisps (with the pre-sachet, pre-premix twisted blue bag of salt), while waiting for my mum and dad to emerge from the bar.

There is no associated trauma of neglect. It’s a nostalgic image, and one shared, I know, by many of my generation and older (of which a few still remain).

How times change. The other day the Daily Mail marshalled its indignation to castigate a dad who’d apparently left his two children in a pram outside the Prince of Wales in Cardiff.

According to the pub’s operator, J D Wetherspoon, the father in question was actually close by, but that’s not something I want to get into an argument about. My question is, why is this news?

On the same day the thinktank Demos published its report Feeling the Effects, an investigation into how parental behaviour influences the way their children drink later in life, sponsored by global brewer SABMiller.

It was picked up widely in the mainstream media and the cover page left journalists in no doubt as to what conclusion they should draw from the study. Above the report title and in a much larger font, it says: “Effective parenting is the best way to call time on Britain’s binge drinking…”

That word ‘parenting’. In its recent migration from noun to verb, ‘parent’ creates a new burden of responsibility for people. A parent is no longer something you simply are, but something you do. And something you can do better - in the Demos terminology, reaching for the ideal of ‘tough love’.

It might sound like common sense, but like a lot of common sense it cloaks an ideology, in this case an ideology in which, in Margaret Thatcher’s old phrase, there is no society, only individuals and families. How the kids turn out comes down to the behaviours of mum and dad rather the total circumstances in which the children are brought up.

Apart from this there are two massive problems around how this research was done. First, it was the children themselves who were asked how much their parents drank. This turns up results like “16-year-olds who perceive their mother to drink ‘always’ were 1.7 times more likely to drink hazardously themselves at the age of 34 than those who reported that their mother drank ‘sometimes’…”

“Always”? “Sometimes”? Kids can be so unscientific. And they tend to see things differently from their parents.

The other issue, for me, lies in the selection of families. In the words of the report: “A large majority of the parents we interviewed were single parents and females… only one-fifth of our sample claimed to be in a stable relationship.” “Many parents we spoke to suffered from a range of mental health issues, including depression, agoraphobia, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviour and bipolar conditions.”

Is this really the kind of sample on which you can found a conclusion about “the best way to call time on binge drinking”?

Well, it is if you blame binge drinking on a minority of ‘troubled families’, to use the term favoured by both Demos and the the incumbent government.

In David Cameron’s words: “A relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.”

That word ‘culture’. It implies a conscious lifestyle choice. It’s not to say the troubles don’t exist, nor that one trouble frequently leads to others. But again it’s pinning the blame on individual behaviour and, simmering beneath, the imputation of a moral lack in our old friends the undeserving poor, a creation designed to justify the continuing assault on benefits and the welfare state.

The Demos report shares the same underlying ideology, despite its obvious aim being to scupper the government in its plans for minimum alcohol pricing, opposed by SABMiller along with most, though not all, the drinks industry.

The case for minimum pricing is, indeed, weak, but the industry needs to come up with something much better than this as an alternative. Blaming the parents can only make matters worse, stigmatising those with drink problems and making it less likely they’ll seek the help they need.

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