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  1. Politics
17 April 2000

Don’t trust the British with drink

Our northern climate, not strict licensing laws, explains our alcoholic excess

By Celia Brayfield

Hooray, hooray – next 1 May, all-day drinking will be OK. The government has announced the most radical reform of licensing laws for 40 years. In an uncharacteristic lunge for popularity, Jack Straw has proposed to sweep away the crazy smorgasbord of 40 or so different types of licence to sell alcohol and replace them with a simple system of licensing individual drink vendors.

Legal restriction of pub opening hours will end, sweeping away such despised traditions as the calling of “last orders”, the bell sounding “time”, the 11pm curfew, the observation of drinking-up time, the chuck-out, and the thrilling clandestine camaraderie of the lock-in.

Our licensing legislation is antiquated, oppressive and patronising, and we’ll be glad to see the end of it. Cue shots of happy, smiling Brits sitting in the sun outside half-timbered country inns, slowly savouring their pints while they cheer the white-flannelled cricketers on the village green.

That’s how it ought to be, but the first image that came to my mind when I heard the news was of a woman I interviewed years ago at a refuge for victims of domestic violence.

She was young and pretty, but lacked that air of being one of destiny’s favourite children that usually goes with that condition. Her blue eyes were a little misty. I thought she was short-sighted. It turned out that she was half blind. She had lost the sight of one eye after her husband kicked her in the head.

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His violence had been triggered by drink. She told me that she dreaded the weekends, when the combination of leisure, a pay packet and long opening hours meant that her husband was drunk from midday Saturday onwards – and attacked her and their children whenever he staggered home.

Incidents of domestic violence rose by 10 per cent in London last year. As a nation, however, we do not think of ourselves as vulnerable to alcohol abuse. Our long-felt irritation with the licensing regulations dates back to the days when the first package tourists discovered cheap foreign booze and began to envy the French their cafes and the Spanish their bars.

Most of us would like to think that Britain could adopt the Mediterranean model of drinking as a sociable, sensual pleasure. We aspire to drop into cafes for a friendly beer, to nibble a few tapas with a glass of Fino, to sip our wine around a happy family table, to appreciate good vintages, enjoy aperitifs that enhance our delicious, sophisticated and healthy cuisine, to top up our mother-in-law and pour our children their infant half-glasses to mix with water.

We really think we can do this and we believe that the legislation now to be swept away somehow deformed our natural inclination to drink in a decent, human and enjoyable manner. Licensing laws, we have argued, were capitalist instruments designed to deliver a sober workforce to the factory gate on Monday morning. Naturally this exploitative legislation created a negative drinking culture.

The government’s presentation of its plans claimed that closing-time itself encouraged binge drinking. One television report even suggested that the old regulations were a temporary wartime measure intended only to get the most out of munitions workers.

Britain may yearn to be Mediterraneanised, but geography is against us. Remember that Edinburgh is almost on the same latitude as Moscow. If we look north, we find the Scandinavian model of drinking, in which pleasure has little place. The Nordic drinker gulps down spirits as an antidepressant, almost as an anaesthetic for the pain of living, until keeling over like a felled spruce.

For centuries, alcohol has been the cheapest form of heating in extreme northern climates. It is almost a metabolic necessity. Drinking by the light of the midnight sun means ingesting enough alcohol to dilute the blood to the point where it will not freeze if exposed to an outdoor temperature around minus 26oC.

Necessity has long since blended into culture. The whisky traditions of the Scottish Highlands and the rum ration of the Royal Navy echo the vodka consumption of Russian outdoor workers. The drunken coachman, a stereotypical figure in Russian 19th-century literature, was tolerated because, without a skinful of neat spirit, a man exposed to sub-zero temperatures would have frozen to death.

The Soho clubbers knocking back their vodka and Red Bulls are not in any such danger, but are still drinking in the Nordic fashion. There is no slow savouring of the Sols and Budweisers, which are necked in their tens of thousands every British Saturday night. In the eyes of the rest of the world, the British drink too much and start much too young. We have become so accustomed to our native drinking culture that we seldom question it.

We never noticed that those French cafes we envied were deserted after 10pm. We never clocked the utter contempt of the Spanish barman throwing out a drunk. Instead, when the television news shows British football fans wrecking bars all over the world, and British holidaymakers in staggering mobs in European nightclubs, we are amused. Even when an American comedian at the Comedy Store observes that “you British drink the way we Americans eat”, we laugh without really getting the point.

Changing our licensing laws is not going to change the way we drink. What we need is a national 12-step programme, beginning with the traditional admission that our relationship with alcohol is out of control.