Listen: Did the left win the 20th century?

A special edition of the New Statesman podcast.

On 18 April the New Statesman hosted the second in a series of debates organised to celebrate the magazine’s 100th birthday. The first, “The future of feminism”, was held at Conway Hall and featured feminist bloggers Bim Adewunmi, Juliet Jacques, V J D Smith (Glosswitch), Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, Holly Baxter and Laurie Penny. The second, a debate upon the motion “The left won the 20th century”, took place at King’s College London and pitted commentators from either side of the political spectrum against one another, arguing with their natural allies. Both events sold out.

Arguing for the motion was Huffington Post political director and NS columnist Mehdi Hasan, NS deputy editor Helen Lewis and – perhaps a little less expectedly – Simon Heffer, Daily Mail columnist, biographer and grammarian. Heffer said that anti-imperialism, equality, the welfare state, social mobility, widening educational franchise were all “liberal-left inventions”. “The world in which we live,” he concluded, “was created almost entirely by the left.”

On the far side of the hall, Tim Montgomerie, former editor of ConservativeHome, said this of the political left:

“It is a great philosophy, you wear your heart on your sleeves, everybody knows the left wants to increase the life chances of the poor, but the left lost the 20th century because you became detached from your core purposes because you became imprisoned by a whole range of vested interests, most notably the teachers’ unions.”

He was supported in opposition by Ruth Porter, Communications Director at the free market Institute of Economic Affairs and Owen Jones, Independent columnist and author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. This was the first time Hasan and Jones had wound up opposing one another in a debate.

The event was chaired by NS editor Jason Cowley, who concluded the evening by asking for a show of hands. To find out which way the audience voted, the podcast can be streamed or downloaded as a special edition of the New Statesman Podcast, either from the site or on iTunes.

The next centenary debate will be announced within the next few weeks.

The debate at King's College London last week.
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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.