In the more than twenty years that I have been visiting the United Kingdom, including living for short periods in Newcastle and London, the rise of public binge drinking and associated disorder is the biggest and saddest change in the life of cities (and no small number of small towns). This image from the Telegraph gives a flavor of the night time scene in many areas, and also documents another distressing change: A massive uptick in the number of young women drinking as recklessly as men. I have NHS colleagues who have treated liver cirrhosis in “laddettes” under the age of 30.
Britain did not end up in such evil case by happenstance. In a searing critique published in 2004, the sociologist Robin Room accused the Labour government of “disabling the public interest” and pointed out that the degree of emphasis the government placed on different alcohol control policies was directly proportional to the lack of scientific evidence for each policy’s effectiveness. Robin has studied alcohol control policy for decades and is a committed leftist, so his indictment cannot be fobbed off as an uninformed or partisan attack. I would temper his words somewhat though by noting that just because a government makes a hash of a policy area, that does not mean that every member of the ruling party agrees with their own government. Certainly upstanding Labour politicians such as Baroness Massey and Lord Patel would have been willing and able to design a Labour alcohol policy with more teeth if the PM had let them.
Why was Labour alcohol control policy so feeble? First, the British population differs from the U.S. in that almost every adult drinks, and many people see drinking as quintessential British. Any alcohol control policy thus has potential to trigger a popular backlash, and the poll-driven Labour of Tony Blair shied away accordingly. Second, Labour was equally scared of offending the deep-pocketed alcohol industry. Third, the grassroots were fairly quiet because most drug policy activists in the U.K. studiously avoid discussing alcohol. When you are trying to convince the public that if we just legalized heroin and cocaine, a tightly regulated and extremely safe market would be easy for the government to create and manage, acknowledging that the government has been completely unable to create a well-regulated and safe market for alcohol undermines your case (a courageous few drug legalization activists who have integrity and intellectual honesty admit this and take a lot of flack in their church for doing so – good on them).
With one million alcohol-related crimes occurring last year, and almost every Briton knowing someone who has experienced drunken aggression in the streets, the UK public feels desperate for leadership in alcohol policy, and the new coalition government is responding. One additional spur to action may be that many Lib Dems represent university towns with a nightlife that has become violent and disturbing, and many Tories represent areas that local residents once but no longer could stroll down comfortably at 11pm on a weekend evening.
As I said in my first post in this series, I give credit to Home Secretary May for sounding the right notes on alcohol policy so far, including on the need to reform the Licensing Act, a pivotal piece of UK alcohol legislation. Indeed, it’s a sign of the new government’s seriousness that her Department has taken responsibility for the Licensing Act, replacing the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport (That it was there to begin with speaks volumes about the prior government’s view of the matter).
The coalition government has agreed to some general principles and has laid out a series of alcohol policy proposals which you can read here
There are a few things in the document with which I would quibble (e.g., what good does it do to double fines for repeatedly selling to underage drinkers when the government levies less than a half dozen such fines a year nationwide?), but in general it’s a serious set of meaningful policy proposals and very much worth a careful read. Among the possible changes discussed are banning below cost alcohol sales, including health as a consideration when deciding whether to grant new alcohol sales licences (currently crime is considered the only legitimate consideration), giving local communities more power to stop the opening of new alcohol outlets, and raising the fee for licence holders. If one wanted to sum it up in a sentence, the new policy shifts the presumption of the licensing process from “Grant a licence unless there is a good reason not to” to “Don’t grant a licence without a good reason.”
Those readers of RBC who are expert in alcohol policy will I hope use the above link to submit their comments to the Home Office during the current period of public consultation. 10 SEPT UPDATE: Apology to RBC readers, the alcohol consultation period just ended – note however that a drug policy consultation has opened and you can participate here
In the next post in this series, I will take up in detail a specific policy proposal mooted in the alcohol policy document: Setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol sold.