Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Temperance, Temperance


My grandfather worked nearly all his life in Weirs on the Clyde, as a foreman. He was a lifelong socialist, atheist and teetotaller. who lived into his nineties In his day, avoiding alcohol was part of a moral commitment to social improvement. The working classes could never be wholly free, you see, until they were liberated from the drug that rendered them docile and easily exploited; that robbed them of their initiative, strength and even humanity.
Or so he believed. Mind you, Pop did partake of the occasional glass of Crabbie’s Green Ginger Wine on the grounds that it wasn’t actually alcoholic - though of course it was.
Perhaps we could do with a bit of that today - the temperance I mean, not the Crabbies. For Scotland seems to be descending into alcoholic oblivion. Yesterday’s Herald reported that forty people a week drank themselves to death last year in Scotland. Such fatalities have increased by a astaggering 130% in a decade. It was only the latest in a stream of health statistics confirming the damage we are doing to ourselves. According to NHS Scotland last week, eight out of every ten admissions to accident and emergency bed at weekends are now a result of alcohol.
These bald figures disguise the huge psychological cost of the bevy culture, which destroys relationships, careers, self-respect and is a major cause of unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. We are drinking more, harder, younger and with a kind of abandon that has turned our city centres into hedonistic war zones. There’s even talk of setting up field hospitals in city centres to deal with the casualties
Yes, I’m sorry for this seasonal downer. The last thing you want as you lay in the booze for Christmas is a lecture on the demon drink. But it wouldn’t do any harm for a lot of us to notice just how we areusing this potent drug. Many will not be sober until 2006.
You probably haven’t noticed how much you drink; I certainly hadn’t until I started logging it. The drinks industry has found all sorts of clever mechanisms to disguise it from us. The strength of drink has increased even as the price has dropped. I bought a litre of high quality Scotch whisky in Tescos yesterday for less than #12. Thirty years ago, that would have cost - in today’s money - over #40.
Check the labels and you’ll find that beer and cider is often now 5% proof when it would have been 3% ten years ago, and wine has also increased in strength. Measures have increased too, with a glass of pub wine often containing 250 ml - a that’s a third of a bottle. Practically in one gulp.
Then of course, there are the iniquitous and ubiquitous ‘alcopops’ and their descendants. They’re now called WKD or Breezer, but they are the same things - sweet drinks laced with large quantities of proof spirits. Incredibly cheap to produce and promoted with huge advertising budgets. When these were first introduced fifteen years ago, they were hugely controversial. It looked like a cynical attempt to wean preteens onto alcohol by eliminating the most important difference between soft drinks and alcoholic ones - the taste. Fizzy and sickly, and marketed like sweets, these drinks have done exactly what critics said they would do: made young people drink more, younger.
Now, of course, drinking is part of growing up. I had my first drink in a bar when I was fifteen - and that wasn’t at all unusual. I quite often got drunk as well. However, there were limits. I tended not to drink much during the week because it was too expensive and I rarely drank spirits. Not today. Young people are drinking more and stronger. Supermarkets have a huge responsibility here. You can buy three litres of strong, 5% cider for about three pounds. That is a hell of a cheap way to to get out of your head
There is nothing new about heavy drinking in Scotland, of course - except perhaps that more women are now drinking to excess than in previous generations. The only real difference today is that the agencies which fought against it - the Kirk, the socialist organisations and the state - have lost the will or the capacity to combat it.
Temperance: the very phrase seems redolent of pews and musty Bibles. Of tight-lipped moral killjoys and hectoring self-righteous prigs. After forty years of individualism, of pushing out the bounds of personal freedom, the idea that we should now start condemning people for what they do to their own bodies is anathema.
But how else do you combat this extraordinary social disease? It wasn’t just the Kirk that fought against the bottle, so did the Left. The great socialist politicians, like Keir Hardie, John Maxton, John McLean, were all teetotallers. You can see an echo of this tradition today in the shape of Tommy Sheridan, the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party who doesn’t drink.
But the Left has all but ceased to exist, and workers organisations have disintegrated leaving a moral vacuum filled by TV, footie and booze. And the tragedy, as the Herald figures, confirmed, is that the real victims continue to be the less well off.
The state has tried to deal with the burgeoning booze culture by trying to civilise it. We can’t tell people how to live their lives anymore, but we can encourage them to be more responsible - to “treat alcohol with respect” as the current Scottish Executive manta puts it, with unintended irony. The phrase almost implies the bottle itself is somehow worthy of respect.
The Scottish Executive, in its new legislation, has sensibly moved against the most egregious aspects of the drink culture - the happy hours and other promotions. It has staggered licensing hours so that there is no longer a mad dash to consume as much as possible before closing time. It sought to educate young people with some rather good advertising campaigns, which were of course attacked in the press as a waste of public money.
But compared with the commercial firepower of the drinks industry they were, well, relieving themselves into the wind. Of course prohibition would be folly, as it was in America. Most people do use alcohol responsibly. But the social and personal cost of booze is becoming intolerable, and something will have to be done; there is a cost and it has to be paid.
The time has come to restore the price of drink to something like the levels in the fifties and sixties. Scandinavian countries never allowed drink to become cheap - and in Norway it costs six pounds for a gin and tonic.
It’s a pretty rough and ready answer, and moral responsibility would bepreferable. But we don’t do moralising any more, so it looks as if swingeing increases in alcohol duty are the only way to bring the party to an end. And I suspect Gordon Brown - biographer of Maxton and other temperance socialists - will have no qualms about taking the battle against the bottle into Number Ten.
Until then, we are drinking in the last chance saloon. Cheers - and a happy Christmas.

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