Alcohol on supermarket shelvesBy Anna Perkins

David Cameron has vowed to tackle the ‘scandal’ of alcohol abuse and public drunkenness that costs the NHS 7.2bn a year by supporting minimum pricing. Very laudable, Dave. But much as I’d like to treat the Prime Minister’s latest attempt at tough-talking with the same contempt which I reserve for the majority of Conservative policy, he’s right to state that the problem of alcohol abuse must be confronted. Tackling the drinking problem endemic in Britain, however, must go deeper than the knee-jerk reactions which have long been the politician’s favourite way of feigning a proactive stance on complex problems.

This is by no means a new debate. Politicians and lobbyists have been making noise for years around the ready availability of cheap alcohol: in supermarkets, in off-licenses, at bars which offer a Happy Hour. There is certainly support from charities and medical campaigners for regulation. Tax on alcohol in the UK is high, but minimum pricing has never been introduced. Retailers argue that its implementation would unfairly punish moderate and responsible drinkers. And for a party which claims to reject state interference and infringement of personal liberties, what could be more ‘nanny state’ than policing personal drinking habits? But ‘booze Britain’, like ‘broken Britain’, and any other number of perceived, conveniently alliterative national problems, provide an easy target but no solution.

The link between price and consumption is a contentious one: certain types of drinkers will never be deterred by higher prices, and I’d argue that this applies at both ends of the social spectrum. I know from experience that price is irrelevant to the permanently broke. And what works for, say, Finland (where successive governments lowered then raised alcohol prices) won’t necessarily have the same effect within a different culture. There are many ways to drink too much, and Cameron is focussing on ‘anti-social’ drinking: the kind endemic in UK town centres on Saturday nights, ‘reckless’ behaviour perpetrated by an ‘irresponsible’ minority. This punitive rhetoric is totally without analysis. Run-down urban areas, where drinking is at its most damaging, are home to unemployment and lack of educational prospects; these factors cannot be divorced from the ‘recklessness’ of their inhabitants’ behaviour. Drinking takes place in parks and stairwells – not in the over-priced drinking barns that push the young out onto the street at weekend closing time.

The PM himself cites crime as a concomitant of anti-social drinking; but that’s too simplistic. Lager shandies do not criminals make. Drinking aggravates situations, and can be the cause of unacceptable behaviour. But we know that crime is linked with other factors, such as lack of education and opportunity, and there’s a wealth of difference between someone who brings a knife with them on a night out – with every intention of getting into a fight – and a City worker who ends the evening by insulting his mates.

How people behave when they’re drunk holds strong clues to societal problems, and violence and crime won’t go away if a litre of White Lightning goes up. What causes people to drink in the first place? Is anti-social drinking a ‘British disease’? Or a human one? Yes, of course. Many people drink too much. The fact that it’s a certain type of drinker that Cameron’s concerned with is a giveaway – it’s not the gastric health of our entire nation that’s causing him to lose sleep at night. And nor is it the fabric of society he’s intent on reforming: this is merely a quest to strip away the unpalatable wallpaper, a little cosmetic surgery in time for the Olympics.

And students drink. Students can drink their arses off, believe me. I have nothing except assurances from friends as evidence that a great deal of the ‘best nights of my life’ even took place. Does Cameron remember evenings spent trashing hotels with the Bullingdon Club? Like Cameron, I also went to Oxford, a place where ‘laddish’ public schoolboys competed to see who could most quickly empty the contents of their stomach onto the carpet of the long-suffering Indian restaurant proprietor. I never gave much thought to the irresponsibility of drinking retailers, until one night in a club when it occurred to me that the ‘two for a fiver before 10pm’ pitchers (one tanker-sized vessel of Long Island Iced Tea for your friend, and one for you – or both for you) had a causal connection with the injuries on my knees and the violent desire to repress the memories that, against all odds, threatened to resurface the following morning.

Excessive drinking is a rite of passage for the young, and most grow out of it as they get older. Or they drink in a less frequent, more controlled manner – at least until the following weekend. People do and will get drunk, and it’s not particularly good for them. But they can do it safely, with friends. And they don’t usually get hospitalised. There are those who can drink ‘too much’ – according to the BMA’s guidelines – and still be cogent, caring, and look out for others. Some young people don’t seem to grow out of drinking heavily, all day, every day; lack of guidance must be a factor. Perhaps their parents don’t care, or are drinkers themselves. And that, David, is a problem you should probably confront.

The market doesn’t respond so easily to attempts to manipulate price, and people who drink for the wrong reasons are unlikely to be put off by hikes. So what is to be done? You can tackle the big guns – the Tescos and the Wetherspoons and the Diageos – but that doesn’t touch the individual. Not unless you’re prepared to stand over the shoulder of every young person in every town centre in Britain on a Saturday night, tutting reproachfully until they hand over their WKD Blue. Or, more likely, bottle you with it.

The difference in types of drinker is of paramount importance. In Cameron’s eyes, there seem to be the people who drink responsibly, and the plague of others who drink irresponsibly. Presumably while sporting a Hackett shirt and graffiti canister, and taking a leak in the street. But what about drinking at home? The really desperate are not likely to be out enjoying two for one mojitos at B@1 on a Friday night: they could be at home in bed on a weekday morning, with a bottle of no-brand vodka. Drinking socially, as opposed to ‘anti-socially’ is the more ‘acceptable’ face of alcohol consumption – young professionals having after-work drinks in bars, for example, even if those young professionals are city boys behaving noisily and obnoxiously.

Is it right to focus all our attention on the girls flashing their breasts in Sunderland town centre, rather than on the hidden alcoholics, who drink from the moment they wake up until the moment they pass out again, often without leaving the house at all? Drinking in numbers somehow shows that you’re still a part of society, that all is not lost, even if Cameron claims that it’s the wrong sort of society – the ‘broken’ one.

This debate has something in common with the drugs legalisation issue which rears its head from time to time. Legalisation of drugs, it’s been argued, would mean less crime and, crucially, would ensure the safety of users, rather than criminalising addicts. It would preclude the nasty, dangerous, street substances which are always cooked up in response to tougher drug laws. If people want to drink, they’ll spend more money on drink. Or in bad cases, revert to something worse – the medicine cabinet? Meths and Ribena? High earners will pay more to get pissed; everyone else will just get pissed off.

‘Everyone else’ is comprised of those who enjoy beer or wine for its own sake – a historic source of happiness, which, ‘drunk with moderation is the joy of soul and the heart,’ (Ecclesiastes). Alcohol isn’t merely some kind of dangerous fuel for violence and disorder; it’s a longstanding giver of pleasure, a bringer of social cohesion, an enhancer of food. It has a historic place at the table, in other words, and it’s when drinking alcohol becomes totally disassociated from food that its consumption can be problematic. If we think of everything that alcohol has given to our culture and society (vomit in telephone boxes and public sex acts aside), is it right to criminalise a significant part of our heritage (the alcohol, not the public sex act)? To dismiss it in disgrace from the proverbial table? ‘Give me a beaker full of the warm South,’ wrote Keats in homage to wine – possibly purchased as part of ‘two for a fiver’ (if anyone knew about being broke, it was Keats) – and many a still life would look empty without the artist’s bottles and glasses at its centre.

Most people take comfort in socialising over a relaxing glass of wine or two with friends, particularly when things are as bad as they presently are. Why penalise them for that? Despite its bad press, it’s easy to forget that alcohol is no worse than the people who drink it. (Well, perhaps not in the case of Carling. Actually, definitely in the case of Carling – sorry, Carling drinkers). Of course there are problem drinkers – no-one’s denying that the cost to the NHS is serious. But Mediterranean countries, often cited as examples of societies where drink is not abused but enjoyed with food, friends and family, must also have their casualties. People will always get too drunk: the point is whether we spot the correlation between alcohol abuse and societal failings.

Alcohol itself is not the bottom line: the human tendency to ‘forget your troubles’, however, is universal. An acknowledgement that the ‘binge drinker’, deterred from buying alcohol, may simply binge on another substance takes us closer to finding a solution than raising the price of Cabernet Sauvignon. Oh, and David, if we can’t drink, how on earth are we supposed to forget we’re headed for a double-dip recession? Case closed. Mine’s a double.