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         The politics of drinking

October 14, 2010



The horrible consistency of ConDem alcohol policy

The post-prohibitionist Institute of Alcohol Studies seems a little confused by the coalition government’s approach to alcohol policy. Although it probably isn’t alone in that. The lead story in the latest issue of its organ Alcohol Alert starts by getting worked up about a prioritising of education over regulation, and ends by making grudgingly positive noises about the licensing review, which, broadly speaking, aims to invest greater regulatory powers in local authorities, the police, the health lobby and the Grand Order of Uncle Tom Cobley and All.

So what are the ConDems up to exactly? Or are they just in a muddle?

Neither the IAS nor the drinks industry would agree with me, but I would argue that these two, apparently polarised, strategies are entirely consistent. Not that it makes them any better for it.

Let’s take another look at public health minister Andrew Lansley’s key speech on the matter, the one that’s got the IAS worried.

Consistent with the government’s framing of its reforms he talks of a “rebalancing”:

“The emphasis we put on protecting from risk and treating illness is not matched by the emphasis we put on preventing illness in the first place. So often the treatment that is delivered in the NHS is compromised by patients’ poor diet, lack of exercise, and alcohol or drug abuse or use of tobacco…

“Nearly a quarter of the deaths in this country each year result, at least in part, from the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles.”

If only we looked after ourselves better we wouldn’t have to spend so much money on the NHS, he’s saying. Health becomes a question of lifestyle, rather than the conditions in which people have to live.

Lansley does, however, go on to consider causes that lay outside individual choice:

“Common factors like dysfunctional families, poverty, worklessness, weak family and community structures, lack of good parenting, or mental illness are all identifiable causes. But, most of all, I would argue that the reason underlying all of this, especially amongst young people, is a lack of self-esteem.

“Just as leadership drives organisational success, so self-esteem drives personal fulfilment… So that we reduce alcohol and drug abuse, not because we tell people to do it, but because people are in control and less dependent.”

There’s a weird wobbling here that’s characteristic of ConDem politics, a wobbling between society and individual. And what does he mean by self-esteem?

As well as deliberate rhetorical fudging, fine noises that don’t amount to much, I would say there is something of ideological substance here. He’s iterating the lineaments of a certain ideal individual, the kind of self-sufficient, assertive person who is control of themselves. The very person neo-liberalism requires in order to function at peak efficiency.

There’s a curious analogy with “leadership” and “organisational success”. The kind of chap Lansley has in mind is a captain of industry, or some such.

Similar work is going on in David Cameron’s Big Society and in the reinvention of the ‘deserving poor’ that’s supporting the public service cuts.

Trouble is, these perfect human beings are phantoms. So it’s left to the state to draw boundaries, to define ‘proper’ behaviours. Or if not the state, then, to make it seem delightfully democratic, its proxies, from local government to interfering busybody nimbys – the ones given greater powers in the proposed licensing reforms.

So it all makes horrible sense.

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