In recent years I’ve seen a few slightly exasperated comments from those opposing anti-drink proposals that “it’s claimed that this will bring about a reduction in alcohol consumption of X % - well we’ve already had more than that in the past five years without it!” On the face of it, such arguments might seem to undermine the case for stricter curbs, but in reality declining consumption makes them more likely. This is a point that my friend Cooking Lager has occasionally made in the comments here when he cares to take off his baseball cap.
While politicians are allegedly guided by principle, they always have to take into account the electoral consequences of any proposed policy. As Bismarck once said, “politics is the art of the possible”. Attacking any activity pursued by the majority of the population is unlikely to prove popular, whereas identifying minority “out-groups” who need to be clamped down on may well prove a winner at the ballot box. In the words of the great H. L. Mencken, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Two of the last Labour government’s best-known bans, those on handguns and hunting with dogs, got through Parliament comfortably because they only affected a relatively small minority of the population. Even there the hunting ban brought half a million people on to the streets of London to protest. And we still have gun crime, and we still (it would seem) have widespread foxhunting.
When over half of all adults were smokers, nothing very significant was done to restrict smoking, apart from a symbolic ban on TV advertising which in practice made little or no difference to consumption. Looking back, it’s salutary to remember that, seventeen years ago, tobacco advertising and sports sponsorship remained legal and commonplace, there was no ban on smoking in pubs and other indoor public places, nor on the display of cigarette packets behind supermarket counters. By the time of the advertising ban, smoking prevalence had dropped below 30%, and when the indoor ban came in it was little more than 20%. Furthermore, the constant barrage of official anti-smoking messages had produced a sense of guilt and self-loathing amongst many smokers which led them to feel that such measures might be for their own good. However, in the face of such severe curbs, the rate of decline has now effectively stalled, suggesting that political grandstanding rather than bringing about genuine health improvements might be the key motivation.
In reality, while the general tone of official rhetoric and media comment has become ever more negative, nothing very major has been done to curb the availability of alcohol or significantly increase its price. The duty escalator and high strength beer duty were just tinkering at the edges, and indeed we now have a more liberal licensing regime than at any time since before the First World War. There haven’t been any meaningful restrictions on advertising and publicity at all, which you might have thought would be an easy target – possibly because legislators know that it would scarcely affect total consumption. Ironically, the most effective anti-alcohol measure, at least in terms of on-trade drinking, has been one ostensibly aimed at an entirely different target. But things may well start to change in future.
The most recent government survey showed that less than half of 18-24 year olds had had an alcoholic drink in the past week. As they grow older and this trend spreads through the population, it’s very likely that within the coming decades drinking will become a minority activity, as smoking did. Then the time will be ripe for bringing in more severe restrictions. It’s hard to legislate against something Joe Public does, but much easier if it is done by those irresponsible “other people”. But, as we have seen with smoking, the net result may well be to make people identify themselves much more clearly as “drinkers” and the natural rate of decline may be curbed or even reversed.