Monday, November 10, 2008

Booze

Pub happy hours should be banned and supermarkets stopped from selling alcohol at a loss in order to combat drink-fuelled disorder, MPs have said.

I think I may have gone off on this rant before. If so, then my apologies, but it is a subject close to my heart. Or at least stomach, and that's the next best thing.

I heard this rehash of an old story on the radio this morning, and one of the things that our elected representatives were moaning about is the fact that our reckless youf are getting tanked up on cheap lager bought from loss-leading supermarkets before they even hit the town for happy hour. This may well be the case, but it is no reason to slam the supermarkets, or indeed to penalise those of us who enjoy a bottle or two of cut-price beer at the weekends without turning into uncontrollable and violent loons.

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, or Aberdeen in the mid-nineties to be precise, I was employed by a prestigious chain of wine merchants serving the booze requirements of the whole country. OK, so it was an offy* really. But we had pretentions, and we liked to think we were above such things as alcopops and cheap lager promotions. One of the first things drummed into my youthful head as part of the (minimal) training I had for the job was that we could not, nor should we ever try to, sell alcohol to someone already under the influence. It was, I was told, against the law. And should we be caught doing it, the shop would lose its licence to sell intoxicating liquors, and we would all lose our jobs.

The same holds true for pubs, believe it or not. As a barman, you're not supposed to sell booze to someone who is already tipsy. Not blind fighting drunk, mind you, but tipsy. Slurring words a bit. Perhaps fumbling more than usual with the change as they try to grab their bottle of VodkaGurgle with strangely rubbery fingers. That's enough booze, and to sell them any more is to break the rules of your licence.

OK, so it's a very difficult call to make. When is someone 'intoxicated'? You could argue until you are blue in the face over a definition and it still wouldn't cover all eventualities. There's also the problem that pubs are in the business of selling alcohol to punters. If they refuse to service their customers' needs, then those customers will go elsewhere, not come back the next time, or get violent there and then. It's not good practice, if you're in retail, to tell someone they've had enough: 'I'm sorry sir, you've already read six Rankins this week, and that's a particularly strong MacBride you're asking for. I think you should lay off the books for a while. Go home, watch the telly.'

That's just not going to work well, is it.

The problem is, there are too many pubs chasing ever smaller margins in an attempt to stay in business. It's that which drives the price of booze down so far. If it were harder to get a licence, and easier to lose it, then maybe a lot of the problem would go away. Not all of it, mind.

So the argument is simple. Cheap booze leads to drunkeness, so we should make booze more expensive (preferably by adding more tax to it, always popular with the treasury) and people will stop being violently drunken. But hang on a minute. You're making too many logical leaps here. Sure cheap booze helps drunkeness, and in this country at least drunkeness is leading to more and more violence. But it's still a minority of drinkers who behave this way, still a minority of society for whom the only acceptable form of entertainment is getting blootered on any given night. Penalising everyone because of the actions of a few is not the behaviour of an advanced society, surely?

Now is not the time for me to rant about 'the social good' as an excuse for yet more tax-raising.

Another thing that comes out of the BBC Report is the fact that the police have had to change their strategy and work shift patterns specifically to deal with the growing problem of drunken behaviour. This is a real problem, not helped by the thoughtless way extended licensing hours were introduced without first reducing the number of licences held. But surely this is what the police are meant to do - deal with criminal behaviour. Getting yourself drunk and disorderly is criminal behaviour, as it urinating in public or kicking the shit out of random passers by. Robbing banks, blowing up buildings full of innocent people, murdering your wife or molesting children are all criminal behaviours too, and we generally come down hard on perpetrators. Unfortunately, drunken louts indulging in their favourite pastimes rarely get more than a slap on the wrists, and the pubs that helped them to get into their state of violent inebriation never seem to be punished at all.

Now I don't want to be seen to be criticising the police here. They do a very good job in difficult conditions and with far too little resourcing. And that's the nub of the problem - not the cheapness of booze, but the cheapness of our politicians when it comes to funding the police service, the courts, the prisons, parole service and the various rehabilitation options out there. Not to mention the education system in a state of permanent change and quite unable to cope with teaching the children and grandchildren of pupils it failed in the past.

Instead of going for the seemingly populist notion of calling for easy fixes to a difficult problem, our elected representatives would do well to ask themselves why it is that every weekend tens of thousands of young men and women think that you can only measure the success of a good night out in terms of your inability to remember any of it. The dour Scots Presbyterians and the Wee Frees always go on about the Demon Drink being the bane of society, but drink isn't a demon. It just lets out the demons already inside us.

Making alcohol more expensive for us all might make it a little more difficult to release those demons, but they'll still be there, and we'll just find other ways to express them. Cheap booze isn't the root of the problem, just one small factor of a much bigger problem.

*off-licence, for those of you who have not heard of such things. What Americans would call a liquor store.

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1 Comments:

Blogger John R said...

Hear, hear, etc. I've said the same thing myself - it's not new measures, laws, rules, blah blah blah that's needed but proper enforcement of the existing ones. Of course, that's a lot harder to put in a thirty-second policy statement or sell to the Daily Mail if you're a politician without making it sound like what you're currently doing is a cock-up, so no bugger will.

November 10, 2008 8:08 pm  

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