Theodore Dalrymple, a notoriously pessimistic commentator on Britain's social ills, has his say on British drinking culture, and the Government's proposals to introduce 24-hour licensing, in the Telegraph:
"That the British are now a nation of drunken brutes, justly despised throughout the world wherever they congregate in any numbers, is so obvious a fact that it should require no repetition. A brief visit to the centre of any British town or city on a Saturday night - or indeed, almost any night - will confirm it for those who are still in doubt. There they will see scenes of charmless vulgarity, in which thousands of scantily clad, lumpen sluts scream drunkenly, and men vomit proudly in the gutters.
The Government, whose solution to any social problem is to make it worse, now proposes that the British, having conclusively proved that they cannot (or rather, will not) control themselves, should be granted even more licence to make a public nuisance of themselves whenever they feel like it, which is often. They will henceforth be able to drink in pubs and bars at all times of the day and night, 24 hours a day, instead of just most of the day and night. If there were shares in debauchery, I'd buy them now.
Of course, the Government claims to believe that, by allowing drinking establishments to open 24 hours a day, it will reduce public drunkenness. If it really believes this, it is a terrible indictment of the British nation: that it can allow itself to be led by such a collection of hopeless fools. As to the suggestion that we might develop here the kind of civilised Mediterranean café culture if only drinking outlets were open long enough, you might as well preach the comforts of the igloo and the tastiness of whale blubber to the Masai of Kenya."
Dalrymple only really exaggerates when he says that we are a nation of drunken brutes.
We are a nation of drunks, true, and always have been, but the brutes are a minority group colloquially known, of course, as ‘townies’. These are generally single, unskilled or semi-skilled workers aged 18-30: the males dressed smartly in black trousers and short-sleeve shirts (never jackets – no matter how cold the weather), hair cropped and gelled; the females in micro-skirts and stilettos. They go about in gangs of ‘mates’.
A townie night invariably consists of a pub crawl in which as much cheap (well, as cheap as you can get it these days, which isn't very) lager is consumed as possible, then a nightclub in which more lager and alcopops are consumed, then a takeaway kebab on the street, then a vomit, and perhaps a bit of ‘aggro’ in the taxi queue.
The brutes are a minority, but a large enough one to make virtually any town centre in Britain appear thoroughly inhospitable to anyone else on any Friday or Saturday night. Therein lies the problem: the majority of people don’t feel safe venturing out to a town-centre restaurant, theatre or cinema when the streets are full of drunken, shouting, puking townies staggering between pubs; and the police are tied up dealing with the continual fist-fights and vandalism.
The theory behind the proposals to introduce 24-hour drinking is that townie culture is caused by the strict licensing laws in Britain. Whereas on the continent people can sit at a waiter-served table sipping a few glasses of wine for hours, Britain’s 11pm pub watershed has produced a culture of 'necking it', where pints are downed as quickly as possible, and done so while standing up.
The 'rounds' culture also doesn’t help: rather than splitting a bill, townie social etiquette demands that everyone in a group must buy an individual drink for all of its members – and no matter how large the group, everyone must 'get a round in'.
So the theory is that if you make drinking laws like the continent’s, you’ll make the British drink like the continentals. The other advantage would be that you’d eliminate the two flashpoint times: 11.05pm – when the pubs are emptying, and 2am, when the clubs are doing the same – resulting in masses of drunken people all pouring into the street at the same time and literally fighting over the available taxis and takeaway queues.
That’s the theory, but I can’t help but share some of Dalrymple’s pessimism. After all, the same townies regularly disgrace the nation on their infamous 18-30 holidays to Spain and the Balearic islands – where they can enjoy all the freedoms of liberal continental licensing laws.
Changing the licensing laws might actually help, but will only make a difference if there are simultaneous attempt to change the culture. It's difficult to think of practical measures to achieve this, but you could try:
1. banning Happy Hours and cheap cocktail offers at weekends
2. refusing planning permission for any more giant city-centre ‘super-pubs’.
3. staggering weekend pub closing times to eliminate the 11.05 brawl
4. forcing city-centre bars to have significant seating areas
5. limiting the number of drinks you can buy at one visit to the bar on weekend nights
6. banning all drinks except warm, gut-rotting real ale, soup-consistency stout and vintage port.
Making people feel a sense of social responsibility and accountablity for their actions is even more desirable - but even harder to manage. It tends to happen naturally when townies grow up, which is why their average age is about 22.