Alan Watkins: I propose a toast: a plague on the Hewitt limits!

There was a time when Labour governments were kept afloat on a sea of alcohol and late nights. Oh, happy days...
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The Independent Online

One September a few years ago I was travelling round the admirable French railway system and found I had to catch an afternoon train to Toulouse. I call the French Railways "admirable", and so they are, except that the trains tend to dry up towards the middle of the day. So it was that, towards the end of the morning, I waited in the station buffet of the railway junction at Capdenac, in the South-west.

Expecting to lunch off a couple of glasses of beer and a baguette, I found the room was beginning to fill (it was shortly after midday). A waitress laid a table for two, without being asked, and plonked a bottle of red wine down on the table in front of me. It was a bottle, not a carafe, and was clearly labelled 125cl.

My unannounced companion turned out to come from Derby. He was, like myself, exploring the country by rail, except that, as he explained, he could not afford to stay in hotels and spent his nights on the train instead. But this is by the way.

The immediate point is that two grown men were expected to eat four courses, drink over 60cl of wine each, and return to their occupations shortly before 2pm. I managed to catch my train to Toulouse without mishap; the man from Derby went on his way; but the majority of the lunchers were evidently local workers. Some of them may even have been driving trains, though I hope not.

The evidence, as people say sniffily, is anecdotal. But what other sort, I should like to know, is there? No doubt French drinking habits are changing, partly because of the obsession with physical fitness (which arrived in Britain from America long before it arrived in France) and partly because of Mr Nicolas Sarkozy's injunction to his fellow citizens to buck up and pull their socks up.

In any case, for a long time it has been a common spectacle to see two grave French businessmen enjoying their lunch, with a half-bottle of wine of which they leave about a quarter undrunk. Even so, the wine ration at the railway buffet in Capdenac was generous, to say the least. It would use up the government's recommended allowance long before the week was over.

It is always difficult to establish precisely who, or which body, is making these recommendations, though the wording suggests that he, she, or they are giving orders or issuing instructions rather than having a friendly word in anyone's ear. The papers variously attribute the source or sources to "Government Health Departments" and to "Government news network website." I really should like to know who is giving orders, issuing instructions or merely proffering advice, and for what reasons, on what evidence, they are doing so.

The most recent advice - let us settle for "advice" - is that men should drink no more than three to four units of alcohol a day, and women two to three. A unit is eight grammes and is said to be equivalent to a pub measure of wine or spirits. I have long ceased to order wine on licensed premises (except in El Vino's in Fleet Street) because the glasses are too small and their contents, when they are not utterly disgusting, are oxidised beyond recall. Measures of spirits are so stingy that you are better off, in all senses, buying a bottle in an off-licence or a supermarket and getting through it at home.

Last week's announcement - as I say, its circumstances are slightly mysterious - appeared to be aimed at people who did their drinking at home. Ms Patricia Hewitt, who seems to be the minister responsible, at any rate until Mr Gordon Brown appoints someone else, could almost be part of a conspiracy to drive blameless citizens out of their homes and back into the pubs. That, indeed, was the tone in which the story was written in all the papers: the affluent participants gathered together in one another's houses, enjoying themselves and drinking wine.

The very idea! The visiting William Gladstone said to the youthful Bertrand Russell that he had been given very good port but asked alarmingly why he had been given it in a claret glass. Subsequently (maybe it was before that) Gladstone lowered the duty on wine to discourage the drinking of gin, but the consumption of the spirit in question proved unabated among the London working classes.

Incidentally, the three or four bottles of port, which statesmen of the time were reputed to be able to drink at the beginning of the 19th century, consisted of Portuguese red wine rather than the fortified variety. They could not drink French wine because of the Napoleonic wars, though Edinburgh remained open to the Bordeaux trade.

The Hewitt limits, as I propose to call them for the sake of convenience, have undergone a subtle change. They used to be 28 units weekly for men, 21 for women; they are now, respectively, 21 and 14. Soon it will be, for this is a perfectly reasonable projection, 14 and 7. Everyone has forgotten this except me, but in the 1960s the recommended weekly limit was 56 units for men with a slightly lower figure for women. This struck me as a reasonable allowance. But blow me, if they did not halve the limit - it must have been some committee or other - quite arbitrarily, without a shred of evidence or any explanation I could discern except that they had thought of a number and then decided to cut it in half.

It is easy to blame medical busybodies and interfering ministers; blame them I do. But behind these there stand a whole collection of Labour MPs, over 350 of them. If enough of them could confine all adults to however many units of alcohol Ms Hewitt had fixed, so confined would they be, if necessary by force of law.

The Labour majority did not want to stop cruelty to foxes: if they had, they could easily have confined themselves to prohibiting the undoubtedly cruel practice of "digging out". No, they simply wanted to stop people doing something they had done for most of their adult lives.

Likewise with smoking. The prohibition on smoking outside the home was not enacted to protect non-smokers. Facilities had already been created for that purpose. Smokers, if I understand the legislation properly, could no longer be segregated in separate rooms even if no members of staff were required to serve them or to attend to their needs. Smoking was bad: therefore it had to be stopped, if necessary by law. That was the way MPs' minds worked.

These members have already ruined the House of Commons. The Labour governments of 1974-79 were kept afloat partly on sleepless nights and partly on a sea of alcohol.

I doubt whether that could happen today. Quite apart from anything else, the MPs would not allow it. The trouble is that they are determined to ruin life for everybody else as well; the consolation is that, after the election, most of them will no longer be there.