Ever since we discovered the joys of drinking alcohol, those who govern have worried we enjoy it too much. In the mid-tenth century, King Edgar introduced the first recorded law to curb drunkeness, which was followed by a thousand years of (usually failed) attempts to regulate when, where, and how much we drink.
It is something of an obsession for modern leaders too. David Cameron today re-declared war on the binge-drinkers. It is known that the prime minister himself takes a very close interest in the forthcoming alcohol strategy. It is probably a positive thing that there is such high level interest. Alcohol is such a central part of much of our social and personal lives that no one department has obvious responsibility for it. Moreover, the alcohol industry and associated night-life is vital part of the UK economy.
When the prime minister jumps into a specific policy brief, the result is often headline grabbing over-simplicity, but not this time. David Cameron’s diagnosis is in fact quite nuanced. Rather than slamming the UK’s drinking culture as a whole, he targets the small and reckless minority. This is right – Brits are sobering up. Total alcohol consumption, and levels of binge-drinking, have been in decline for a few years. But there is a small but possibly growing, number of young adults who are drinking stupendous amounts of alcohol, and often in an intentionally reckless and irresponsible way.
He is also right to emphasise personal responsibility over rules and regulations. In our report 'Under the Influence', we found that parenting style is an extremely important influence on the way the children drink when they grow up. If parents are strict, but warm - ‘tough love’ – their offspring are far more likely to be responsible drinkers. This stands to reason: our problem with binge-drinkers is the way they behave when they are drinking. Responsibility, self-control, respect for others, are things that are transmitted through the family. Any attempt to tackle the issue should really start at home.
His suggestion that we might introduce a ‘drunk tank’ for revellers to sober up in – something we recommended in 2011 – is also sensible, although I would also have the occupants fined for being drunk and disorderly.
Where I have issue, though, is minimum pricing. People enjoy drinking, in contrast to self-loathing smokers, which means a minimum price would only work to stop the small but significant hardcore of bingers if it were set astronomically high. This would be regressive, with money flowing from poor households to large retailers (because a higher number of those from poorer households drink), and might explain why several retailers support it. Minimum pricing is also possibly in contravention of European competition law, which Scotland looks likely to put to the test shortly.
In a free and liberal society, people will sometimes drink too much. Behaviour and social norms do not develop overnight, and rarely do they end overnight. No single intervention is likely to resolve this issue, but the emphasis on encouraging more responsible, sociable behaviour among young people is the right one.
Jamie Bartlett is head of the violence and extremism programme at Demos