Scotland has a distinctively different and more urban pub landscape than England and Wales. It doesn’t really have the characteristic village and country pubs that are commonplace south of the Border. For many people, the archetypal English pub is a thatched and half-timbered rural inn, whereas in Scotland it’s more likely to be a wood-and-mirrors city gin palace or a grim stand-up bar in the ground floor of a tenement block.
I can think of numerous pubs in England and Wales that it would be very hard to see surviving a limit cut, but there are proportionately fewer in Scotland. Having said that, outside the Central Belt it is a far-flung and sparsely-populated country, and a lot of drink-driving of both legal and illegal varieties takes place. Trade is unlikely to suddenly fall off a cliff, but outside the big cities there’s likely to be a slow but steady fall-off.
Many of those who pontificate on this subject seem to do so from inside a London (or Edinburgh) bubble and fail to appreciate that, across large swathes of the country, there are plenty of pubs where most, if not practically all, the customers travel by car. There must be hundreds of thousands of people who scarcely ever visit a pub unless they have driven there themselves. The politically correct may be reluctant to admit it, but very often that is the reality of the pub trade.
This is an interesting perspective on the issue from New Zealand, where a similar limit reduction has recently been implemented. The author suggests that those modelling the effects have significantly underestimated the extent to which it is likely to change behaviour. If you’re going out for a meal, it probably won’t put you off, but if you’re just calling in for a drink and a chat, you may very well conclude that if you can only have one pint rather than two, it isn’t really worth bothering at all.
The effects may well be like those of the smoking ban – a slow erosion of the customer base and camaraderie of pubs as people one by one drop out from the group and their friends increasingly follow suit. And, just like the smoker exiled to a draughty outside shelter, the drinker nursing his solitary pint where for twenty or thirty years he legally enjoyed a couple is going to feel that his pubgoing experience is forever diminished. People may put up with it – indeed a higher proportion of smokers than non-smokers still visit pubs – but they will never become entirely reconciled to it and it will create an abiding legacy of bitterness.
The point is often made that, following cuts in traffic policing, the chances of getting caught are very small. There’s undoubtedly much truth in this, but if people were willing to take the chance surely they would have been doing so already with the higher limit. The vast majority of the pub customers who currently believe they are keeping within the 80mg limit will adjust their behaviour to keep within 50mg, as they fundamentally wish to abide by the law and also don’t want to be seen breaking it by others. And, even if the chances of being stopped are negligible, the potential consequences are severe and in some cases could result in loss of livelihood and home and marital breakdown. Plus police attending accidents will now routinely breathalyse all drivers involved, even if obviously not at fault, so you can end up being tested due to circumstances entirely beyond your control. And no licensee should feel happy to be depending on customers who are taking a chance on breaking the law.
The New Zealand article also makes the point that those drivers who want to make sure they don’t fall foul of the law tend to keep well below the limit rather than possibly nudging up against it. With a lower limit, they will do the same. I also get the impression that New Zealand, and Australia, are much more willing to publicise the potential effect on blood-alcohol levels of various types and quantities of drinks, while in this country we continue to parrot the head-in-sand mantra of “don’t touch a drop” which doesn’t reflect the reality of real-world behaviour and also fails to take account of the morning-after issue.