Leading article: Last orders for last orders

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Britain's puritans would have done well to go to bed early last night. For the rest of us, it might have been more a case of a swift half to celebrate the beginning of the end of absurdly restrictive licensing laws in England and Wales. For yesterday was the deadline for restaurants, pubs and bars to apply to stay open beyond the stroke of 11pm and into the small hours.

Attention has focused on the hefty application form that the landlords have had to fill in - whether they want to stay open or not. But bureaucratic headaches should not obscure this welcome moment when our drinking laws fall into line with most of the rest of Europe. The current laws were introduced as an emergency measure during the First World War to prevent munitions workers drinking through the night and blowing themselves up on the production line. In a typically English tale of civil service sclerosis and moral panic, no politician then dared repeal them for the following 90 years.

During the election, the Daily Mail tendency were at it again, warning that a sensible change in the law would turn us into a suburb of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is true that the riot van parked outside clubs on a Saturday night has become a depressing feature of our market towns - let alone cities - over the past decade. But the problem is people's attitudes towards drink, not the time of last orders.

Evidence from Europe suggests that there is no correlation between harsh crackdowns and an abstemious population. France - where children can sample red wine in restaurants and teenagers can order drinks at 2am - lacks our Anglo-Saxon taste for debauchery. Norway and Finland, with the most stringent laws on the continent, have been unable to solve their alcohol problems.

Much of the blame for binge-drinking lies with the drinks industry. Irresponsible advertisers link hard drinking to youthfulness in the same way that a Hollywood actress in a cigarette ad was used to create an aura of desirability around the product. "All you can drink" deals and "beer barns" without seats can make drinking to excess seem almost compulsory. The over-thirties who don't dare venture into town at night deserve an apology from planners who allow clusters of bars that appeal exclusively to the young.

In the end, there's a basic question for libertarians: why should the moderate majority be denied the pleasures of a late-night bottle of wine because a minority are drunk in the gutter?