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Can we call time on 1,000 years of boozing? HISTORY IS AGAINST COALITION'S ANTI-BINGE PLAN.


FOR well over a thousand years now, we've had a problem with "the vice of drunkenness".

"Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode, The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road," as the writer GK Chesterton put it.

As far back as 1362, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: "The tavern is worshipped rather than the church, gluttony and drunkenness is more abundant than tears and prayers."

The latest attempt to battle bingedrink Britain was revealed by Home Secretary Theresa May on Friday.

In an effort to divert attention from the Government's granny-bashing Budget, May proposed a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol.

The plan is to hit the culture of pre-loading - tanking up on bargain booze before hitting the pubs - and the ability of supermarkets to sell cider cheaper than water.

I am not opposed to the policy, but we need to be clear what we are up against: a culture of drinking going back centuries and the poverty underpinning it.

It begins with ale - Shakespeare's barley broth - with every medieval village containing its own ale house. Then, in the 1400s, the Dutch introduced us to beer - and the British necked it down. Visitors were soon complaining that "no kind of business is transacted in England without the intervention of pots of beer".

After beer came porter (a sweet dark beer) and then, in the 1700s, the dreaded Mother's Ruin. As Punch magazine described it, the effects of too much gin were terrifying.

"Gin! Gin! A glass of Gin! What magnificent monsters circle therein!

Ragged and stained with filth and mud, Some plague-spotted, and some with blood, Shapes of misery, shame and sin!" The gin craze swept Britain and, by the 1740s, we were drinking 19 million gallons of the spirit - some 10 times as much as today, by a population 10 times smaller.

It was, in the words of one historian: "The coke, smack and crack of the 18th century, only worse."

The artist William Hogarth caught its consequences in his 1751 print Gin Lane, which showed what the tipple had done to the London quarter of St Giles. Barely conscious, semidressed women pour gin down the throats of their infants, while desperate citizens head off to the pawnbrokers to flog their final possessions for another top-up.

In his travels around the capital, Charles Dickens visited a gin shop. In surrounding streets were "men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting and swearing".

But in the gin palace: "What a change! All is light and brilliancy." There were gas lights, mirrors and a French mahogany bar all designed to encourage binge drinking.

Then, the government's response was to increase the price of gin and promote beer drinking as a safe and patriotic alternative.

The 1830 Beer Act, which allowed any householder with a licence to sell ale and porter, led to the creation of more than 31,000 beer houses. But it didn't stop the alcohol abuse. It was said "the shortest cut out of Manchester" was by the bottle. And as the state of cities deteriorated, the Victorians hit the booze.

In 1830s Glasgow, "30,000 working men got drunk every Saturday". The communist Friedrich Engels was shocked at "the extent of intemperance among the workers of England", and, with it, "the frightful shattering of mental and physical health, the ruin of all domestic relations".

Once again, ministers intervened.

Ironically enough, the response in the 1860s was to introduce the off-licence to promote "the use of lighter drinks in comparison with the spirits which are sold now".

The Prime Minister William Gladstone wanted to move the working class from beer on to wine, which would no longer be "a rich man's luxury".

There followed the 1872 Licensing Act to restrict opening hours (turning every publican into a Conservative Party supporter) and, finally, the 1915 Defence of the Realm Act to clamp down on drinking during wartime.

According to First World War Prime Minister Lloyd George: "Drink is doing us more damage than all the German submarines put together."

Of course, there has always been a bit of a contradiction when it comes to politicians promoting sobriety - even before the recent brawl in the House of Commons Strangers' Bar.

As they were imposing Budget-day taxes on booze, chancellors of the exchequer took a tipple: Benjamin Disraeli sipped brandy; Ken Clarke a Scotch; and Geoffrey Howe a gin and tonic. Presbyterian Gordon Brown chose mineral water.

However, one of Britain's greatest prime ministers, William Pitt the Younger, was known as a three bottle man because of his thirst for port.

His biographer, Foreign Secretary William Hague (who once boasted of his own 14-pints-a-day habit), thought it "a large amount to consume, but not an unimaginable one".

Our greatest wartime Prime Minister, William Churchill, was equally keen on a sharpener.

Champagne, scotch and brandy accompanied lunch and dinner.

But he warned critics: "Always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me." Only in his mid-70s did he agree to slow down a bit - swapping Cointreau for brandy.

Churchill would no doubt have had some ripe words to say about our current Prime Minister - a one-time member of the binge-drinking Bullingdon Club of Oxford toffs raising alcohol taxes. But with heavy drinking a major cause of a 25% increase in deaths from liver disease in England in under a decade and its effects on domestic violence, action needs to be taken.

We need to get people back into the British boozer and not getting sozzled at home on supermarket deals.

The British people will never give up their taste for alcohol, but we can control its worst effects.

But it should never be forgotten economics is tied to alcohol abuse. As Charles Dickens himself had it: "Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but wretchedness and dirt are a greater."

And this Government has absolutely no answer to the problems of poverty and wretchedness which are driving modern drunkenness.


FEARS3 Lloyd George SOZZLED J Hogarth's Gin Lane SUP UPJ Britain's drinking culture
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 26, 2012
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