Leading article: The clamour of opposition must not stifle debate

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The Independent Online

But the clamour of opposition must not be allowed to drown out rational debate. At the heart of the anti-liberalisation campaign lies a hysterical over-reaction by the populist press and political opportunism. It should be remembered that the Conservative Party, currently at the forefront of the campaign against longer opening hours, voted in favour of the reform two years ago. And the manner in which the issue has been treated by sections of the media in recent months amounts to little more than scaremongering.

We have been here before. In 1988, the Conservative government was warned that its plans to allow pubs to remain open all day would lead to increased drunkenness and disorder. In fact, alcohol consumption per capita fell for five years after that legislation was passed. No one would deny that Britain presently has a binge-drinking problem - or argue that the concerns of judges, the police and the medical profession should be dismissed out of hand - but there is simply no evidence to suggest that people will necessarily drink more if given more time in which to do so.

Indeed, there is a strong case for arguing that the opposite is true. The present scramble to buy drinks before pub last orders at 11pm is one of the reasons people drink so much in so short a space of time. And the terrible behaviour associated with binge drinking is exacerbated by the fact that everyone is ejected onto the streets at the same time. Staggered closing times, as exist in Scotland, might well help the police to maintain order.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of all this is the immaturity of the British attitude to alcohol that it demonstrates. It is generally assumed that any public discussion involving alcohol must revolve around overindulgence and the bad behaviour of a minority of drinkers. The focus of this debate should not be binge drinking, but the freedom of law-abiding people to go for a drink after 11pm if they so wish. On the Continent, people take it for granted that they will be able to have a drink after visiting the theatre or cinema. The choice over here after 11pm is to go to a noisy nightclub or straight home.

None of this is to say that the Government has handled this situation impeccably. Texting young voters during the last election with the slogan "Don't give a XXXX for last orders? Vote Labour" was a foolish ploy to catch the youth vote and needlessly stoked fears that the Government was about to introduce a new era of "24-hour binge drinking". More care should also have been taken to ensure local councils were not flooded at the last minute with licence applications. But the principle behind this liberalisation has been entirely respectable from the outset - treating people like adults.