Booze and moral panics

How should communists view the new '24-hour-drinking'-legislation? Eddie Ford says that alcohol and drugs are class questions

So it's Christmas again and no doubt you will be imbibing a few more alcoholic beverages than usual. Well, good luck to you. As well as making the obligatory mince pies and turkey taste just a little bit better, yuletide boozing with relatives, friends and work colleagues during the meagre amount of time allotted for 'leisure' in contemporary capitalist society enable us to at least partially unwind and recuperate from the drudgery of wage-slavery. And your seasonal tipple may well be more relaxed than it was in Christmases past - which saw you hastily gulping down your beer as if you were a member of the student rugby club involved in a drinking competition in order to meet the dreaded 11pm deadline. Yes, on November 24 the new era of supposed '24-hour drinking' was ushered in. These reforms to the licensing laws were first proposed in 2000, and just before the 2001 general election some new voters received the following slightly sad text message from Labour spin-doctors eager to push their 'cool Britannia' credentials: "Cdnt give a XXXX 4 lst ordrs? Vote labour on thrsdy 4 xtra time" (original grammar and spelling retained). So, what does the new law say? First, it is now local authorities, not magistrates, who will grant licences. Secondly, bars and pubs will have greater flexibility when it comes to opening hours - they can apply for a licence that theoretically gives them the right to stay open up to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, if any current venue wants to extend its opening laws beyond the existing ones, they are obliged to inform the 'local community' and police - who will have 21 days to object. Furthermore, any pubs or bars that become disorderly as a result of the new opening hours will be given two months to sort out their act or they will be billed for the extra policing costs. Hardly revolutionary stuff, most would think. And, indeed, up until the final few months before enactment, there seemed to be a general consensus that the government's new drinking laws were quite sensible. The Tories, for one, had very little negative to say about them and most of the police chiefs appeared to be in favour, expressing the belief that the relaxation of the licensing laws would help to diminish the '11 o'clock flashpoint' syndrome - whereby the streets are suddenly filled with throngs of frustrated drinkers (all in various states of inebriation), desperately competing with each other for scarce taxis, buses, kebabs and curries. However, the tune quickly changed as November 24 approached. Attempts - not particularly successful - were made to whip up a moral panic. The new act was now depicted as permissiveness gone mad - a threat to our very civilisation. Tories muttered darkly about a booze-fuelled "explosion" of binge-drinking and crime, which would apparently hit every street in Britain thanks to the government's 'irresponsibility'. Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Don Foster thundered about how it "seems increasingly obvious that this government couldn't give a XXXX about the disorder and chaos caused by the Licensing Act". Predictably, the Daily Mail - self-appointed guardian of the nation's morals - ran a shrill campaign denouncing the change. Clearly, reactionary instincts took over, in a real explosion of anti-working class prejudices - plainly heard in the words of a senior judge who attacked the government's plans for "continental café-bar culture" on the grounds that "continental-style drinking requires continental-style people, who sit quietly drinking away at café tables, not standing up, shouting at each other in crowded bars, trying to consume gallons of beer at a time". Unsurprisingly, waving the spectre of 'yobbish' beer-drinking British workers - as opposed to, say, civilised French wine-sippers - comes naturally to members of the establishment. Not that our lords and masters practise what they preach - in parliament, for example, bars actually are open all day and all night. Of course, the impact of '24-11' on British society has been rather unexciting. When the law took effect, just over 60,000 outlets could sell alcohol for beyond the normal hours. But only about a thousand of them so far have been granted the 24-hour licence. Of these, fewer than 400 are pubs and clubs - the rest are supermarkets and service stations. On top of that, there is the strong likelihood that some of the outlets with the extended licence may not even use them, for one reason or another. In other words, not quite the 'cultural revolution' so feared by 'the great and the good' - a fact amply confirmed by a recent survey carried out by the British Beer and Pub Association, which has shown that the only days on which most venues will extend their licences are Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with the majority expecting to close by about 1 or 2am. In this respect, the UK still has a long way to go before it becomes a "continental" nation. What do communists think of the new drinking regime? Well, we have always called for unrestricted access to booze - not because we want to see workers permanently plastered, but rather for the reason that we want the working class to become a ruling class. They must have the right to decide such matters for themselves. Thus the debates and struggles over the licensing laws and what exact hours workers are allowed to publicly drink and socially congregate, or not, are in fact an expression or facet of the class struggle - who exercises hegemony over society? What is the basis for social control? The origins of modern-day licensing laws are an ample testimony to the class-contested nature of booze and recreation in general. When we look back at how the state has interfered in the supply and provision of alcohol, we see that it has very little to do with concerns over health - and a lot more to do with the imperative to discipline the proletariat, particularly during times of war. For instance, the 1869 Wine and Beerhouse Act restored the power of local magistrates over the licensing of premises. Given the fact that many of these middle class reactionaries were enthusiastic supporters of the temperance movement - an anti-working class campaign of social control launched in 1835 - the results were predictable. For example, between 1904 and 1914 1,000 licences disappeared in Birmingham, a city where the magistrates were apparently especially zealous against the demon drink and its effects on the labouring classes. Then we had the massive eruption of direct state control into all spheres of society associated with the outbreak of World War I. They had the most profound implications for the way alcohol consumption would henceforth be policed and regulated. Just days after hostilities broke out, Herbert Asquith's government passed the first Defence of the Realm Act. This made it an offence - punishable by severe fines and up to six months imprisonment - to deal with a sailor or soldier "with intent to make him drunk". A few weeks later came the Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restrictions) Act, which allowed for the closure of particular pubs thought to be undermining the war effort in some way. Under the provisions of the last Defence of the Realm Act (May 19 1915), a central control board was established for the purpose of imposing liquor licensing in all areas where 'excessive' drinking could be held to be impeding the war effort. Thus the origins of Britain's licensing laws lie not in the concern for public health and well-being, but in a massive attempt to regiment society for imperialist war. And this desire by the bourgeoisie to discipline and police the working class remains undiminished - '24-11' notwithstanding. Face it, can you really imagine the control-freaks in New Labour happily conceding to British workers the right to drink what they want, where they want and when they want? So, replying to critics of the new law, culture secretary Teresa Jowell quickly reminded us: "The quid pro quo that this act creates is also matched by the introduction of draconian new powers for the police to mete out swift and heavy punishment to pubs and drinkers". She means it. The police now have expanded powers to close down 'disorderly' and noisy licensed premises - including, unlike before, all entertainment premises, night cafés and night take-aways. To further ram home the message, the number and magnitude of fines and penalties has increased drastically. For example, as well as the potential suspension for up to six months - or even forfeiture of personal licences - following a conviction for the offence of allowing 'disorderly conduct', or the sales of alcohol to people who are or appear to be drunk, publicans/vendors can also face a maximum fine of £20,000 or imprisonment for up to six months, or both. Additionally, you can now be fined up to £5,000 for selling alcohol to under-18s. The new act also provides the police with specific powers to exclude individuals deemed to be "at risk of carrying out alcohol-related crime and disorder" from a specific area for up to 48 hours. If that was not enough, it is now a lot easier for local councils to prohibit drinking in named areas through the creation of a 'Designated Public Places Order', and in conjunction with the police can exclude individuals from entering licensed premises by imposing 'Drinking Banning Orders' which could run for up to two years. Communists denounce these authoritarian measures - though the fact that some drinkers at certain times will not be thrown out on their ear come 11pm is a modest advance. For our part, we will continue to fight all the encroachments on our democracy that the government managed to smuggle into their reforms. Logically, this means we are adamantly opposed to the war against 'binge-drinking' and 'chavs' - which infantilises wide swathes of society and justifies intrusive state control and interference in the personal lives and the exercise of choice of masses of working people. By extension, a successful working class fight for extreme democracy under today's conditions would have the welcome tendency to reduce the propensity for large numbers of our class to actually seek recreational oblivion in booze - or take refuge in various currently illegal drugs. Yes, people often use and occasionally abuse alcohol as a chemical escape from alienating social conditions. But the clear communist, humanistic, solution is to change those social conditions under the leadership of the working class and its organisations - not to reduce the supply and availability of the drug (alcohol, cannabis, heroin, tobacco, coffee, etc). Therefore we in the CPGB call for the immediate legalisation of all drugs, not just for the removal of petty restrictions on the public consumption of alcohol. Leaving all that temporarily aside, readers, make sure you have a good one and get that drink in now!