Leading article: A timely lesson in trusting the people

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The Independent Online

One year on from the controversial liberalisation of the licensing laws, and Britain is finally beginning to see with a clear head. Let's cast our minds back 12 months to the formidable level of opposition to the new regime. Politicians, judges, medical professionals, senior police officers and populist newspapers were queuing up to argue that the Government's plan to allow pubs and bars to extend their opening hours would be a disaster.

There were predictions of drunken mayhem. Britons, we were confidently told, could simply not be trusted to drink responsibly. Residents' associations frantically tried to block applications from local pubs, fearing bacchanalian scenes on their doorsteps. Council leaders were afraid public transport would be unable to cope with the huge numbers who would inevitably drink late into the night. We were warned, too, that extending opening hours would lead to an explosion of drunken violence on the streets. A report by the Association of Chief Police Officers saw "a strong link between the increase in disorder and the explosion of late-night premises". Britain was on the verge of becoming a giant version of Hogarth's Gin Lane.

The few who supported a liberalisation of the licensing laws - this newspaper among them - were accused of being useful idiots for the drinks industry. Anyone who suggested that Britain might actually benefit from moving its licensing regime into line with the rest of Europe was dismissed as ignorant of the national character.

We are delighted that all these critics were wrong. The reality of the past 12 months has been very different from the cataclysmic picture conjured up by the opponents of the reform. For one thing, the changes to opening times have been rather modest. Some establishments have chosen to open for an hour longer at weekends. But many have not changed their routines at all. And hardly anywhere has applied to serve alcohol around the clock. The reason is clear: lack of demand. It turns out we were not waiting eagerly for an opportunity to drink ourselves to oblivion after all. In fact, we are not so different from our continental peers. It seems the vast majority of us can be trusted to drink responsibly without the state telling us when to go home.

As for violence, many towns and city centres have actually seen the number of night-time assaults fall. Even a sweltering summer and a World Cup - two classic ingredients of aggressive drunken behaviour - did not produce a spike in incidents. Again, the reasons are clear: fewer customers are being ordered to drink up by 11pm. People can finish their drinks in peace and no longer spill on to the streets at the same time. The opportunities for friction have been significantly reduced.

This is not to argue that Britain, in the space of a year, has developed a balanced or mature relationship with alcohol. On the contrary, binge drinking and alcoholism remain serious social problems. But what this past year confirms is that they are not directly related to pub opening hours. Those that asserted such a link were guilty of a string of lazy assumptions.

This affair has significant implications for policy making in this country. The Government was right to have the courage of its convictions. This should embolden ministers to act courageously in other areas, such as liberalising the counter-productive drug prohibition laws. Our leaders should also remember this episode next time they are tempted to kowtow before the prejudices of the populist press.

Trusting the people to act responsibly is always better than treating them like children. We hope that, next time, the peddlers of hysteria and fear will not be taken quite so seriously.