Four weeks ago, I wrote about the current high-profile focus on alcohol use in Scotland (The Trouble with Alcohol: posted 26th January on Meikle’s Blog). One of the striking aspects of this present ‘campaign’ is, apart from concerns about irresponsible promotions of alcohol and the absurdly low prices of some brands of liquor, which can easily be laid at the door of the drinks industry, most of it emphasises the need of individuals to take responsibility for their own alcohol consumption; most importantly to adhere to the guidelines on alcohol which limits men to 21 units of alcohol over seven days (equivalent to 3-4 units per day) and women to 14 units over seven days (2-3  units per day).

I said then that these guidelines were pitched far too low and I am not going to repeat the arguments put forward there. But I also wrote that many of the current problems we are experiencing around alcohol are due to a number of factors which really are not down to individual responsibility alone. Collectively, these factors make the Scottish-come British way of consuming alcohol unique and virtually guaranteed to lead to the problems politicians, policy-makers and the media in Scotland are so concerned about, such as binge drinking, threats to personal safety, disorder and violence.

I had occasion to witness some of this first hand on an evening out in Glasgow last weekend. Now what I am about to relate can occur in any town or city centre throughout the entire United Kingdom. It is definitely not something specific to Scotland or Glasgow but is, for all the wrong reasons, integral, to how we Brits experience a night out where alcohol is involved.

As I have been writing this week’s blog I happened to come upon an excellent article in the Observer by Fintan O’ Toole, assistant editor of the Irish Times (Don’t heed the prohibitionists – we should teach our children to drink: Observer 21st February 2010). In a timely piece O’ Toole makes the point that there are actually two powerful factors influencing government policy around alcohol. There is the public health agenda which regards excessive drinking as fundamentally un-healthy and detrimental to a good lifestyle. Consumption of alcohol should be reduced to the minimum possible; there is no doubt that some supporters of this approach would actually like to see alcohol eliminated from our society altogether. Then there is the regulatory, ‘managerialist’ perspective which holds that a few robust interventions such as minimum pricing or banning alcohol advertising or more rigorous enforcement of licensing laws will do the trick. I would add to this, a third powerful factor alluded to by O’ Toole; the tax revenue generated from the production and sale of alcohol provide a massive source of income for governments; a fact not to be downplayed at a time when public expenditure is facing severe constraints.

In 2004, for instance, the estimated taxable “take” on alcohol in terms of duty revenue and VAT to the UK Exchequer was £13.3 billion. In the same year the estimated bill to the NHS for alcohol related problems came to £1.7 billion. Add to that the costs of “increased absenteeism, early retirement and premature deaths” caused by alcohol misuse which is estimated to cost the British economy £6.4 billion in days lost at work and lost productivity per annum and the total cost to the UK economy from alcohol related problems came to £8.1 billion. This is huge, but is still £5.2 billion short of what the UK Treasury gains in receipts from alcohol consumption. In short: Booze is a very lucrative source of revenue.

Government policy is a hotchpotch of all three approaches and the result is a mess as was seen on my night out in Glasgow. The evening started well. My friends and I, one of whom currently lives in France, decided to go to a bar in the Merchant City, a lively area of Glasgow’s city-centre replete with a range of good bars, clubs, concert venues and some first-rate restaurants. The Merchant City in many ways epitomises what Glasgow is striving to be: a friendly, modern, safe, cosmopolitan, vibrant, even sophisticated, city up there with Paris, Berlin and Milan among the great European cities for culture and attractiveness, shorn of its previous grim, industrial, hard drinking violent image.

And for a while last Saturday night you could almost believe this to be the case. We choose a well known pub in the area, which was quite busy, but not uncomfortably so, grabbed a table and settled in. One of the attractions of alcohol is that it can be taken in specific social settings such as a pub and helps to ease out the strains and tensions of the week. People relax in convivial company and enjoy the banter of each other and even of strangers. Before long we were engaged in conversation with several tables, the patter was flowing and, as they say in Celtic countries, the ‘crac’ was good.

Now, as far I could see, no-one in that pub was sticking to their daily units. Irrespective of age, gender, nationality or even social class background, everyone was having a good drink. The fact was this was a Saturday night, the vast majority of people in the bar had no work the next day and so they were enjoying their leisure time and, yes, getting pleasurably drunk with no harm arising to anyone and, I suspect, with very few long-term consequences either.

If this was a bar in any other country in Europe, people would have gone on drinking past midnight, reached a peak probably about 1am and then in dribs and drabs would have started leaving the bar to go home or onto a nightclub, a party, a friend’s house; a few die-hards would have stayed to the death, but the vast majority would have left as happens in every late night bar elsewhere on the globe.  But we were in Glasgow, part of the UK, and things aren’t done that way in the UK.

Britain’s licensing laws allow for fifteen minutes “drinking-up time” after the bar has closed. What this usually means is that customers can be served pint glasses of beer (equivalent to 568 ml) or glasses of wines or spirits up to the exact moment of closing time. Preceding the closing time by fifteen minutes is a warning bell, sometimes with lights flashing accompanied by loud declarations from members of the bar staff that this is “last orders”. The bells, lights and shouts duly occurred in our pub and resulted in a frenetic rush to the bar, where large rounds of alcohol were now being purchased.

A casual observer examining British pubs, especially at the weekends, their busiest periods, will not fail to notice how they and their staff fall prey to a veritable schizophrenia. For most of the day, the staff are genial and welcoming to the public who have patronised their premises. In summer and warm days air conditioning will ensure a refreshing cool atmosphere whilst in winter central heating or a blazing hearth fire will keep out the cold. All this, of course, is only to be expected from an industry that describes itself as a ‘hospitality’ one.

This all changes, almost instantly, at the moment the final bell rings indicating the bar is shut. From then on until “drinking-up time” officially ends fifteen minutes later customers are subjected to an ever-increasing frenzy of shouted injunctions to “drink-up”! “That’s your time now”! “ Do your talking outside”! The mine host, genial hospitality that prevailed throughout the rest of the day is now replaced by a screaming, shouting sometimes virtually snarling staff urging you to get out. People start to drink very quickly the copious amounts of drinks they have just bought, some of them including full pints. I have never ceased to be amazed, as I was again last Saturday, at the bemused looks of tourists and travellers at this dreadful spectacle which would be unlikely to occur in any other country nor in any other industry, but which is a characteristic staple at the end of the day in the licensed trade in the UK.

It was a cold February evening and in our bar, accompanying the frenzied drinking, the agitation and screaming to get you out of the pub, all the windows were opened,  central heating was switched off and the pub quickly become very cold: all this with the sole purpose of getting us to drink up and move outside. This is the antithesis of ‘hospitality’; it also contradicts all the strictures to “drink sensibly and moderately” circulated by health authorities and sometimes displayed on posters and leaflets in the same pubs whose legislatively enforced zeal to get their clientele to consume the huge proportion of drink they were encouraging them to buy only a fraction of time earlier, generously contributes to the gross intoxication of that same clientele as they are unceremoniously ejected into the night

Now let us consider the following scenario. Imagine you and you partner enter an Indian restaurant at 11.30 of a weekend evening. The waitering staff are efficient, friendly and helpful. You and your partner order a starter which arrives promptly. Then at five minutes to midnight the main courses arrive. Your partner has ordered a chicken tikka masala with fried rice while you are having a chicken buna with boiled rice; accompanying this are two huge slices of Naan bread, some popadums washed down with, for you, a pint of lager, and for your partner a large glass of wine. You are just beginning to tuck into your main courses when suddenly those friendly and helpful waiters are now remonstrating with you and urging you to “eat up! Come on, eat up! You’ve only got another ten minutes to finish your food”. You now begin to stuff your face with chicken buna and swill your lager and your partner does likewise with their course in an effort to ensure both of you get your money’s worth. Such a scenario is not only grossly unhealthy and with perhaps graphic consequences once the two of you leave the restaurant and hit fresh air, but is extremely unlikely as no restaurant is forced to adopt such a policy and any that did would quickly go un-patronised.

Yet this is exactly what confronts someone, who in some cases literally a minute before closing time has bought a pint of Guinness or lager or heavy (the equivalent of bitter or ale in England) and now has to swallow this quickly in the next fifteen minutes in any pub the length and breadth of the British Isles. This is not a dig at the UK licensed trade (though some landlords and staff go about enforcing the fifteen minute rule with more zeal and vigour than others), but is a consequence of an arcane, inherently unhealthy and utterly uncivilised aspect of the British licensing laws, which if not observed would endanger the pub’s licence and continuation in business.

So it’s now midnight and we’ve been ejected with thousands of others in the Merchant City. The place is a sea of people most of whom are buzzing and wishing to go on elsewhere. The problem is that there are only two places in the immediate vicinity open beyond midnight; which means that hundreds of people descend on those two places. Huge queues form outside both. By this stage my friend who lives in France was shaking his head and saying in a laughing but weary voice: “I’d forgotten about the bloody licensing laws in this country”.

After what seems an age queuing, we gain entry to one of the two places still open, but there’s another problem. The bar is absolutely packed, there’s hardly elbow or leg room to move and the time taken to get served seems interminable. In addition, just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, the music played by a DJ in the premises, which was loud to begin with, is now pumped up in volume until its blasting throughout every corner of the pub making normal conversation well-nigh impossible forcing everybody to shout at each other or just give up talking.

So here’s the situation at roughly one-o’-clock in the morning. You’ve been rudely turfed out of what had been a very hospitable, civilised pub, you’ve queued for twenty minutes to get into one of the few places open after 12, you’ve waited a further twenty minutes to get served very brusquely from a rushed, harassed bar staff and now you and your company are squeezed together in conditions more befitting that of a cattle truck, you ears throbbing with the deafening din of a full sound system forced to lip read or shout at each other. Oh, and to cap it all, the toilets both ladies and gents are disgusting and overflowing, simply unable to take the sheer numbers using them.

I can’t envisage any other country where such conditions would be tolerated. Yet, we in Britain take this without a bleep of protest. We have here the consequences of all the influences that shape what passes for Britain’s alcohol policy. From the public health position you’re way past your limits and you should be tucked up in bed or doing something not involving alcohol, so hell mend you. From the regulatory, ‘managerialist’ position, if you will insist on drinking we’ll curtail the time you can do it in, you’ll be thrown out unceremoniously at the end of that time and we’ll restrict the number of places that are allowed to remain open to a token few, which will make them overcrowded and unbearable unless you’re absolutely sozzeled and beyond caring anyway. Finally, the revenue position reaps a handsome dividend as all that restricted drinking time positively encourages excessive binge drinking exacerbated by loud music and overcrowding; the licensed trade and the taxman are the only people to see any benefits from this.

Culture, to a very large extent, shapes and conditions the way we drink. The effects of any drug on an individual (and alcohol is a drug) is a potent combination of three factors: the substance itself, the self, i.e. the person taking the drug and the way they are feeling as they take it and the setting (the context or environment) in which they are taking it; in other words substance, self and setting or the three ‘S’s. All three are crucially influenced and mediated by culture, and in relation to alcohol that culture in Britain for centuries has been one of fast, rapid intake, in other words binge drinking. And it is this aspect of alcohol, more than any other, which is exercising so much current concern with the high-profile visibility of excessive drinking and intoxication in our streets and what it usually brings in its wake such as fighting, personal injury, sexual harassment and a slew of other consequences.

But it is precisely the current laws and regulations around alcohol, particularly the drinking up rule, a law that should be scrapped immediately and replaced with something that is healthier, dignified and in keeping with a modern society in the early twenty-first century, allied to non-staggered closing times leading to thousands of people leaving pubs at the same time and milling about the streets with inadequate transport to get them home, which encourages bingeing. In other words, without absolving individuals of responsibility, it is the cultural norm reinforced by laws and regulations, which is the primary cause of our alcohol problems.

Our attitude to alcohol is a curious hybrid of contempt (evidenced by the way drinkers are treated over the drinking up rule and in late night bars), patronising infantilism (witness the obsession with people’s personal drinking, which, unless it is really harming that individual or others around them is of absolutely no concern to anyone else) and Puritanism, symptomatic of a more general trend in British society, of which more anon in this blog.

What is most definitely missing, as I can attest from a typical weekend night spent in Glasgow city-centre, is a consistent, rational, effective and above all, mature approach to alcohol and as long as these are missing, as a country we will persist in having what is probably the world’s most dysfunctional approach to drink.

Meikle’s Blog will be away for a short break. Back in the second week of March.