Britannia in an apron
International visitors to this site may not be aware of this, but the last week has seen a flurry of interest in the UK concerning alcohol consumption levels among the ‘middle classes’. Britain’s ever-partisan and proprietorially manipulated press corps attempted to spin the story to fit their ongoing campaign against the so-called ‘nanny state’, claiming that the government was ‘targeting middle class wine drinkers’. I biked down to a dingy TV studio in middle-class Tunbridge Wells to take part in a ludicrously abbreviated item on BBC News 24 concerning this story. As usual, the ‘debate’ was over before it began, and was made even more nonsensical by the fact that one of the presenters (neither of whom I could actually see) was labouring under the misapprehension that the government was trying to tell women drinkers that they should limit themselves to five units (or glasses of wine) a week.
The data on which this story was based showed clearly that the worst levels of alcohol abuse (defined as ‘harmful drinking’, meaning over 50 units of alcohol a week for men and over 35 units of alcohol a week for women) were found in the most socially deprived areas. The lowest percentage of the population (nationally, the average is 3-9%) found drinking at this level occurs in Winchester, which is as middle-class as you can get.
By contrast, the less acute category of ‘hazardous drinking’ (22 to 50 units per week for men and 15 to 35 units per week for men) was at its worst in prosperous middle-class towns in southern Britain, such as Runnymede (where 26% of the population drink to this level) or Guildford (25%). The lowest percentage of the population drinking at this level was in Slough (for the perfectly obvious reason, though no one seemed to point this out, that Slough has a high percentage of Muslim residents who are likely to be total abstainers).
The first point to make is that any government will be most concerned about those drinking to harmful levels. These are the drinkers who will cost the nation most in terms of lost production, health costs and social costs. They are more likely to live in Liverpool than Winchester.
Is the government wrong, though, if it attempts to moderate the drinking habits of those drinking hazardously, even though they include a quarter of the population of Runymede or Guildford? Of course not. These are men who drink between 3 and 7 glasses of wine a day, or women who drink between 2 and 5 glasses of wine a day. And that’s every day, without a break. Assuming most ease up every now and again, in order to maintain this average they will have to over-indulge on a regular basis. As a professional drinker, I would say that this is indeed too much. I wouldn’t like to have to drink even three glasses of wine every day, without a break, or to have to compensate for a day on which I only drank one glass with five the next night. Most will be drinking an average of five every night.
Drink less but better: I don’t know anyone who writes professionally about wine who has any mission statement other than this. Buy more interesting wine, and drink less of it. Take a day off every now and again. Three or four glasses of wine with dinner over the course of an occasional evening won’t do any harm, but one to two glasses seems to me quite enough for normal daily consumption.
Anyone who lives in Britain knows well that alcohol is abused here. We’re all familiar with the scent of urine in shop doorways, and the pools of vomit on pavements. We all hate taking the last train home. We all avoid once-tranquil town centres on Friday and Saturday nights. I can think of no other European country where it is quite so commonplace to see men and women walking down the street during the afternoon or early evening clutching talismanic cans of lager or cider. Drunkenness remains not only acceptable in Britain, but for many, a badge of herd pride and the definition of ‘a night out’ or ‘a good time’. Those living in cities such as Barcelona, Dublin or Prague favoured by hard-drinking Britons for weekend excursions will have witnessed the horror at first hand.
About alcohol, we are childish. When citizens behave childishly, the state must nanny those citizens. Not to do so would be a dereliction of duty. I only wish the state was a more efficient nanny. (And that our newspapers had different owners.)
A postscript: having written this post during the morning of 20.10.07, my family and I travelled to see a friend in South London (Hither Green, for connoisseurs) during the afternoon. We took the train home there and back. On the return journey, a girl and a boy were ambling about the carriage (the boy was swinging from the luggage racks), between Hither Green and Orpington; their shaven-headed father was busy with mobile phone calls. The girl, attracted by our children, came over to talk to us; she was about 8. She was friendly and bright. She told us her father had thirteen children altogether, though we sensed the family was not a unitary one; she and her brother were the youngest. We asked her where she’d been. They’d been up to London to see an elder brother, she said, who was 13. He was in alcohol re-hab.