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The End of Binge Britain? An Act to Repress the Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness

So the Conservative lead government have an answer to the great British problem of binge drinking. This masterstroke is supposedly encouraged by the previous Labour Government’s policy of late licenses, which, ironically, was initially seen as a solution in itself.

Longer opening times were expected to encourage the British public to drink over a longer period of time, thus emulating the relatively civil manner in which the Mediterranean cultures imbibe. According to our power wielding conservative friend, however,  this has only exasperated the problem. The British simply binge for longer and cost the tax payer more through drunken injury and alcohol- fuelled violence and criminal damage. The Tory solution: charge a levy on all licensed premises that are open after midnight, thus covering the costs incurred through the above. From a distance, this looks like a cleverly pragmatic approach. The truth is that it represents the clever use of smoke and mirrors.

The real reason that we have the little genie Al-kohl in our lives is that governments present and past have made a fortune from allowing the sale of alcohol and then taxing it as a sin tax. Occupation of the moral high ground has made the government plenty.

From the Neolithic Scotsmen who infused deadly nightshade into their ale, to the modern White Lightening-drinking waster, the Great British culture has always been linked to alcohol and its abuse. For a while under the Romans, the British mode of consumption resembled that of its Mediterranean cousins, where wine was taken with food.  However, after the Romans left, the wild province slipped back into the Dark Ages and its habits of heavy “feast drinking”. By the 16th century the consumption of ale was at 17 pints per person per week in some country backwaters. While drinking heavily the Britons could not possibly have been prepared for the onslaught of Madame Genievre.

The Gin Craze of the early 18th century was an epidemic of inebriation, the origin of which was a massive grain surplus. The government’s solution to this agricultural conundrum was to promote the mass distillation of grain into gin, a spirit inherited from the Dutch. Unsurprising this, seeing as William of Orange was at that time the King of England. What a great idea! Even better for the noble bureaucrats was the fact that the government proceeded to tax gin production, making enough to fill their war chests and in the process bankrolling British imperialism. Probably the darkest period of Britain’s bingeing history ended when grain prices went up and decidedly less destructive beverages such as beer and ale became cheaper.  The government continued to aggressively tax alcohol and by the 1860s, 40% of its tax revenue was down to the nation’s most popular vice.

The UK continued drinking happily until David Lloyd George, perhaps the most influential UK politician of the 20th century, noticed that alcohol had a negative effect on society’s efficiency during the war effort. His solution was to water- down beer, ban rounds and impose restrictions on opening hours.

This is just one instance of the tempestuous relationship between governments and alcohol. While booze is an important money spinner it also causes problems for the electorate the government is mandated to protect. But how far should the government go? The Conservatives are trying not to tread in the footsteps of previous nanny states. They prefer to be seen as the frugal saviours of a debt- ridden state. Their levy will go some way in policing the inebriated degenerates that frequent late-night bars, but it will also add to the woes of many businesses that have been burdened by the increased financial pressure , itself compounded by the trendy “War on Booze Britain”.

I am inclined to say that Binge Britain is here to stay, regardless of whether it’s the long depressing winters or the fact that we have been doing it 10 000 years that drives the need for extreme inebriation. Aristotle sighted moderation as a vital temperance to the beast that is born from bingeing. I tend to agree more with Sir George Bernard Shaw, who saw alcohol as the anaesthetic in the operation of life. Vale Magistra!

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