Standing a round is a fine British tradition. It’s also a prohibitively expensive one when a dozen colleagues go out for a swift half after work. (Translation for outlanders: ‘a swift half’ is a flexible measurement covering the range between two and 12 pints of beer.)
People still do it though, but, if the government acts on its threat to raise the minimum price of an alcohol unit, the British may start carrying calculators to pubs. ‘I only had three rum-and-Cokes. Was it five or six pints you had, Kevin? And you, Fiona? Right then, that’ll be…’ We’ll swap Anglican generosity for Calvinist frugality, but without also acquiring Calvinist industry.
Yet the proposed measure will affect social drinkers only the way the shockwaves of an explosion affect bystanders a hundred yards away. The proposed, and supposed, target are asocial drinkers, those who throw up on a parked car before zigzagging into the path of a moving one.
To dismiss that sort of thing as innocent fun, as Guardian writers do, would be ignoring a serious problem. The first time I realised its gravity was some 20 years ago, when a friend of ours was playing a concert in Chester. Incidentally, for the benefit of those who equate loutish drunkenness with poverty, Chester is one of Britain’s wealthiest cities.
We went out for a late supper after the concert, alighting back in the street at about midnight. It was Friday, and there wasn’t a single sober person of either sex to be seen anywhere in the centre. The girls were screaming, ‘Darren [Wayne, Lee, Jason etc.] get a f****** taxi’, but no taxi would stop for those staggering Darrens [Waynes, Lees, Jasons etc.] – a fare of a few quid wouldn’t have covered the likely clean-up job. A young man was slowly sliding down the wall next to the restaurant door, a trickle of vomit coming out of the corner of his mouth. His girlfriend, high on passion, low on squeamishness, was kissing him on that very mouth with drunken abandon.
Such scenes have become commonplace all over the country, and their spread seems not to be sensitive to demographics or geography. Hence it’s foolhardy to expect that those who have to fill with booze the empty space inside themselves will be deterred by having to pay a little more for it. Artificial restrictions on the supply of a desired commodity are unlikely to reduce the demand. They are, however, almost guaranteed to encourage much illegal activity.
Thirteen years between 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution put Prohibition into effect, and 1933, when the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth, ought to have been enough time to hammer the point home: state interference doesn’t solve social problems. It either makes them worse or creates new ones. In this instance too, the price America paid for a marginal fall in cirrhosis cases was too high. The first organised black market was created to fill the void, and American English was enriched by new words like ‘speak-easy’ and ‘bootlegging’.
The example of another country I know intimately, Russia, shows that people who want to get drunk will do so, regardless of the cost. Back in the old days, a half-litre bottle of vodka cost the daily wage of a young doctor. But intrepid Russians managed to get legless with metronomic regularity by either distilling their own moonshine or resorting to liquids not manifestly designed for human consumption, such as floor varnish, methanol, antifreeze, cologne, deodorants and some such.
Benny Yerofeev, the late poet of Russian dipsomania, remarked that while few people in Russia know what the great poet Pushkin died of, everybody knows how to prepare floor varnish for drinking. I hope you won’t find it patronising if I divulge the secret to the uninitiated: you take a three-gallon bucket of floor varnish and empty a four-pound bag of salt into it. The salt will form a blob that will start sinking to the bottom through the dense liquid. As it sinks, the blob will get heavier with the oils, ethers and other impurities it has absorbed. In about four hours you’ll be left with a brownish liquid, which would be unlikely to cause any sleepless nights to the makers of Lagavulin, but which can be drunk with relative impunity, at least in the short term.
I’m not suggesting that the proposed measure will drive the British to similar extremes – only that people tend to find a way around state activism. The problem, if the government really wanted to solve it, ought to be tackled at its roots, which are all cultural and social. Palliatives won’t even achieve their real aim of winning more votes for the coalition by portraying it as resolute and hardnosed. Older people whose pensions have been wiped out largely by the government’s incompetence won’t look kindly at having to pay more for their glass of wine with supper. They’ll be likely to punish the government at the polls.
Nor will the treasury get much fatter, which is the other underlying purpose of the measure. People who normally drink cheap wine or spirits will switch to strong lager or fortified wine (which is the most cost-effective route to befouling one’s clothes before passing out). And criminals will start flogging stolen or fake alcohol the way they now flog cheaper cigarettes off the back of a lorry.
In short, the proposed measure is ill-advised. And I only use this adjective to be charitable.