Go back ten years, and ask an anti-drink campaigner what he’d like to see in the coming decade. A 20% fall in average alcohol consumption would probably seem a desirable objective, and no doubt he’d outline all kinds of restrictive measures he’d like to introduce to bring that about.
However, that’s in fact what has happened, and without any of the targeted measures favoured by the neo-Prohibitionists. The only exception was the duty escalator, which applied for five years from 2008 to 2012 and ended up increasing the level of duty by about 10% more than inflation. But that didn’t dramatically transform the affordability of alcohol, and indeed the wowsers continued to whine about drink being available at “pocket-money prices” and clamoured for minimum pricing.
On the other hand, licensing hours were further relaxed to allow more pubs and bars than ever before to open into the small hours, while there has been a proliferation of off-licences at corner shops and petrol stations that they would describe as “increasing availability”. There have been no significant curbs on alcohol advertising or promotion.
Ironically, probably the most effective anti-drink measure has been something not directly aimed at alcohol at all, namely the smoking ban. Much of the trade lost to pubs has gone entirely rather than shifting to the off-trade. Over that ten-year period, total beer consumption has fallen by 25%, with the on-trade losing 37% and the off-trade 5%. It could be argued it has done more to cut drinking than smoking.
This underlines the point that trends of this kind reflect wider changes in society and the ability of governments to influence them is limited. There was no deliberate anti-drink policy in the immediate post-war years, yet between 1945 and 1950, British beer consumption fell by 17% as people found other things to spend their money on.
Throughout the 1950s, it largely flatlined, but between 1960 and 1970, it rose by 26%, and the following ten years saw a further 24% rise. Possibly the one-off cut in beer duty in the 1959 Budget was a turning point, but surely a major reason was the entrance of the “baby boom” generation into the drinking population, who were more numerous and had more money to spend than their counterparts ever had before. The 1960s may be portrayed as the era of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but for many young people they were a time of spending more time and more money in the pub.
A major reason for social changes of this kind is not the existing population changing their behaviour, but new entrants acting in a different way. It has been widely reported that the recent decline in alcohol consumption has been most marked amongst the under-30s and, despite all the talk of hipsters, craft beer and trendy bars, they don’t seem to be getting into the habit of regular drinking, whether in pubs and bars or at home, that their parents did.
One reason often given for this is the rise of mobile phones and social media, which mean you don’t have to physically meet up in the pub to keep in touch with people. However, it may well be the case that it’s also an unintended consequence of another government policy that wasn’t specifically intended to reduce drinking as such, namely making it much more difficult for under-18s to buy alcohol, and at the same time making it much more of a ballache for anyone under 25. The attitudes and behaviours you learn in early adulthood will stay with you for the rest of your life.
But the lesson to governments is that, while it is possible to spot social trends and slightly help them along, if you try to stand in their way you are likely to end up suffering the fate of King Canute unless you are prepared to wield a very big stick.