It is generally accepted that there are two types of drinker. On the one hand, there is the acceptable recreational tippler who lowers stress levels at the end of a busy day with stiffener or two. Then there is the unacceptable binger who punches people, or vomits or falls asleep in the gutter or has inappropriate sex on a Saturday night.
But now something rather surprising has been revealed. The division between the good boozer and the bad boozer is, it turns out, less clear-cut that had been assumed and has less to do with the amount of alcohol that is drunk than the social class of the person who drinks it. According to the Office of National Statistics, male professionals knock back an impressive 15.1 units a week, while men working in what is carefully described as "manual and routine" employment are on 11.6 units. Among professional women, 19 per cent had drunk "heavily" at least once during the previous week, compared to a mere 11 per cent in the manual and routine crowd.
These statistics, designed to make us all feel rather worse about ourselves, are something of an annual ritual and tend to be published at the key moment between Christmas and Lent when abstinence is in the air. Some of the assumptions on which is the survey is based seem distinctly suspect. That heavy drinking: how is it defined? For many of us, it would probably be the intake of a normal, quiet night. The statistic, reported in scandalised tones, that one in five men and one in 10 women drink at least five nights out of seven is equally unconvincing. Alcohol Concern has gravely announced, that "over the last 20 years, middle-class families particularly have moved alcohol from the fringe of their lives to the centre of it", but neither part of that claim, the innocent past and the corrupt present, seems entirely reliable.
The mood of self-mortification will soon pass. Once Lent is over and middle-class livers are under assault once more, the old, traditional division between good and bad drinking will re-assert itself among politicians and in the press. The truth is that, far from being ashamed or embarrassed about boozing, middle-class culture rather respects it.
The ONS statistic which reveals that, as a group, bosses and company directors out-drink all other professionals is not a reflection of the stress managers are under. Those at the top often drink because it is expected of them. For example, an unflattering light has recently been cast upon the Mayor of London, with allegations of financial dodginess, cronyism and a dangerous contempt for opponents, but the one charge which has caused King Ken least worry, and indeed might even earn him votes, is that he is an office boozer, sometimes knocking back whisky as early as 10am.
Like any politician, Mr Livingstone has scolded those binge-drinkers who give alcohol a bad name. He produces a regular Agenda for Action on Alcohol, listing the number of deaths caused by booze and the millions of pounds lost to the economy. Drink "exerts a heavy toll on individuals, families, communities, key public services and businesses", he has pointed out.
Good drinking, though, is just fine. The commentators, normally quick to carp about other forms of self-indulgence, have been amused and supportive. Our most cunning politician, Mr Livingstone sensed that, for many voters, his drinking at work would be endearing. He certainly was concerned about the amount he was drinking, he joked to one interviewer – it was nothing like enough.
The British like public figures who booze. A glass of whisky suggests power, strength. It was an essential part of Winston Churchill's image and did absolutely no harm to Margaret Thatcher's. The writer Jeffrey Bernard built his later career around sitting in a pub, drinking himself silly. The more unsteadily his columns weaved about the place, the more his readers liked it. Other famous drunks, notably Oliver Reed and George Best, have been regarded with an appalled affection by the British public. And in what other country would a TV character's serial alcoholism be the central joke of a sitcom or a drama as it was with Rab C Nesbitt and is with Shameless?
It is pointless being censorious about this national affection for celebrity boozers – in its way, it is a rare instance of national tolerance – but it sits rather oddly with the regular trills of horrified disapproval that attend the antics of the bingers, the bad boozers. King Ken is the perfect representative of this double standard, a middle-class manager who cheerfully and openly drinks whisky at work, even as he pronounces upon the terrible effects of alcohol on the binge-drinking common people.
The units, so carefully counted by concerned statisticians, turn out to be rather less important in this debate than our old friend, social snobbery.