"Last orders!" A surge to the bar. Drinks downed in seconds to meet a fixed deadline and the barman's cry of "Time!" Cue for alcohol-fuelled crowds to reel from practically every pub in the country at the same time, creating perfect conditions for scuffles and fights. This was the absurd, anachronistic situation that Labour inherited and rightly reformed with the 2003 Licensing Act – which this government now seems bent on reversing with a policy announcement leaked to chosen newspapers. Whatever happened to the new politics? Were not ministers supposed to announce policy to Parliament, not leak it first to the media?
The Home Secretary Theresa May's announced clampdown on what is inaccurately termed Britain's "24-hour drinking culture" is a populist gesture, a bone thrown at a couple of right-wing newspapers whose hatred of Labour's changes to the licensing hours is dogmatic and obsessive. It is nonsense to claim the changes made in 2003, which took force in 2005, have resulted in pubs being open day and night. The average Dog & Duck does not have the staff, or the inclination, even to contemplate such an idea; nor do most people want to go out drinking at 3am – not if they have a job to do or a family to look after the next day. Tight restrictions on late-night drinking in pubs in residential areas also mean that in practice most establishments keep much the same hours that they did before.
Reform to licensing hours was overdue. The old fixed drinking times were not a venerable English tradition. They were imposed in the First World War, to herd people home early so that they could rise at dawn and be in the munitions factories on time. It is true that Labour's changes did not lead to a much talked about "continental" drinking culture taking root here. In retrospect it was foolish to raise such expectations. The British pub, the French café and Spanish tapas bar are very different species.
In the meantime, the link drawn between the phenomenon of binge drinking, to which people rightly object, and more flexible licensing hours, needs questioning. A fruitful line of inquiry might explore the connection between excess drinking and the availability of very cheap alcohol in clubs and supermarkets. It might also be worth pondering why so many people in this country feel a need to seek total oblivion from their surroundings through alcohol. The problems related to drinking in this country are indeed complex – and will not be resolved by turning the clock back to 1914.Reuse content