Jennie Bristow: Critics of 24-hour drinking need to get out more

The reality for most people is that they drink, talk, laugh, argue and go home
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The Independent Online

England, November 2005. The streets are ravaged by violence and awash with vomit. Accident and Emergency departments are teeming with broken-jawed young men and traumatised rape victims. The police chase teenage drunks when they should be catching terrorists; "vertical drinkers" topple to the floor while unscrupulous landlords rake in the cash, and liver doctors lose their patients. Tony Blair's Government cowers in Westminster, watching the desecration of our land and desperately thinking up new laws to enforce a continental café-bar culture before the Olympics comes to town.

I like a good dystopia as much as anybody else, but I find the plague of nightmare scenarios about England and Wales under the new regime of "24-hour drinking" hard to swallow. In what must be the longest-running backlash in British history, every day brings a new warning from the police, the health authorities, judges or newspaper columnists about how the new laws will breed "urban savages", cause "more rapes", increase violence and alcohol-related illnesses. But do we really believe the relaxation of our licensing laws, which amounts to allowing some pubs to stay open until midnight and 24-hour supermarkets to sell wine to their customers, will bring about the end of civilisation? This increasingly hysterical discussion is based, not on a sober appreciation of reality, but on a toxic cocktail of snobbery and fear.

There is no doubt that England's licensing laws are badly in need of an overhaul. They date back to the First World War, when they were brought in to keep munitions workers sober, and have no relevance to Britain's modern, service-based economy other than to act as a patronising official bed-time for adults. The Government is to be applauded for having done something to remedy this situation. In fact, if there is a problem with the new licensing laws, it is not that they are too liberal - but that they still treat adult drinkers as irresponsible children in need of more rules about personal conduct.

The Government's determination to accompany a relaxation of drinking hours with tougher new measures to minimise public disorder, such as staggering closing times, banning happy hours and clamping down on those who actually get drunk, indicates that the Government is as uncomfortable with treating drinkers as grown-ups as are the police and the judges. The obsession with the problem of "binge drinking" indicates that a more relaxed approach to when we drink will be accompanied by greater control over how we drink - which, you might think, is none of the Government's business.

The desire to have greater control over people's drinking habits is as apparent in the Government's arguments to change the licensing laws as it is in the objections to the reforms. So in response to the Government ambition to create a "continental café-bar culture" in which people can have a glass of wine after the theatre, Judge Charles Harris of the Council of Her Majesty's Circuit Judges recently hit back: "The trouble is, continental-style drinking requires continental-style people, who sit quietly drinking away at café tables, not standing up shouting at each other in crowded bars trying to consume gallons of beer at a time." Both sides of this debate see the problem as the wrong kind of people drinking in the wrong kind of way. Alcohol is fine for the Chablis- sipping middle classes, but a real problem for the masses - to whom, apparently, drinking is merely a means to getting drunk and having a fight.

This is out-and-out snobbery, informed by nothing more than the prejudice that the British public is a collection of lager louts who cannot be trusted to behave themselves without the firm hand of regulation and discipline.

Anything that allows people greater freedom to behave as they wish - to eat and drink what they want, when and where they want, and to lose some of the inhibitions imposed upon them by our uptight, emotionally-correct culture - is perceived as dangerous. The assumption is that people left to their own devices will exhibit the worst excesses of behaviour, with dire consequences for everybody else.

This is an insult and a fantasy, as anybody who frequents their local pub surely knows. Yes, there are some drunken punch-ups on a Saturday night, but what's new about that? The reality of Britain's "drinking culture" for most people is that they drink, they talk, they laugh, they argue and then they go home to bed - and with the new licensing laws they might do all that a bit later on. If those who persist in stoking the hysteria about Britain's licensing laws got out a bit more, they might give themselves fewer nightmares.

The writer is the commissioning editor of