Last week Britain’s Conservative Party was the toast of civil
libertarians for its key role in thwarting the Blair governments plans
to extend detention without trial. This week, however, they were back
to their old tricks,
attempting (unsuccessfully) to derail the government’s legislation to
liberalise drinking hours. From next week, pubs in England and Wales
will be able to apply for longer opening hours, with the possibility of
24-hour licenses.

Tory posturing on this issue is a little odd, because temperance in
Britain has always been a left-wing cause, while the Conservative Party
was often seen as the tool of the brewing industry. One of its greatest
election victories, under Disraeli in 1874, was interpreted as a
backlash against the Liberals’ restrictive licensing policy.

Apart from the obvious libertarian argument, that people should be
allowed to buy and sell alcohol whenever they choose, there are two
points to make about this. Firstly, restricted drinking hours may
reduce total alcohol consumption, but they force it into more unhealthy
forms: there is more binge drinking as people hurry to beat closing
time. Older readers may remember the notorious “six o’clock swill” in
Victoria, but no-one would argue for a return to it.

Secondly, the drinking culture in Britain is already so toxic that it
is hard to imagine how it could get worse: reform is surely worth a
try. The argument that “things are really bad so we mustn’t change”
doesn’t have a lot going for it. Indeed, it is similar to the argument
used here by the left against Telstra privatisation, showing that
neither side has a monopoly on policy irrationality.