I first drank in a pub aged 15 or 16, at which point I must have looked 14 at most. We thought we had 'em fooled, but of course we didn't – hence the humouring smiles from bartenders pretending to examine our home-made ID cards. Though the legal drinking age was 18, many young people were already in pubs two years before. And many landlords turned a blind eye and kept their doors partly ajar.
So it is with some bemusement that I have watched police forces' summer raids on under-age drinkers, using methods normally reserved for smashing international heroin rings. In Harlow, police are asking members of the public to pass on underage drinking "intelligence" anonymously to a special hotline. Officers across the country are sending out 15- and 16-year-old decoys, to test the resolution of off-licences and pubs .
The tacit tolerance of 16-18-year-old drinking has been replaced with a tacit intolerance of 18-21 -year-old drinking. For the past few years, supermarkets and pubs have exhibited "Think 21" signs. Scotland has now raised this to "Think 25". Every few months somebody proposes reviewing the minimum drinking age, looking longingly at America's prohibitionary hangover of over-21. This probably won't happen – but still, 18- to 21-year-olds are increasingly subject to various forms of state chaperoning, with London and Scotland proposing to bar them from buying booze at supermarkets and off-licences.
Official Puritanism clashes with public drinking mores. For most young people, drinking is an accepted part of social life, and they often start before 18. A Facebook group against the raising of the booze-buying age to 21 has attracted 15,000 members, who are incredulous about this attempt to "discriminate against a group with full legal rights". Indeed – how absurd that adults who can vote, buy a house and have children can't buy a can of lager.
Why did a few young people with a few cans of Foster's became a crime issue of the summer? Police statements invoke disorderly youths running rampant in the streets. No doubt some unruly youths are roaming the streets, but this is partly because they are now barred from pubs. The crackdown on underage drinking has helped to create the teenage street-drinking culture. There is nowhere for groups of teenagers to go, if the pub doors that were tacitly left ajar have slammed in their faces.
The truth is that pubs were great civilisers: it meant that you learned to drink around adults, according to adult rules. You were there on special permission, so you didn't want to do anything stupid or make a fool of yourself. As a result, turning 18 wasn't a blast of fireworks with the overnight discovery of demon drink: by 18 you knew what to do. Officials claim they want a French-style café culture, but they forget that in France young people drink earlier and more gradually, in a family or community context, as part of growing up and entering adult society. By contrast, in the US, where they're barred from touching a drop until 21, they carry on like overgrown 16-year-olds to their early twenties.
There is little the Government can do when teenagers start to experiment with alcohol. The question is where they do it and on whose terms. Looking back, I cannot help but conclude that "turning a blind eye" was a more civilised – and civilising – approach to the matter than the current summer crackdown.
The writer is the convenor of the Manifesto Club. A longer version of this piece appears on The First Post online
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