Matt Turner hailed my return to blogging by saying:
Champagne on me. But not after 11 if you lot get your way today, I guess.
I presume that by this, he’s referring to the decision by the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party yesterday to “pray” for the government not to introduce the new licensing laws, which have already gone through parliament.
Unfortunately, this is one of those issues that demonstrates quite how arse-over-tit British politics is at the moment. The arch-regulators are defending a liberalising initiative while the liberals (both Lib Dem and Tory varieties) are falling over themselves to oppose it. This is of course a completely random circumstance, which has nothing to do with principle on either side. Labour committed themselves to this move in the 2001 General Election famously via text message as part of their execreble “ruup4it” initiative aimed at targeting the yoof vote. At the time it resulted in no audible objection from the opposition, indeed I’m not aware of a single Lib Dem at the time who thought it was a bad idea.
A few years later, and the Parliamentary Party is falling over itself to decry what they appear to believe will actually lead to the Apocalypse. The big joke is counting the number of Scots MPs who have signed the EDM, despite the fact that they already have relaxed licensing laws and this law doesn’t affect their constituents either way.
Just what exactly is it that we’re terrified of here? I can positively guarantee that in the short term drinking will increase. In the longer term however, do people really believe it is going to lead to an increase of drinking overall? I seem to recall we were promised that would happen when licensing laws changed in the late 80s, yet I have yet to see any evidence of it.
If we have a problem with binge drinking in this country, and I have no doubt that we do, we need a cultural change. I think the government seems to have it basically right in its approach of liberalising hours while cracking down on things like happy hours. It would be nice, for example, if pubs sold non-alcoholic soft drinks at approximately the same level of markup as everything else, instead of blatantly profiteering on them to appease their brewery masters. I’d even accept there is a case for restricting how alcohol is marketed, but that is a debate for another time.
But before I start sounding too generous to our Labour masters, it cannot be said enough that Labour’s support of liberalising drinking hours has nothing to do with principle; they’re not exactly reknowned for relaxing regulation are they? And just when you thought they might finally have grasped that the nanny state does not always know best, they go and say stupid things like this:
Shaun Woodward, Labour MP for St Helens South, today called on Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy to condemn a member of his Lib Dem frontbench team for â€œirresponsibly pushing a Lib Dem plan that would escalate teenage binge drinking,â€ after it emerged that the Lib Dems want to lower the legal drinking age to 16.
The lack of self-awareness of all this is breathtaking. Reducing the drinking age would be a highly useful tool for tackling the binge-drinking culture. Allowing 16 year olds to drink beer in pubs rather than sitting huddled in parks fucking their brains with White Lightning is hardly going to make matters worse. The laws restricting under-18s access to alcohol is a mild annoyance that is easily bypassed, as anyone who has ever been under-18 can testify. Reducing the age at which people can buy alcohol will reduce the taboo factor and, in time, play a part in promoting responsible drinking.
Liberalising drinking hours and reducing drinking ages are both part of the same solution which have ended up on opposite sides of the political fence through sheer chance. The fact that the parties and their tabloid masters can’t see this illustrates what an age of confusion we really live in.
Of course, it isn’t just alcohol that politicians are hopelessly confused about. Smoking in public places has already been banned in Scotland and looks set for a near total ban down south. This time Labour are back in their traditional role as the regulators. Sadly, the Lib Dems are calling for them to go even further.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a non-smoker and find the habit disgusting. I could be convinced by a law that banned smoking, but still allowed a minority of pubs to allow it, possibly through some kind of licensing system.
What I’m not convinced by is that it is a priority. Smoking is on the decline anyway, and I’m not convinced that five more years of market forces won’t achieve pretty much the same thing as another bureaucratic law. I’m also not convinced that the health affects are that great (and don’t start on pub workers – the vast majority of people who work in a pub choose to do so because of their lifestyle, and only work there a limited amount of time anyway).
According to this report, the average punter absorbs the equivalent of 1 cigarette in a pub every three hours. My first reaction to this is, is that all? Compare that to this statistic:
A 20-minute journey on the Northern line through central London had the same effect as smoking a cigarette.
That makes me a 3-a-day man, even if I don’t go near a pub. Why are the politicians concerned about the air quality in pubs when the average Londoner is being slowly killed by toxins on their way to work every single day? Why? Because NGOs like ASH get paid to lobby politicians about cigarettes, and nobody is there to lobby on behalf of tube commuters. For all this talk about corrupt tobacco companies disrupting the democratic process, the other side seems to have just as much of a corrupt effect.
It’s not that I’m against regulations per se, it’s that politicians seem to be hitting the wrong targets, consistently, and seemingly at random without any kind of overall, systematic approach. This is not rule of law, it is arbitrary nit-picking.