Jan 15 2005
Get plastered, not stonedSimon Jenkins
The Government hopes that longer pub opening hours will help it to regain lost alcohol taxes
I HAVE NOT heard one good argument in favour of the Government’s plan for longer pub opening hours. Every expert says it will exacerbate alcoholism and binge drinking. Every police force, every hospital and most voters wants to discourage Britain’s worst pestilence, drunkenness. A walk through any city centre at night makes a mockery of the “continental drinking culture” that so excites ministers when they holiday abroad. So should the new Licensing Act be torn up, as a chorus is now demanding? No, it should not. Go for it, Tony Blair. Do it.
In all matters of state intervention the Devil has the best tunes. Stopping other people doing what they want always gets a round of applause. If what they want harms themselves and others, a ban gets a standing ovation. When it also involves violence, rioting, death and family breakdown the argument is considered over. Drinking causes 33,000 deaths a year and contributes to 90 per cent of public disorder offences. The case for regulation could not seem stronger.
So I gasped yesterday when I heard both Mr Blair and his new Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, plead the libertarian cause. They remarked in unison that “it would be wrong to penalise the 95 per cent of decent drinkers for the 5 per cent of bingers”. They were not proposing 24-hour licences, they said, merely that local councils be free to fix hours at their discretion after community consultation. The policy is one of flexibility and local option.
Mr Blair and Mr Clarke are not proposing to dismantle the nanny state, merely taking some starch from its uniform. They want to make it possible for pubs to join clubs and restaurants in opening longer. They are indeed making it possible for Britons to drink more, which also means get drunk and thus increase the burden on public services. But communities, not the Government, are in charge. They should grow up and take responsibility themselves.
So far so libertarian, or at least so localist. That is not the end of the matter. We should be under no illusion why the Government is doing this. Mr Blair and Mr Clarke are not born-again believers in local power. They are doing what they are told by the alcohol lobby, by the brewers, distillers and pub owners. These people have muscle. They have already induced Gordon Brown to hold alcohol taxes well behind the rate of inflation. Drink is cheaper today than when Labour came to power. Small wonder that, unlike in continental Europe, alcohol consumption is rising, by 12 per cent since 1997. So is related violence against strangers.
Yet the drinks industry is worried. It sees growing competition from drugs at the high-spending youth end of the market. Young people are drifting from pubs to clubs and turning to cannabis, Ecstasy, cocaine and smokeable heroin. These narcotics have fallen in price even faster than alcohol, to the point where a line of cocaine is cheaper than a pint of beer. According to the last Independent Drugs Monitoring Unit survey, cannabis has halved in street price under Labour. The price of crack cocaine has fallen by two thirds.
Drugs are freely available in and near most urban pubs, with no licensing hassle. The Home Office is the dealers’ best friend. It refuses either to regulate distribution or to tax sale. The drinks industry is understandably angry and wants help to compete. Hence the new Act. The Home Office’s real slogan is “Get plastered, not stoned”. Plastered means taxed. A recent BBC Two survey estimated that the Treasury was losing over £6 billion in revenue from people switching to drugs from alcohol. That is what this murky business is about.
If the Government is serious about binge drinking, it has an easy and lucrative remedy, price. It should be matching flexible licensing with a swingeing increase in alcohol duty. It should make it expensive to get drunk, however much this might upset the brewers. It should encourage police, magistrates and local councils to regulate outlets — closing times, happy hours, street drinking — in line with local circumstance and opinion.
The contrast with the Government’s approach to drugs could hardly be more stark. Here its libertarianism takes a different form. Apart from an occasional czar and this week’s media-oriented “swoop on crack dens”, ministers are content to leave Britain’s drugs among the cheapest and most plentiful in Europe. Their distribution puts Tesco and Sainsbury’s to shame, supply penetrating from the biggest city to the smallest village.
Nothing the Prime Minister is proposing for alcohol is as liberal as his policy on drugs. Drugs too cause crime and social disorder, though they kill far fewer people than drink. They are also the largest untaxed item in the household budget.
Drink and drugs are the skull and crossbones of British social policy. The one is now being deregulated by choice, the other by neglect. Policy on both is in disarray. But unless Mr Clarke can bring home to Mr Blair the social pollution being caused by cheap drink and unregulated drugs, these afflictions will be the biggest stain on his administration. And while the Government at least has drink within some statutory framework, it is at sea over drugs.
A true libertarian regulates by price not law. Choice of escapist narcotic should rest with the citizen, not with blinkered politicians in thrall to a reactionary press. Ministers are doing the right thing in localising control of alcohol, even if they are irresponsible over its price. They should do the same with drugs. Some way must be found of licensing their distribution, controlling their sale and taxing their consumption.
That is the way to stem all forms of substance abuse. That is the way, if way must be found, to help the brewers fight off the drug dealers — rather than merely increasing the number of drunks.