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Home > Culture and Society

Time Please: The government's booze-flavoured fudge

2 July 2004

It's surprising that the government has taken so long to pick up on the problem of 'binge drinking'. Heavy drinking, fights and public vomiting have been a fixture of Britain's recreational life since the first Anglo-Saxon peasant had one over the eight pints of mead and said: 'Are ye looking at my toothless crone?'

When the government talks about 'binge drinking', we think it means the 'townie' pub'n'club experience, which normally culminates at a nightclub called Tokyo Joe's, Volts, Maxims, Zanzibar or (we wish) Fatal Incidents.

Leaving aside the health risks of excessive drinking, the problems associated with the townie pub'n'club experience are mainly what happens outside: fights, vandalism, screaming and shouting, people injuring themselves, occasional mini-riots and threats to Street Crime UK cameramen.

As a result, the government has devised an 'alcohol harm reduction strategy'. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's rubbish.

The main proposal in the strategy is extending licensing hours. The thinking behind this, such as it is, is that if you stagger pub and club closing times, you don't get large groups of extremely pissed people all wandering around town centres at once, thus reducing aggro. The other supposed benefit of extending licensing hours is the optimistic idea that if drinking hours are largely unregulated, people will pick and choose how and when they drink, avoiding frenzied last orders chugging.

However, this doesn't sit happily with observed human behaviour. Go out at the weekend and you'll see people start drinking fairly early, eg. 6pm, and keep drinking solidly until the last possible moment, ie. closing time at 2am (or later) in a club. If people like eight hour benders, they'd probably love even longer ones.

And drink-fuelled aggro is usually the result of this type of drinking: getting into a state where you're absolutely out of it and common sense and logic have flown south for the winter.

The binge drinking culture is - quelle surprise - about heavy drinking. It's totally different to the much-vaunted 24-hour, espresso-sipping continental cafe culture (if it truly exists). You can't just replace one activity with another - it's like telling a rugby team they can have just as much fun playing whist.

All the evidence suggests that rather than extending licensing hours, it might make more sense to shorten them - stop people getting totally out of it by turning drinking marathons into something that more resembles a normal (if boozy) night out. If people wanted to carry on drinking, they'd just have to do it at home.

But restrictions on nightclubs are unlikely to happen. The Home Office wants to be tough on drink-fuelled aggro, but he can't take the first and most obvious step, which is limiting drinking hours at notorious trouble-spots. And it's always the same places that are associated with violence: town nightclubs, not late-night tapas bars, Goth all-nighters, live music venues or, on the whole, restaurants.

The government is hamstrung because people want a reduction in late night street crime, but also want to be able to drink until they're bouncing off the pavement. Then there are the enormous revenues generated by late-night drinking. Go for a normal but fairly boozy evening at the pub and you'll probably spend 10-20.

Go for a big night out and you can easily spend 60+. Are pub hains, breweries, nightclub owners or the Treasury going to be hppy to see such a big chunk of the UK economy being fettered?

So instead New Labour has come up with a classic fudge: drunken aggro is somehow magically going to be reduced by longer drinking hours and staggered chucking out times. There's just one more problem - most incidents of violence are between people who've been drinking in the same pub or club.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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