Bill Durodie, 22 September 2008
Most people have experienced the more unpleasant aspects of going out on a Saturday night in British cities: men and women vomiting and urinating on the pavement, loud swearing and fighting outside clubs and bars, and attempts to draw in passers-by. Town and city centres have turned into no-go zones for some. Commentators, health officials and policy-makers seem to have made up their minds: Britain is suffering an epidemic of ‘binge’ drinking and drunken disorderliness, causing easily-avoided accidents and fatalities, increasing crime and violent behaviour, and an epidemic of alcohol-related illnesses. Today’s boozing is imposing an unacceptable cost on drinkers themselves, more sober individuals, and society at large. The facts and figures show drinking is ruining everybody’s lives.
Certainly, we are bombarded with images of public debauchery, both in our streets and on TV, which helps to create the sense of crisis. But this could be due to prurient interest in such matters, combined with the growing presence of CCTV on our streets to constantly record the details of what we get up to. Stories from doctors about the increase of alcohol-related injuries in hospitals, however, seem harder to dismiss. But again, the violent aspects of a night out are often exaggerated today. Even if there is a clear rise in physical damage, it is still an open question whether we call it an unacceptable cost and choose to do something about it, or decide to dismiss it and carry on uncorking the champagne.
But as much as the Britain-nation-of-boozers view dominates, it has its detractors. Some point to Alan Sillitoe’s classic novel from 1958 – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – to suggest things were always this way. Others point further back still, to 1844 when Frederick Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England, to find more general explanations for why people drink at all. The alcohol industry, in its turn, has sought to show the benefits of drinking, in moderation of course, but nevertheless as a self-conscious counter to accusations of it perpetrating social ills.
But these detractors still concede that drinking today is a particular problem. Of course things have changed, and loutish behaviour shouldn’t be exonerated as youthful ‘high-spiritedness’ we must accept as part of everyday life; but what we do in parks and public transport, on beaches or in our front rooms, shouldn’t be determined by how ‘good’ scientists say it is for us.
In fact, all serious reports examining alcohol consumption patterns, including those from government and its associated health agencies, are forced to concede, at least in their figures if not explicitly in their narrative, there has been a steady decline in volumes drunk over the past thirty years. A slight upturn since the start of the century equates to no more than an additional pint a month and seems unlikely to explain much. What’s more, Britain has never been anywhere near the top of the drinking league. Such honours are reserved for the likes of Luxembourg and other countries further south, towards the Mediterranean. Whilst Europeans as a whole represent the heaviest alcohol-drinking region of the world, consuming an equivalent of 11 litres of pure alcohol per head, per annum – notably less than the 15 litre peak of the mid-1970s and considerably less still than a century or more ago – their supposedly violent British cousins languish in 12th place in the European Union with a paltry 7.5 litres consumed each year.
Some, including government ministers, put these disparities down to the absence of ‘café culture’ in the UK. We lack a place where an ersatz spirit of effete sociability will simply emerge from supping small quantities of wine in family-friendly gastro-pubs, since we’re more content to quaff large volumes of beer during the happy hour of some new Super Pub. By noting it is drinking culture, rather than the ‘alcohol itself’, that may be the problem, these critics get halfway towards properly understanding the issue.
How we behave whilst drinking is something we learn from those around us, which explains why people from different communities or countries drink in different ways, regardless of the volumes consumed. Mores and codes of acceptable behaviour vary geographically, and change over time too. For the vast majority of adults over a certain age, different rules applied when they were young than operate informally now: most significantly, the idea you can ‘take your drink’ and still not show it - be pissed as a fart but look sober as a judge - has been eroded. Instead, the present puts a premium on spectacle. A seemingly ‘me, me, me’ outlook encourages people to ‘let it all hang out’ and imitate what is held up on television and in various other media. An individual, having drunk very little, is more likely to assume that baring their backside in public or being loud and boorish is the right thing to do. Where once, lads on a night out might have restricted their excesses to amongst their group, today it is much more difficult to understand where the line between private and public lies.
In the same way, those who have to put up with others’ drunken antics are far more likely to feel threatened when they don’t feel able to depend on others feeling likewise and tacitly putting a check on those antics. There is a broader context at play, involving unwritten rules that determine how people respond and deal with each other in the street or down the pub. There is no such thing as the ‘drinking of alcohol’ per se, as is implied by the rhetoric of ‘binge’ drinking; all drinking happens in a particuar context. Any social policy that starts by trying to control supply and consumption is short-sighted and misses the point, and in this case, further infantilises those who are already juvenile.
There is little clear sense of purpose in today’s society and politics, and few of the associated forms of physical and intellectual engagement such a sense of purpose might imply. So it’s not surprising a greater sense of alienation or anomie has developed, manifested in people drinking to escape the drudgery of their lives; including many in steady work, and especially the well-paid who, on average, drink more.
Counter-intuitively, in a world of often disconnected and atomised individuals, alcohol can play a part in bringing communities back together again. This may explain the recent, if limited, increases in alcohol consumption. Far from being a cause of concern, this may represent an unconscious backlash against the more isolating and escapist experiences of everyday life. Promoting booze as a building block of a healthy society, now that really would be refreshing.
Bill Durodié is an Associate Fellow of the International Security Programme at Chatham House, London, and Senior Fellow co-ordinating the Homeland Defence Programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Alcohol in Europe, European Commission, 1 June 2001
Binge-drinking: Britain’s new epidemic, James Meikle, The Guardian, 19 February 2001
"For one weekend in the year, in the centre of London, it's as if ideas matter, it's as if the world really can be made a better place through the free and energetic exercise of reason."
Austen Ivereigh, Catholic commentator