Sober up, calm down

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Students of the spread of moral panics will be familiar with the life cycle of the one over 24-hour drinking. Routine Bill proceeds through the Houses of Parliament, including measures designed to update and tidy up the law. The Conservatives wave it through because it is all perfectly sensible. Creative genius at the Daily Mail spots tenuous link to nebulous reactionary sentiment broadly defined as "Standards of behaviour are not what they were". Media mayhem ensues. Ministers look out of touch and are howled down on Question Time. The Opposition look silly because they voted for it. Just as most people begin to suspect that it is all more complicated than a tabloid headline, the Daily Mail decides that something else is a threat to civilised values as we know them.

Students of the spread of moral panics will be familiar with the life cycle of the one over 24-hour drinking. Routine Bill proceeds through the Houses of Parliament, including measures designed to update and tidy up the law. The Conservatives wave it through because it is all perfectly sensible. Creative genius at the Daily Mail spots tenuous link to nebulous reactionary sentiment broadly defined as "Standards of behaviour are not what they were". Media mayhem ensues. Ministers look out of touch and are howled down on Question Time. The Opposition look silly because they voted for it. Just as most people begin to suspect that it is all more complicated than a tabloid headline, the Daily Mail decides that something else is a threat to civilised values as we know them.

First it was casinos. Now it is alcohol licensing hours. Certainly, this country has a drink problem, as Joan Smith writes on page 25. It is worrying that achieving oblivion is so widely regarded as a leisure activity. Too many young people set out to become incapable and boast about it. What is wrong with young people's heads that they so want to get out of them?

This is not primarily a question of where and when people drink, but of how and why. The panic-mongers need to sober up and approach the issue with a clear head. The phrase "24-hour drinking" is a propaganda device, designed to conjure a vision of the entire nation on a permanent bender. What the Government is proposing is to allow local councils greater flexibility in deciding opening hours for pubs and clubs. That should help to ease the problem of tipping out thousands of drinkers, even if only boisterous, on to the streets at the same time. As with liberalising the law on casinos, such a change may make matters worse for a tiny minority of people with addictive tendencies. But they already have ample opportunity to gamble and to drink at all hours: addictive behaviour needs to be tackled as a separate issue, not used as an excuse to obstruct sensible change.

The same principle applies to prevailing attitudes to binge drinking: trying to change them is difficult and largely beyond the capacity of governments. And it has little to do with licensing hours. Making social drinking easier does "send a message", in the cant phrase, but the message is: "It is up to you." Personal responsibility rather than the nanny state. It sounds like a good message to us.

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