“It will turn the centres of our cities into no-go zones”, the Daily Mail fumed when 24 hour licensing was introduced into the UK a couple of years ago. Ridiculous we all said. It will usher in an era of Mediterranean style drinking in the UK, in which Doc-footed shaven-headed lager louts will play dominoes for hours at outdoor tables nursing a grappa or two while their rottweilers gambol with the children…

Guess what? The Daily Mail was right. Well sort of. According to a survey taken at London’s St Thomas’s hospital, right smack bang in the middle of club and pub land, overnight Casualty admissions related to alcohol have soared from 75 to 250 per month since the licensing was introduced.

Though the sample is small and a bit informal, it dovetails with the general observation that extended drinking hours, if it hasn’t made things worse, has done nothing to curb the distinctly British way of having a good time.

That involves getting bladdered on lager as quickly as possible at the start of the night in order for the euphoric high to have dissipated by the time you get out on the street, replaced by a low mean mood which involves having a kebab and then putting someone through the shop’s front window.

Britain is obsessed by the problem of binge drinking — as well they should be because her city centres are violent and threatening beyond anything else Europe has to offer. Minsk after a bad batch of tractor fuel moonshine has nothing on Leeds or Soho of a Friday night.

Why Britain? Social historians argue that northern and southern European drinking habits diverged based around the division between wine (storable) and beer (pre-refrigeration not — the whole batch has to be drunk straight up). Australia’s drinking culture changed because Australia changed — southern European migration formed a disproportionately large part of our modern culture.

Necessary but not sufficient. But Germans and Scandinavians get bladdered, yet they are much less likely to get violent and more likely to sit in the gutter and question the meaning of life in a godless universe.

The chaser is that Britain of all these countries is by far the most socially atomised, individualistic, and isolated of all Europe. Twenty-five years of Blatcherism has created a war of all against all in a context in which class mobility has lessened. Saturday night is when a la Homer Simpson you release your anger at an appropriate time.

New Labour’s response — CCTVs everywhere — increases the violence because people no longer feel the vestigial duty to obey internalised rules. Control has become external — and you’re too pissed to think of the consequences.

Which just goes to show that permissive coercion — give with one hand take double back freedom-wise — doesn’t work. Take marijuana use for example. Since possession was reclassified as a lesser offence marijuana use has gone down in the UK. The response? Reclassify it as more serious offence again. Why? To do something about marijuana use.

When your only tool is a baton, every problem looks like a head…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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