Monday, February 25, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: responsibly and in moderation

A recently published book moves to the top of my 'to buy' list. Drinking for England: The Great English Drinkers and Their Times by Fergus Linnane. I've had a browse through it in bookshops and - so far as this great English drinker's memory recalls - it opens with an account of how various worthies such as King Edgar and St Dunstan tried a mixture of finger-wagging, regulation and guilt to get people to regulate their drinking.

And guess what? It didn't work at all. One of the measures tried before the Norman Conquest (something greatly aided, so tradition has it, by the English turning up to Senlac Hill with raging hangovers) was, well, measures. Edgar, besides trying to limit the number of ale houses, tried an early version of alcohol units by mandating that drinking horns be fitted with pegs in an attempt to encourage people to enjoy alcohol responsibly and in moderation by only drinking to the next peg before passing on the drinking horn. Pleasingly, for future generations who resent this sort of nannying, the measurements instead became an invaluable tool for drinking contests with thegns and the like competing to see how many pegs' worth they could down.

Moving back into the present day (and let me guess that Linnane draws similar parallels in his book) the English are as reliably thirsty as ever. And, in time-honoured fashion, the desire to force the people to change their ways has remained as constant.

The villain of much of previous week's press coverage has been our old friend – cheap drink. More precisely, the BMA has joined the chorus saying that drink must be made more expensive to stop people drinking "too much". As the Times puts it, the doctors' union "statutory controls on price and labelling, lower drink-drive limits, higher alcohol taxes and better police enforcement". Something tells me this won't really reduce alcohol specialists' workload, but no matter, it's a nice easy headline.

Never mind the fact that the price of drink, like pretty much everything else is rising due to higher commodities prices; forget the BMA's hypocrisy in trying to make it easier for its members to enjoy a drink and let's focus on the infuriating implication that everyone must be punished because some people drink more than they ought to.

Statistically, I'm sure that draconian controls that make it harder for people to do what they want to will deter them. But it's a rather crude and unpleasant instrument. Just because some people are doing something to excess, it doesn't mean everyone is. Put it this way, if Russell Brand were to go on an especially priapic rampage, statistics (should you be able to measure these things) would suggest that I too would be having more sex. However, if you were to impose draconian controls on sex (I imagine that many of modern-day puritans would love to be able to pull it off), I imagine there would be altogether less shagging going on. Doubt it would stop Brand, though (and I won't mention him again, I hope) but it might not make everyone happier. You may consider how this would affect you, if you like.

There's also the practical objection: you could raise prices, restrict the hours and terms of sale all you like, but you still won't stop drunks smashing things up, you won't stop fighting in the streets and you won't stop people being addicted to the stuff. It might put pubs out of business (they're already suffering thanks to the smoking ban) but I'd have thought shutting down pubs is the surest way of ensuring people don't drink in a convivial but restrained manner.

Rich people will still be free to get sloshed as they please, of course. but everyone else will have drink at home and go for the cheaper lagers and wines. If you took this to its logical conclusion, we'd end up like Finland. And we'd probably have a suicide rate to match.

Not that the cheap lagers on sale in the supermarkets will be quite so cheap. Tesco made a half-hearted attempt this week at pandering to the hysteria about drink by suggesting it might be time for the government to raise the price of its discounted beers. (Translation: prices are rising, we're stuck in a price war, please help us find a way out of selling a loss loser).

I've said before that I doubt the cheap lagers which, according to the Mail have been "associated (by whom? how?) with drunkenness, violence and disorder" are the real villains here. The dirt cheap ones are very low alcohol and I would have thought that the sight of a bunch of teenagers trying to buy them would set off alarm bells in even the dimmest check out operative that they ought to think about applying the laws which already exist.

However, suspicions are not enough. As part of my public service remit I've gone out and bought a four-pack of the cheapest supermarket own-brand lager I could find. Think of it as a protest against the hysteria and simplistic nonsense about an age-old phenomenon. I will report back shortly on whether it makes me smash up a phone box, buy more because it's so cheap or do anything else I might later regret.

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