Today for a change I want to write about something I am no expert on â€“ binge drinking. I would like your thoughts on it.
When the government proposed relaxing the licensing hours, they argued that there would be a drop in drunkenness and rowdy behaviour. They said it would end drinking up time in pubs, and avoid too many people all being pushed out on to the streets at the same time on a Friday or Saturday night much the worse for wear. We would naturally transform from a rowdy, drunken late night town centre culture to a sophisticated well behaved European cafÃ© culture, once people were trusted to drink in public places after midnight.
I did not believe them when they told us this. The latest figures for drunken behaviour â€“ and anecdotal evidence from places I know â€“ tells us this miraculous conversion has not taken place. Instead people seem to have taken advantage of the opportunity to drink more in pubs over longer time periods to do just that.
As always with this government I do not know whether they were incompetent or dishonest when they told us longer hours would cut down on the problems of drink in our towns. It is possible their polling told them late night opening was popular amongst groups they wanted to vote for them, so they decided to relax the laws for straightforward political reasons. They then foolishly invented a â€œdecentâ€ reason for wanting to do it. Alternatively, they might have thought the abolition of closing time could make a difference, as they claimed. This was a view shared with very few other people who looked at the problem.
When I looked at the issue as an MP faced with a choice to make, the freedom lover in me favoured the relaxation of hours, but the representative had to accept that many of my constituents did not want their towns and villages changed by people spilling out of pubs and clubs much later, in the early hours of the morning. There was an understandable fear that the government would be proved wrong, and the problems of rowdy behaviour could extend from the early hours of the night to the later hours of the night as well.
Now the miscalculation has come to light, the government itself is looking around for culprits to blame, and other possible solutions to the underlying problem. Their eyes naturally fasted upon the private sector â€“ they tried to blame the supermarkets for selling alcohol too cheaply. Their surveys â€“ no doubt at our expense â€“ told them people often get well oiled at home on cheap booze before hitting the pubs and clubs. Why not ask the supermarkets to put their prices up?
This suggestion has been handled well by Tesco and others. It was always unfair on the many people who drink in moderation at home, and who like the lower prices the best retailers deliver. The supermarkets pointed out that they were not allowed under Competition Law to get together to put their prices up to deter drinking. If any individual supermarket did, it would simply divert business to the others. So itâ€™s back to the drawing board for the government on that one.
When I went to university I discovered a divided world. One group of my fellow students took to soft drugs, and the rest of us enjoyed the alcohol. The treatment of the two by government was â€“ and remains â€“ different. Drugs were banned by law. Those who took them often enjoyed the fact that they were illegal, as well as the pleasure they thought they brought. I did not experiment with them, because I did not wish to jeopardise a place at university I valued greatly by running the risk of a criminal prosecution. There was no such restraint on alcohol. What soon put me off drinking too much was the sleepless nights, the dehydration and the hangover that followed the social occasion where we were too generous with the liquor. It was easy to resist any social pressure to take drugs, because it had to remain under the radar. It was less easy to resist pressure for heavy drinking, as that was a social activity where there was no good excuse for declining.
In more recent years the pressure to drink excessively to show yourself a good sport or to join in has been changed in one important respect by the successful campaigns to stop drinking and driving. People at dinner parties now accept you need to stay sober if you are going to leave in your car. It is one of the few examples of how legislative change and stricter enforcement of the law can lead to a change in behaviour and attitudes. Prohibition of drugs continues to work for some people and not for others. This government tried a back door way of relaxing the law for cannabis, only to find it needed to reverse its position.
As someone who likes good wine, I have long since come to the conclusion that my pleasure is increased if I drink it in sensible quantities. As I often have to drive, that rations my intake as well as it is safest in my position not to drink at all if I am about to take charge of a car. If others want to drink more in the confines of their own home, that is no business of the government, and they should not be trying to stifle it by higher prices so only the better off can do so. If people want to drink in public places, there does need to be some regulation, as we need to think of the neighbours and the town centre dwellers who will be affected if things get out of control. I donâ€™t think putting the hours of the pubs back to what they were would abolish the problem of drunkenness in towns, but nor can we say the changes to the hours has done what it said on the tin. Controlling drunken and rowdy behaviour will take much more patient work and effort by many who care about society. It is only when many more people get pleasure from other ways of life that they might wish to curb their own drunken excess. If your sense of pleasure is to get plastered once or twice a week, only to have to suffer the after effects that night and the next day, then there is much missing in your life. It means so much of the beauty, excitement and potential in the world has passed you by. It is a mighty task for parents, teachers, friends, relatives and above all for each person themselves. There are limits to what legislators can do. Sermonising and taxing are unlikely to work. Stronger laws will only work with some, and may encourage others to misbehave the more.