A refreshing reform ­ so why has it taken so long to carry out?

Comment: Natasha Walter
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The Independent Online

"Last orders!" "Time, please!" "Drink up, now!" "I have to ask you to leave, I'm afraid." "It's more than my licence is worth." "Do you want me to call the police?"

"Last orders!" "Time, please!" "Drink up, now!" "I have to ask you to leave, I'm afraid." "It's more than my licence is worth." "Do you want me to call the police?"

Only in Britain would we have stood it for so long. All that clanking of glasses and off-and-on flashing of overhead lights and piling of chairs on tables, just at the point when you've begun to shrug the day off your shoulders. Why on earth has it taken so long for the Government to get around to repealing laws brought in to help the war effort in 1915 ­ laws that the Victorians would never have stood for?

For some odd reason, the liberalisation of licensing laws has always been seen in Britain as a rather laughable middle-class hobby horse. The idea has taken hold that it was only when Sebastian and Lucinda started holidaying in Tuscany and Andalucia that they realised it was rather pleasant to be able to sit out in a sultry piazza with a glass of wine getting slowly warmer on the wrought-iron table until the moon was high in the sky.

Very nice too ­ but not something, critics argued, that would import easily into our drab, comfortless, urban environments, where boys with big bellies like to chuck it back as quickly as possible before getting into a strop with their mates.

Certainly, British people tend to drink rather differently from their continental counterparts. "You all drink to get drunk," some Swiss acquaintances of mine commented acidly after an evening in Soho. No, no, it's just an unwanted side-effect, really. But it has never helped the British attitude to drink that it's seen as something so naughty, so inherently uncivilised, that it has to be hedged about with those archaic licensing laws. They are going to treat us like out-of-control children ­ well, what do you know!

But wouldn't it be refreshing if the Government had said it was changing the licensing laws because of the obvious reason, that it recognised people had a right to choose when they drank? Wouldn't it be great if it had said, look, you're grown-ups, so if you want another pint, you don't have to pretend any more to be Irish in a dingy lock-in in Archway or pretend that your friend-who's-a-member said she'd meet you at Soho House?

Typically, the Government is changing the licensing laws "to help the police deal with law and order" and to "address the issue of binge-drinking". This Government might just be able to organise a piss-up in a brewery, but it wouldn't make it a barrel of laughs, that's for sure.

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