Leading article: At midnight, we can drink to a more liberal regime

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Tomorrow is the long-anticipated D-day: D, that is, for drinking. Once midnight has struck, it will be legal for premises with the appropriate licence to sell alcoholic drinks to paying customers around the clock. This major liberalisation of our antiquated licensing laws ends one of the most restrictive drinking regimes in Europe. We make no apology for supporting it.

Yet this one piece of legislation, mostly welcomed when first drafted, became one of the most fiercely contested of the Bills laid before Parliament by this government. So powerful and multifarious was the opposition mobilised against it that it seemed its implementation could be delayed. The Government, to its credit, kept its nerve.

This does not mean that the arguments against liberalisation were negligible. They were not. The medical establishment voiced concern about the prospect of increased liver disease and alcoholism. The police expressed worries about law and order. Lurid accounts of the mayhem in many of our city centres after closing time were used by sections of the popular press to whip up hostility to longer drinking hours. "Binge-drinking" was labelled a "British disease" that would only be exacerbated by the change.

It would be foolhardy indeed to deny that Britain has a problem with bad behaviour after over-indulgence. The question is whether more liberal drinking hours will make an execrable situation even worse. The evidence from the extension of drinking hours in Scotland and from the introduction of all-day drinking in England suggests that it will not. In many establishments looming closing time precipitates an unseemly rush to make, and down, last orders. Then everyone is ejected on to the street at the same time. There could hardly be a more effective recipe for disorder.

Ministers may be too optimistic in hoping that more liberal drinking hours will immediately transform our country of hard-drinkers into a nation of continental wine-sippers. Even if there is a change in culture - which would be a happy by-product of more relaxed hours - this is unlikely to happen overnight. The best immediate result we can hope for is that longer and more varied drinking hours will dissipate the inebriated scramble at closing time, make the streets less intimidating for others and make life easier for the police. It is a measure of how bad the situation is at present that even such modest improvements would count as progress.

If ministers had presented the legislation in this light, it might have had a less contentious passage through Parliament, and the Government bears at least some of the blame for the multitude of problems it encountered. It made the licensing process unduly complex. It allowed the new law to be portrayed as a binge-drinkers' charter that was chiefly in the interests of the drinks industry, not as a rolling back of the "nanny state" that was about treating individuals as adults and encouraging responsible behaviour.

And it never really managed to dispel the myth that the new law was a charter for 24-hour drinking. In fact, very few establishments plan to open around the clock. The majority are embracing limited flexibility, with extended hours only at weekends. There are also strict legal safeguards in the form of stiff fines and closure for establishments that cause persistent trouble.

From one minute past midnight tonight it will be up to pub landlords to demonstrate that these safeguards are sufficient and up to drinkers to prove the forecasts of orgiastic lawlessness unfounded. Meanwhile, we should all raise a celebratory glass: tonight is the last night that "time" must be called at 11pm across the land.