Drink problems

James Nicholls' study of English attitudes to alcohol since the Tudors reveals familiar concerns - and a dilemma for the Tories

September 24, 2009

The UK's binge-drinking culture highlights a conflict at the heart of Conservative Party philosophy, according to James Nicholls, an expert on the country's longstanding and contentious relationship with booze. The Bath Spa University lecturer is author of a new book, The Politics of Alcohol - a detailed survey of public attitudes to drinking since licensing was first introduced in Tudor times.

"The clash between a moral conservatism that supports 'family values' and free-market conservatism crops up frequently in my book," Dr Nicholls said, explaining that the next Tory government faces a dilemma.

"If it tries to control the number of premises selling alcohol, it will be accused of fixing the market. If it leaves the market to decide, people will drink more."

The Labour Government tied itself in similar knots in 2003, when it reformed the 500-year-old system of licensing by magistrate. It passed responsibility for applications to councils, ostensibly to take local objections into account, while issuing guidance limiting the circumstances under which licences could be refused.

"The guidance made it very clear that decisions had to be based on the character of the licensee and the fitness of the building, which made a complete mockery of the idea of democratic involvement," Dr Nicholls said. "If a member of the public objected, the licensing authority's administrators decided whether or not the objection was frivolous, which was totally undemocratic."

In 2007, the guidance was changed to allow councils to refuse a licence on the grounds of "cumulative impact" - whether there were too many drinking establishments in a confined area. "But if a council refuses a licence, it faces an appeal, and applicants have lawyers who are brilliant at getting around refusals. Councils are under the cosh."

By looking at the impact of policy on society over time, Dr Nicholls said, his book shows that England "is not just a nation of boozers. There are periods when we have drunk a lot, but others when this was not the case."

In the first half of the 20th century, for example, consumption was relatively low compared with other nations.

"Drinking culture is important, but so too are licensing laws, pricing and the way drinks are marketed," he said.

Current worries about drunkenness and the availability of cheap alcohol echo concerns over the huge popularity of gin among the masses in Georgian England, a period followed by the 19th-century temperance movement. Dr Nicholls said that such questions have always been tied to broader issues of national identity, individual freedom and the relationship between the state and the market.


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