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Home > Culture and Society

24 Hour Paralytic People

20 August 2005

This November will see the long-awaited relaxation in drinking laws, leading to much partying and pummelling in the streets in a hail of bottles and horrified media glee. Given the embarrassing state of British drinking culture ('culture' as in 'Celebrity Love Island', or maybe mildew), it seems a good idea to at least try *something*, since it can hardly get much worse. However, with the doomy clang of inevitability, this week the Council of Her Majesty's Court Judges threw up their hands and pre-emptively proclaimed disaster.

'Those who routinely see the consequences of drink-fuelled violence', says their report, 'are in no doubt that an escalation of offences of this nature will inevitably be caused by the relaxation of liquor licensing'. Which makes sense, but such watertight reasoning doesn't leave much room for the vagaries of human nature. It seems to assume that drunkenness is exponential, that there is no limit to people's capacity to arsehole themselves. Following the logic of the judges - who, it must be cheaply shot, are hardly to be found barrelling around O'Neill's of a lairy Saturday night in Guildford - you'd have to predict a surge in not only bodily harm, but murder. If someone who likes a bit of a brawl drinks till 11pm, he'll break a few noses; if he drinks till 2am, he'll be braining passers-by with scaffolding, and by 5am he'll be running around on all fours chewing on the tattered femur of his third victim. You can't apply what is essentially mathematics to such an unpredictable beast as beer-related crime.

Ultimately, the only way to find out if this idea is workable, after being puked up into the policy pintglass and thrown back again on and off for at least five years, is to test it.

At least the judges do recognise that any hopeful suggestion that Britain will go a bit more continental and simmer down when they don't have to race to last orders is bunk. You can't change drinking culture by fiddling with clocks. It's social evolution - a complex set of factors have led us to be the fist-swinging lager-swillers that we are, and only more time and the convergence of more complex factors will erode that. One judge stated that many tend to become 'pugnacious and bellicose' after a drink. The assumption seems to be that people get aggressive because they can't get more booze - no, they get aggressive because people glance in their direction, or in the direction of their bird, or because they try desperately not to glance in their direction and make it a bit too obvious. Booze makes people aggressive, yes, but this will be true at any time of the day, and will not suddenly become more true or more dangerous later at night. It comes back to limits - the current legal ones are as meaningless as drug classifications, and so it's almost irrelevant whether they are jettisoned or not. Not all policy change effects actual change, as people should have recognised by now. 11pm means nothing - you can go to a club, or a bar with a late licence. People don't impose limits on themselves - better for regulations to mirror that than fight it. What seems to get forgotten in all this is that those who want to chug-a-lug all day and night have been doing so without legal restriction for years. Alcohol is freely available to buy in vast quantities from shops and supermarkets for 12 hours every day. You can keep it at your house, your house being the place where, if domestic violence is your thing, you commit your nasty deeds. Quibbling over when pubs can sell what, seems something of an insult under the circumstances.

Even human nature is only salient up to a point here - the lawsof biology are pretty immutable. Everything has a saturation point, and even the most beer-hardened body will succumb in the end, to unconsciousness or actual alcohol poisoning. Since many people are entirely unable to grasp when they've had all they can take, deaths from alcohol poisoning may indeed rise under the new laws, but - no, we can't voice that thought. We really mustn't. That would be cruel *and* unusual.

There is a tendency to panic about ostensibly radical policy change, especially when it lurches towards liberalisation - garish tabloid images race through minds, rivers of hot vomit flowing in the streets like some very low-budget, carrot-speckled Pompeii. But the chances are - given that all-day drinking has been a fact of life for a long, long time - that very little actual change will come about. People will still drink too much, attack each other, damage themselves, cost the NHS and councils and the country money and time. It would have been nice to knock up a few prefab pubs solely for the minority of pro-am pissheads who give the whole drinking thing a bad name - herd them into the electric-fenced compound promptly at 11am, start playing a tape of bellowed insults after a few hours, and let nature take its course - but we'll just have to learn to mingle and avoid by turns as before. Unless any eager souls fancy forming some sort of pub prefect system. Someone in a neat tie to tell drinkers they've had enough and should go home. That should give the rest of us time to make good our escape, at least.



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