Melanie Phillips

1 January 2007

Britain's bleary hangover

Published in: Daily Mail

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Sore head? Well, this is after all the day when the nation customarily wakes up with a bit of a hangover. Seeing in the new year by carousing into the small hours is a seasonal ritual. Surely only a kill-joy would object?

The problem is, though, that getting legless is not merely confined to the festive season and the singing of Auld Lang Syne. It is unfortunately an all-year-round, British national pastime.

This obvious but much-denied truth has now been blurted out by the Labour Party chairman Hazel Blears. In the course of an interview with a Sunday newspaper, she acknowledged that the British 'enjoyed getting drunk'. The dream of turning Britain into continental-style 'cafe society' -- where people generally drink only as an accompaniment to meals -- was therefore probably an illusion, she said, since the 'Anglo-Saxon mentality' meant people were unable to confine themselves to a glass of wine.

Now she tells us! Ms Blears, let us not forget, was formerly a Home Office minister charged with stopping binge-drinking. But the policy she implemented was based on the very assumption which she has now confessed is a fantasy. That policy, in combination with unregulated commercial irresponsibility, has inflated the scourge of binge-drinking into a national epidemic, responsible for a vast swathe of personal and social destruction.

Yet Ms Blears, one of the architects of this disaster, is still distinctly coy about the scale of what she and her fellow ministers have so cavalierly unleashed -- defending the policy, expressing anxiety merely about people getting drink-related illnesses at earlier ages and recommending 'more education' as a solution.

This sounds horribly like the Government's policy on such social ills as drug abuse or teenage pregnancy: make drugs or under-age sex more available or socially acceptable, and then set up an industry to 'educate' children about the consequences. Surely it's ministers who need to be educated about the destructive impact of their ignorant and irresponsible ideas?

As Ms Blears has now belatedly acknowledged, Britain has a long tradition of drunkenness, going back to the days when ancient Britons bedecked themselves in woad and knocked back the mead before going in for a spot of rape and pillage.

In the licentious 18th century, the country descended into a Hogarthian, gin-soaked stupor before the Victorians, through the stern application of religion and moral exhortation, sobered the country up. Order was restored along with self-restraint, and so things largely remained until the arrival of the values free-for-all of the past three decades or so.

When the Blairites came to power, with their trademark tendency to meddle and muddle, they combined their instinct to address social ills such as alcohol abuse with their equally strong instinct to do precisely the wrong thing.

Characteristically refusing to face reality, they chose instead to look to Europe -- that bolt-hole for lazy leftists who want to avoid facing up to hard decisions -- and decided absurdly that European cafe society could be imported into Britain at the stroke of a legislator's pen.

Since pleasant and civilised European cafes stayed open until the small hours with no drunken customers staggering off into the night, they decided that if British pubs also stayed open until the small hours, the British would promptly stop drinking to excess.

In vain did this newspaper and many other critics, including judges, doctors and churchmen, point out that giving people more opportunity to drink would merely mean that more people would drink even more. This was always obvious given British drinking habits, and particularly the distressing fashion among the young for getting 'totally wasted' as a principal means of entertainment.

What was needed was not a relaxation of the drinking laws but a tightening, not least because of the hugely increased availability of alcohol -- and a corresponding increase in social acceptability -- through the cynical marketing of alcopops, which has made vodka and other spirits as accessible and attractive to the young as lemonade.

However, when there were no signs of rampaging mobs after the licensing laws were relaxed, ministers crowed about the 'success' of their policy and attacked the 'scaremongers' who had predicted serious consequences. Those ministers were wrong. The consequences -- as Ms Blears has now admitted -- have been appalling.

People like Arthur Claye know this from painful personal experience. Desperate to warn the public of the dangers of young people drinking to excess, Mr Claye released harrowing pictures of his daughter, 26 year-old Elisabeth, lying comatose under an oxygen mask in Newcastle General Hospital where she was taken unconscious after a drunken night out.

Like many alcoholics Ms Claye, who sometimes needs a slug of vodka as early as 9am, promptly denied she had a problem -- even though she was still drinking -- and blamed her father for his 'betrayal'. 'I'm a social drinker, like other normal people,' she claimed.

But normal people are now drinking to excess as a matter of course. Certainly, as Ms Claye claimed about herself, an increasing number may be particularly vulnerable because of broken home lives. But the real driver of this problem is the hugely increased availability and social acceptability of alcohol. And the toll is simply appalling.

Since Labour came to power in 1997, the number of patients treated for alcohol-related conditions in Accident and Emergency wards has doubled, while the number of children and teenagers receiving treatment has increased by a third. Some under-18s have downed more than a bottle of vodka in a single drinking session. As doctors have said, such figures are merely the 'tip of the iceberg', since they do not even include people treated for injuries sustained in incidents such as drunken fights or drink-driving.

On any weekend evening in Accident and Emergency units around the country, the bulk of casualties being treated are the result of drink related incidents. Official statistics have revealed that 148,477 such patients were treated in our hard-pressed A&E wards in the past year compared with 75,863 in 1997.

The problem of binge-drinking goes across class, age and gender. On university campuses, drinking staggering amounts of alcohol is not only acceptable but expected. Over the past decade, young women have doubled the amount they drink.

The charity Alcohol Concern has said the number of over-65s drinking to excess is soaring. Although the Government claimed that children buying alcohol would face onthe-spot fines, while the staff who served them would incur even tougher penalties, almost one in four bars or shops has been found to sell alcohol to under-age people.

The British Association for Emergency Medicine has found an increase in alcoholrelated injuries treated in hospital among all age groups since the change in the drinking laws.

Yet apart from yesterday's limited verbal foray by Ms Blears into the real world, the Government still seeks to deny that its policy has been an abject -- and indeed, lethal -- failure. Fatuously, the Health Department insists that the rise of new facilities such as walk-in centres could explain the growth in treatment for drink-related injuries.

So the problem is caused neither by alcohol nor by the policy which has promoted its intake, but instead by the clinics treating its effects! Just what have these Health Department officials been drinking?

Whether in dealing with illegal drugs, gambling, under-age sex or alcohol, Labour policy has been to take the brakes off. The result is an epidemic of social mayhem.

Rather more than occasional shafts of ministerial light will be needed if this onslaught of social damage and personal misery -- the product of official cynicism and folly -- is ever to be stemmed.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
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Contact Melanie