Humbug

<strong>Taken from the New Statesman archive, March 17 1923</strong>

Editors naturally write best

On Friday of last week the House of Commons passed by an overwhelming majority and with vast enthusiasm the Second Reading of a Bill to prohibit the sale of intoxicating liquor to young persons under eighteen, for "consumption on the premises." The incident is interesting mainly for the light it throws upon the way in which the machinery of "democracy" sometimes works. It is not in the least surprising that the Bill should have been passed; but to the dispassionate and unsophisticated onlooker - a visitor, let us say, from Mars and even only from Paris or Prague - it must surely seem an almost incomprehensible thing that over four hundred presumably sensible and busy gentlemen should have taken the trouble to remain at Westminster throughout a long Friday afternoon in order to vote either for or against such a measure.

Sillier Bills may have been introduced in the House of Commons from time to time, but none sillier can ever surely have attained the dignity of a Second Reading. It will perhaps serve to complicate the professional lives of licensed victuallers - and that in itself may be regarded by some people as a worthy object - but as far as "social" results are concerned, there will certainly be none, literally none. The Bill professes to deal solely with the "problem" of injurious drinking by boys and girls under eighteen in public-houses at their own expense. But no evidence whatever was adduced to show that any such problem exists or is ever likely to exist. The only figures quoted by Lady Astor in support of the Bill showed that in a town of 22,000 inhabitants there is, on the average, one conviction for drunkenness per annum of a boy or girl between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one. It is fairly safe to say that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the convicted person is over eighteen. So it comes it this: that this Bill may possibly prevent in such a town one conviction for drunkenness per century. We say "possibly" because in the vast majority of cases, say nine out of ten, the child has probably got drunk at someone else's expense - which this Bill does nothing to prevent. So that the number of cases in which "youth" will be saved from conviction by Lady Astor's moving rhetoric seems to be reduced to about one in a thousand years per town of 22,000 inhabitants - say Doncaster, whose member voted for the Bill. The reader may be inclined to amend this calculation, but we do not think he can alter it very much. No calculation could demonstrate the "saving" of many girls or youths per century.

Behind the Bill - very vaguely behind it - there is, of course, a perfectly sound idea. We all agree that young people have no business to touch spirits. Whether whiskey and gin are necessarily bad for adults remains an open question, but we would none of us give them to our sons and daughters before they are eighteen or, indeed before they are a good deal older than that. But does such a thing as spirit-drinking under eighteen exist? On the other hand, such drinks as ordinary beer and cider, taken in moderation, do no harm whatever, that anyone can detect, to growing lads - as generations of English public school boys can attest. We should be surprised to learn - though we may be wrong - that even Lady Astor has forbidden her own sons (of whom she spoke) to touch such beverages, and we are quite certain that the vast majority of those who voted for her Bill that have never dreamed of enforcing such a prohibition in their own families. That, however, is not the real point. The point is that if such a thing exists as the evil of juvenile drinking, this Bill will not appreciably affect it. It is humbug.

One really serious argument has been advanced in favour of the Bill. It is stated, to put it bluntly, that alcohol is an aphrodisiac and that when young girls are seduced it is frequently alcohol that has brought about their "ruin." For our part, we should be inclined to guess - though, of course we have no statistics - that this is true not "frequently" but nearly always. But what has that to do with this Bill? Whoever heard of a young girl , about to seduced, paying for her own drinks? And that is all this Bill prohibits. Are we to attribute such arguments to hypocrisy or to mere stupidity and ignorance to the common facts of life? Mrs. Wintringham, in supporting the Bill, declared that if a poll were taken throughout the country "as to whether girls under eighteen should be kept out of the public house," she has no doubt as to the result. We have no doubt either. But the Bill probably will not keep one girl per annum in the whole country out of a public-house. A girl of sixteen or seventeen who walks into a public house and orders a drink for herself and pays for it, would be so remarkable a phenomenon as to deserve to made an exception to any legislation! By all means let us keep young girls out of public houses unless they are accompanied by responsible adults. But how? Certainly not by Bills like this.

It really does not seem to matter a rap whether this foolish bill is passed or not, so far as its avowed objects are concerned. It will make no difference to anyone, save perhaps a few youths of between sixteen and eighteen who are accustomed to drink a glass of beer after a football match and who will be neither better nor worse for having to do without it. But even these will probably be able as a rule to find someone to buy their beer for them; or failing that will buy it - quite legally - in jugs or bottles, and drink it on the pavement. And they will be all the more certain to find means of obtaining beer, because a glass of beer is forbidden them by the King, Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled.

There lies the real vice of measure. It has no merits that we can perceive, and by a useless and provocative prohibition it is likely merely to stimulate the desire of youths, ambitious to be "men," for alcoholic liquor. Every form of prohibition, unless it really corresponds with the convictions of the man-in-the-street and can really be enforced, inevitably produces a reaction precisely contrary to its object. The unreasonable limitation of hours in restaurants during the war certainly increased the consumption of alcohol. At 2.25 or 9. 25 the waiter came to the table and asked, "Do you wish to order anything more to drink, sir, before it is too late?" and almost always the answer was emphatically in the affirmative, although in most cases there would probably have been no further order if there had been no prohibition. That, after all, is only human nature. But human nature is a factor which enthusiastic reformers habitually ignore. Usually perhaps they know little about it. We remember that when the question of relaxing war restrictions was being discussed, one of the main arguments of the "temperance" people was that the early closing of public-houses reduced prostitution. The opposite, of course was the truth. The main problem of the prostitute is how to get her man out of the public-house where he is drinking with her. In war-time the state did that part of her work for her, turning him out at ten o'clock sharp - too early to go home and nothing to do - and left him at her mercy. No prostitute who knew her business would have voted for a later hour.

But to return to the "Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Bill." It is obviously a foolish Bill and we believe, a bad Bill. Yet 338 members of the House of Commons voted for it! Why? Lady Astor declared that "we shall have done something big if we can only get this Bill on the Statute book." We do not take Lady Astor for a hypocrite, and so we are willing to believe that in making the statement she honestly thought she was talking sense. But what of the other 337, who waited until five o'clock to record their votes in favour of her proposition? How many of them believed in the Bill? Twenty, thirty, forty - surely not more. The rest no doubt wished to lay up treasure in heaven; wished, that is to say, to seize a unique opportunity of securing the goodwill of the "temperance" organisations in their constituencies at a cost that was almost nil. We cannot blame them for seizing a unique opportunity; but neither can we refrain from commenting upon the humbug of it all. For the moment prohibition is not a serious political issue; but if the practice of voting for silly measures of this kind becomes a habit, members may soon find it difficult to withhold their votes from measures of a much more serious consequence. Prohibition is never likely to be adopted in this country , and if it were would probably fail much more rapidly and decisively even than it has failed in the United States - because Great Britain has a much stronger sense of the rights of minorities and Englishmen a much greater inclination than Americans to rebel against infringements of their personal liberty. But if the well-organised prohibitionist minority succeeds in terrorising members of Parliament into passing minority legislation, we may be faced within the next decade with a situation not unlike that which exists today in America. To pass Bills which are either silly or opposed to the will of the majority, cannot fail to discredit the legislative machine itself and to destroy respect for the law. That is the real objection to such measures. "We shall have done something big," says Lady Astor. If our Lady Astors have their way, Parliament will soon be a thing pour rire. But probably they will not have their way.