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        The politics of drinking

April 13, 2012



Undeserving drinkers: moralism and the alcohol strategy

It was a premature birth and the mother was unexpected. Instead of health minister Andrew Lansley delivering the Government Alcohol Strategy this week, home secretary Theresa May suddenly appeared as his surrogate last Friday.

Inducing an early birth might have been a cynical ploy to get the ‘granny tax’ out of the headlines, in which it succeeded. Or it could have been done to distract from the success of the responsibility deal in gaining the drinks industry’s agreement to remove a billion alcohol units from the market. Or a bit of both. Who knows.

That it became a Home Office baby was necessary since Lansley was digging his heels in over minimum pricing. Alcohol policy has always shuffled uncomfortably between the Department of Health and the Home Office, with excursions into industry and culture. And it makes a significant difference.

The strategy document is sharply skewed towards a law and order agenda. The health stuff, largely inoffensive, is pushed to the back. The law and order stuff, extremely offensive, is frontloaded.

Prime minister David Cameron sets the tone in his introduction.

“Binge drinking isn’t some fringe issue,” he begins. “The crime and violence it causes drains resources in our hospitals, generates mayhem on our streets and spreads fear in our communities.”

The language is reminiscent of that used in the wake of last summer’s riots, demonising a feral working class youth who are terrorising the neighbourhood.

In support, paragraph one of the actual report asserts that “over the last decade we have seen a culture grow where it has become acceptable to be excessively drunk in public and cause nuisance and harm to ourselves and others.”

(“Ourselves and others? If they’re not ourselves, who are the others?)

This has led to “almost 1 million alcohol-related crimes” in which the victim believed the offender was under the influence of drink.

Check the reference to that in the British Crime Survey and you find that the government rounding up liberally. Look harder and what you see is that across the decade in which the problem has supposedly been spiralling out of control alcohol-related crime has fallen by 25%. Since 1995, when they first asked the question, it’s gone down 44%. Since 2005 and the implementation of flexible licensing it’s dropped 16%.

Even as a proportion of total crime, which has also been decreasing, alcohol-related offences have dropped to 44% from a high of 51% in 2004.

We might well consider this ‘too high’. Almost any figure would be. But the evidence suggests the problem is in remission. There is always more we can do, but improved management of the night-time economy, combined with declining alcohol consumption, especially among young people, has improved matters considerably.

Despite the evidence, the “scourge of violence caused by binge drinking” gives permission for strong measures to be taken. Not only minimum pricing but ‘enforced sobiety schemes’ for offenders with electronic tagging and, on the supply side, reversing the progress made by the 2003 Act towards a more civilised licensing regime.

On the concrete proposals in the alchol strategy there is more to be said, not least by me I would imagine. But what keeps bothering me is the language in which this exercise has been conducted. The document is laced with a bitter contempt.

Our alcohol problems are, it seems, caused by “a combination of irresponsibility, ignorance and poor habits” resurrecting a Victorian, moralistic attitude towards drinking we should by now have put behind us.

Sinisterly, the government wants “to end the notion that drinking is an unqualified right”. As historian James Nicholls has noted this echoes some old, unresolved debates about the nature of liberal society and reveals the rift in capitalism’s dominant philosophy – people must make free choices, but what if they make choices we don’t like?

The contradiction is expressed in the strategy’s contorted formulations: “We will… support individuals to make informed choices about healthier and responsible drinking, so it is no longer considered acceptable to drink excessively.”

Those who won’t behave in the correct way are bad people and will have their rights removed. They, like the undeserving poor, are the undeserving drinkers.

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