Chris Maclean: Alcohol abuse, Mrs Thatcher and the Archbishop

By Chris Maclean

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Pub association chief Association chief executive Archbishop of canterbury Beer Rob hayward

I see battle lines have been drawn between Rob Hayward, British Beer and Pub Association chief executive, and, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of...

I see battle lines have been drawn between Rob Hayward, British Beer and Pub Association chief executive, and, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury over what the Archbishop refers to as "a culture of alcohol abuse". This is a battle muddied by statistics. Both sides can make claims and counter-claims but truth is an elusive element in this debate.

I think most people accept there are serious issues involving alcohol, like drunkenness, anti-social behaviour, violence and crime. I would take it further and suggest that these issues are comparatively new. Twenty years ago I doubt I would see as many broken bottles in the streets, as many broken shop windows, as many ambulances called to deal with people during weekend evenings or as many fights. The most visible 'hook' on which to hang the blame, given most of these problems involve drunkenness, is the 2003 Licensing Act.

But I also see a general change in people's behaviour. I like to blame it all on Mrs Thatcher. It was she who pioneered the release of entrepreneurial zeal and who famously said "there is no such thing as society". Okay, it may be a little simplistic but that era of the eighties was dramatically dominated by the hedonistic excesses of a generation of young people. Just remind yourself of places like Ibiza and Ayia Napa and think of the whole era of yuppies and Essex man and the emergence of the white van man culture. In the past people were embarrassed to be seen drunk. Suddenly, for some, it became the objective.

But beer consumption, nationally, is considerably down. People have never drunk so little. What happened? It would seem to me the pattern now is for people to drink out less often but to do it with greater intensity.

I can also see, among the various forces that determine how we behave in our trade, a certain inevitability in what is occurring. Pubcos push up rents. Opportunities need to be capitalised on. We need to sell and sell well. For some outlets selling beer cheap may encourage selling well. For others providing entertainment may be the route. We are rewarded if we succeed in selling and penalised if we don't.

But also realise there are no incentives for us to sell less. Or for people to consume less. Or for pubs to do anything other than develop sales.

Most tragically it is the small pubs, the village and urban pubs that potter along providing their communities with the involvement they are so good at, who are most likely to suffer and close in this economic climate. They often haven't the competitive edge necessary. But I'd like to think that those pubs are often where you'll find the best examples of drinking at its best ~ regular, long and slow.

So I think the Archbishop has a valid point. I think there is some evidence of a "culture of alcohol abuse" and I think we must make sure our house is in order. I think we need to accept we make some contribution to it ~ and that there are other factors too.

But I also fervently believe that blanket denial will not make this issue go away.

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