Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Another puritan, sigh

My comments on Peter Haydon's Inebriated History of Britain, referred to the long-established pattern that in every age the inevitable puritan appears, fingers wagging and using all means available to force people to act in accordance with the moraliser's own standards; and how this almost always fails.

And sure enough, here comes another variant on the theme: John Harris uses the Guardian's comment pages to urge Kirkcaldy's own Lord Protector to use his bully pulpit to stop people drinking. Harris's utter wrong-headedness is best encapsulated in his closing remarks:

Not so long ago, an anguished minister told me the key to a resurrection of Gordon Brown's prospects lay in a revival of the moral certainty glimpsed in the cancellation of the Manchester supercasino. Here is an obvious opportunity: the make-or-break conference speech he is set to make in that city next month. Surrounded by streets that reflect the booze trade's absence of restraint as much as any Greek resort, he could take aim at the supermarkets, bar chains and fly-by-night club owners, and use the kind of words that usually elude him - not "we are in the midst of a review", but something altogether more simple: "This is wrong."

If Labour ministers and supporters like Harris think the casino stunt was Brown at his best it provides a clue as to why the party is so monumentally screwed right now: it was a pusillanimous pandering to purtianism for no good reason other than to appease an axis of self-righteous meddlers and win favourable coverage in the Daily Mail and The Guardian (the twin poles of said axis).

As for Harris's suggestions, oh they're mainly a plaintive bleat urging someone to do something, anything, and give him "the solid thwack of state intervention". (What type of mindset gets so excited at the prospect of interferring in other people's lives? It's most unappealling.) And were Labour to take them seriously, you could assume quite safely that they would follow the age-old pattern of being utterly counterproductive.

Two issues are tangled up in Harris's piece: our old friend cheap booze from the supermarkets and "vertical drinking establishments". In the case of the former, he advocates all sorts of new petty rules and, in extremis, legal action to control prices. Historically, of course, price-fixing has been used in all sorts of desperate situations and - unless it is really a matter of life and death - has never worked. In this instance, if you whack the price of drink up, people who really want to get hammered will respond by buying ever more potent gut rot. And people who just want to drink whatever it is they want to drink will be pissed off by having to pay more it. Not ideal for a party as terminally unpopular as Labour.

Restrictions on off sales, however, *might* have some effect (or it might just piss people off for no good reason). However, they would most likely drive people into pubs, and it's here that the limits of Harris's approach become more apparent. "Vertical drinking" establishments (ie lots of people can stand in them), now known as superpubs have a long history. In the 19th century they were known as gin palaces. And - guess what? - there's a trail of historic precendents of attempts to supress them which ended up harming other, more genteel establishments far more.

The original gin palaces developed when there was a growing urban population wanting somewhere to drink and a growing number of legal and fiscal restrictions on the sale of drink. The net result: the only economic way to sell drink at all was to build establishments along the pile em in, get up pissed model.

It's not exactly clear what Harris would like to do (this may or may not indicate that he really hasn't thought this through). However, given that he seems to like blunt legislative and economic instruments, I'd be fascinated to hear if there are any ones that can be used which wouldn't hurt smaller, calmer and less profitable "sit down" establishments. If you attempt to control the price at which bars can sell alcohol, you might see fewer superpubs selling two for the price of one; but it won't put them out of business. They might however, find ways to compensate by using their superior economic clout to put their small, more civilised competitors out of business. It has happened in the past.

I don't imagine for a moment that Gordon Brown will use his speech to announce measures to help small publicans sell drink more cheaply and easily. But if he does wish to do something to tackle binge-drinking he'll need to help smaller pubs compete against the supermarkets and superpubs. For history shows that nothing else - except maybe a major European war – really works in fighting what we now call binge drinking. And though the conflict might be easier to organise, I doubt very much it would be a vote winner.

PS: See Locker on the closure of one of his few neighbourhood boozers. Is there any way in which this development will improve the area or cut binge drinking? The pub company will bank its profits, the offies will move into the vaccuum and all that will be dimished in the sense of community.

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