Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 2000
Promoting responsible drinking in multi-room pubs is the way to curb drink-fuelled violence
Tony Blair committed one of the worst gaffes of his premiership when he suggested frog-marching drunken yobs to cashpoints to collect on-the-spot fines, a plan quickly condemned by senior police officers as ill-considered and unworkable. But there is no doubt that there is a serious and growing problem of late-night alcohol-related violence and disorder in our major towns and cities.
This has been encouraged by two major changes in our drinking culture over the past twenty years. The first is the increase in the strength of beer. Before 1980, it was difficult to find any draught beers above 4% ABV, whereas now premium lagers of 5% or above are the trouble-makers’ preferred tipple. These lagers are also deliberately brewed to be bland and easy-drinking. Getting drunk on mild or ordinary bitter takes a lot more doing than pouring strong lager down your neck.
The second is that pubs have become much bigger, more open plan and more conducive to stand-up drinking. This has even been encouraged by the licensing authorities in the interests of improving supervision from the bar. But an official Home Office study has now shown that the more open-plan a pub is, and the more the customers stand rather than sit down, the more likely it is to be associated with trouble. You can’t really visualise much disorder happening in the likes of the Circus Tavern or the Swan with Two Necks, and even if it did break out it would be very localised. But if something goes off in one of the new mega-pubs the effects can spread like wildfire.
Paradoxically, while in many ways we are becoming more censorious about alcohol, we are much more tolerant of drunkenness. In the 1950s, it was a point of pride that someone could “hold their drink” and it was a source of shame and embarrassment to get legless. Yet today you often hear even young professional people bragging about how bladdered they were the previous night. At the same time, regular, moderate drinking is discouraged - for example by employers frowning on their workers having a lunchtime pint - which only encourages people to cut loose on the few occasions when they do get the opportunity.
Extended closing times are often proposed as a way of reducing drink-related violence, but the behaviour of British tourists on foreign holidays suggests they could make it even worse. In various subtle ways, closing times have already been relaxed, moving back from 10.30 to 11, with drinking-up time extended, and late licences more freely available, but that trend has gone hand-in-hand with the upsurge in trouble. The experience with opening throughout the day isn’t really a guide, as there weren’t crowds of drunks spilling out of pubs at 3 pm, as there now are at 11. The people who want to go out and get hammered overwhelmingly want to do it late at night, not during the afternoon. It’s also suggested that increasing the availability of food in pubs would improve matters. But in fact there’s never been as much food on sale in pubs in the evenings. In the 1950s, evening pub food was virtually unknown - but drunken yobbery was equally rare.
In reality, there are no quick or easy answers. You’re not going to limit the strength of beer by law, and in the short term extended opening hours would merely spread disorder throughout the night. But it is clear that smaller, more compartmentalised licensed premises with more fixed seating (that is, something more like proper pubs) are much less trouble-prone, and planning policies should encourage this type of establishment rather than open-plan stand-up bottle bars. But in the long term the problem will not be solved unless we move towards a climate where moderate drinking is accepted as a normal part of everyday life, and drunkenness is considered uncool, which regrettably is the opposite of what prevails today.