No one is really sure how the British love affair with alcohol began. Stone Age beer jugs have suggested that we were intentionally fermenting alcohol as early as the Neolithic period, 12,000 years ago. Since there is no evidence that we drank it with straws - which the Egyptians did 6,000 years back - that means we probably filtered the wheat husks out with our teeth. We have always been a sophisticated nation when it comes to drink.
We probably didn't get on to thevinum until the Romans came with their wine diluted with water - a habit they picked up from the Greeks (one part wine to four parts water when the weather was hot). Which perhaps explains why their contemporaries said the Greeks were among the most temperate of ancient peoples.
The Romans, despite what you see on the telly nowadays, were generally moderate too, though their traditional values of temperance, frugality and simplicity did give way at times to heavy drinking, degeneracy and corruption. Just our luck, then, that their arrival in Britain coincided with one of their binge periods - the four emperors who ruled from AD37 to AD69 were all known for their abusive drinking, though it was still an offence to be drunk in charge of a chariot.
From the outset there were two cultures. Under the Roman model, wine was consumed with food. Drunkenness was not the norm, and children were often given diluted wine with meals. Or as a modern sociologist would put it, drink was associated with few psycho-social problems and few policies were in place to control the use of alcohol.
It's a model which still holds sway in Mediterranean countries. At dinner with an Italian recently I was struck by his habit of pouring a single mouthful into his glass as he wanted to drink it and, at the end of the meal, walking away from the table with the bottle almost three-quarters full. By contrast not a drop is left under the Germanic model. Untouched by direct Roman influence, most of Britain continued its traditional heavy "feast drinking" patterns. (SeeBeowulf and assorted Nordic poetry for evidence.) Drinks based on grains, not grapes, were the norm - beer, ale, mead and "malt liquor" - and these were often drunk away from the dining table. In northern European culture consumption was characterised by extremes of heavy episodic drinking, but also periods of abstinence.
Perhaps, some drink-shrinks have speculated, the climate was to blame; unpredictable weather patterns produced lean years for the grains or honey from which booze was made. And the lack of sunlight may make people more depressed and susceptible to heavier drinking in winter. The legacy of this is evident still. In northern Europe many people drink with the intention of getting drunk. Public drunkenness is more or less accepted, despite social controls on alcohol consumption, and there are many perceived psycho-social problems related to drinking. With the exception of Britain, none of the countries which match this description are former Roman provinces.
None of which would have surprised the old centurions. When they called someone a "beer-swiller" grave insult was intended. The best way to conquer Germanic people, the Roman senator Tacitus suggested, was to get them drunk first.
We should not be too simplistic about all this. All cultures have used alcohol: as a relaxant, a solace, a medicine; to give courage in battle, numb pain and to seduce lovers; to celebrate symbolic moments such as ending feuds, sealing pacts, and at religious celebrations. But even so, alcohol has been seen by the British through a lens at different points in our history.
In the early days beer was primarily a food, rich in carbohydrates. Some historians have speculated that ale, a thick and nutritious soupy beverage, may have preceded bread as a staple. Brewing was then left to women. There was another practical point. Beer had been boiled, contained bug-killing yeast and alcohol, so it was less likely to give you cholera than the local water. And it could be stored longer than grain or bread without fear of pest infestation or rotting. Beer was good for you.
In medieval England they got three fermentations from the mash, with the strongest going to the men, the second to the women and the "small beer" of the third - with an alcoholic proof of about 2.5 per cent - to the children, the nuns and the monks. They were not stinting. In some monasteries they were allocated 10 pints of small beer per monk per day. And some of the monks kept the strong stuff back for themselves. As the Middle Ages reached their height selling beer was a key component of many monastic economies.
Monks brewed virtually all beer of good quality until the 12th century. But gradually the home breweries became inns and taverns to provide sustenance for travellers and pilgrims. Brewers were recognised as a guild in England. The adulteration of beer became a capital offence in Scotland. By the 16th century, in Coventry, the average amount of beer and ale consumed was 17 pints per person per week.
Wine continued as a minority interest. The monks, again, made the best -vinum theologium - to use in the Eucharist. But the wine the nobility drank was imported, mainly from France. Later there were also some spirits - acquae vitae - when the still, which had been invented by Muslim alchemists, made its way to Europe in the 11th century.
It was in Tudor times that this all became a problem. Widespread inebriety was chronicled in Elizabethan England, where drunkenness first became a crime. Jacobean writers described drunkenness among all classes and in 1606 Parliament passed "The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness". The response of polite society was to pronounce wine as medicinal. Hops, which were primarily medicinal plants, had been added to beer some time before. Now all kinds of things were mixed with wine.
Tobias Whitaker said in his 1638 bookThe Tree of Humane Life, or The Bloud of the Grape that wine could maintain "humane life from infancy to extreame old age without any sicknesse". People who regularly drank wine could be expected to be "faire, fresh, plumpe, and fat", rather than water or small beer drinkers, who "look like Apes". Cordials in which a gallon and half of white or rhenish wine, were mixed with the buds, husks or leaves of walnuts, rue, balm, mugwort, celandine, angelica, agrimony, pimpernel and snapdragons were thought to ward off "infectious air, plague and the pestilence".
But wine could not withstand the onslaught of gin. The Navigation Act of 1651 dictated that European vessels were only allowed to import goods from their own nations into England. Since most ships in those days were Dutch this dealt a severe blow to the French wine trade. Gin was invented in Holland around 1650 by distilling grain with juniper berries. It was cheap and the supply was fed by laws in 1690 to encourage the distillation and sale of spirits to increase incomes of the landed aristocracy. It was around this time Scotland and Ireland were developing reputations for whiskies. What flooded the market was the spirit that led to the Gin Epidemic. When the law was passed gin production stood at a million gallons a year. Within seven years the English population, of less than seven million, was drinking an annual 18 million gallons.
The epidemic lasted 30 years. "Drunk for one penny, dead drunk for two," the adverts said. Pharmacists sold it to women to "soothe the nerves"; it became known as Mother's Ruin. In 1736 Parliament tried passing a law taxing gin and prohibiting its sale in quantities of less than two gallons. There were riots, and production of gin continued to rise.
Eventually gin consumption waned as beer became better and cheaper, and tea and coffee became available. But in the industrial revolution factories needed a reliable work force. Drunkenness became a threat to industrial efficiency. As towns grew rapidly around factories problems such as urban crime, poverty and high infant mortality increased. Gross overcrowding was the root cause but alcohol took a lot of the blame.
Temperance groups sprang up to promote the moderate use but soon began to press for abstinence. The Methodist Church movement backed this. Huge numbers were prompted to "take the pledge". Alcohol was continuously debated in Parliament.
But it was not until booze became an issue of national security that the government decided to act. During the First World War, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female arms workers. Britain was "fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink", he said.
He was tempted to outlaw it entirely, but feared a backlash. He persuaded King George V to promise that no alcohol would be consumed in the Royal Household until the war was over. Then he introduced laws reducing the strength of beer, banning the buying of rounds in pubs and restricting pub opening hours. By the end of the war, British alcohol consumption had fallen by almost two-thirds. Politicians lost interest and the temperance movements died away.
Alcohol has re-emerged as a health issue with concerns about its impact on heart disease, stroke risk, blood pressure and cancers. A quarter of men and one in six women drink at "hazardous" levels. Those drinkers spill over on to our streets, often with violent consequences.
Tony Blair could bring back spot fines for yobs who stagger drunk from the bars which the Prime Minister has ensured will now stay open even longer. Or he could get more radical. In the Middle Ages they used to blame "brew witches". The last of these was burnt in 1591. Perhaps it's time to revisit some old ideas. Or he could think twice about extending pub opening hours.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies