The real age drinking starts

By Tim Martin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Pubs Drinking culture Minister

Martin: calls for responsible drinking
Martin: calls for responsible drinking
Our nation's pubs are the instruments of 'imperial hypocrisy', argues JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin.

Our nation's pubs are the instruments of 'imperial hypocrisy', argues the JD Wetherspoon founder.

You have my utterly deniable blessing, says the head of MI5 to George Smiley, as he refuses public support for his mission in a John le Carré spy epic.

He adds apologetically, "Sorry you've become an instrument of the imperial hypocrisy."

Yet the imperial government hypocrisy in its attitudes and policies to pubs and drinking dwarfs anything le Carré dreamt up.

For example, in a conversation with Hazel Blears MP, one of a blur of different ministers responsible for licensing in the past decade, I asked her at what age she first drank in pubs. She replied, proudly I thought, "fourteen".

Similarly at a "round table" on binge drinking at the Guardian newspaper last year, all the participants agreed that they started using pubs before 18, at an average age of about 15, with the "winner" being the Government minister at 13, beating Mrs Blears by a narrow margin.

Furthermore, the imperial hypocrisy does not end there. All the participants with teenage children admitted, in turn, that they allowed their children to use pubs from 15 or 16, and preferred, as common sense would dictate, the relatively supervised atmosphere of pubs, combined with the mixed age groups found in pubs, to the unpredictable and relatively unsupervised teenage party circuit.

In a way, the admissions of ministers in this respect just reflect the truth, that rare commodity: who has ever met anyone who first drank in a pub at the age of 18, and who knows parents today who insist on their children staying out of pubs until the age of 18? Such people may exist, but I have never met them, nor have I met anyone else who has.

In this area at least, the experience of Government ministers and anti-alcohol campaigners is in line with the rest of us.

The problem of binge-drinking

However, heavy drinking combined with uncontrolled and intimidating behaviour (my attempt at a sensible definition of binge drinking rather than the more extreme one of one and a half pints of beer and a bag of crisps per night) is a real problem, of course.

It's bad for society and bad for pubs. In our best pubs, people certainly like a drink, often associated with a meal these days, but there's an unwritten contract whereby unruly behaviour is kept in check, out of respect for the licensee and fellow customers.

When you consider that the perception of an increase in binge drinking has coincided almost precisely with a decline in pub drinking and an increase in off-sales, you would think the Government would favour pub drinking as a matter of good sense.

In fact, their policies have gone in precisely the opposite direction, and are centred on a massive "crackdown" on pubs. The centrepiece of Government policy is "entrapment", whereby the police recruit teenagers in schools and pay them to go into pubs supervised by the police, in order to try and get served.

Under the "three strikes and you're out" rule, which applied until recently, your licence was up for review if this "entrapment" was "successful" on three occasions.

Many pubs are closing anyway, often through the side effects of policies such as entrapment, which result in constant and intrusive ID checking of those under 25 or so, and great extra cost and emotional strain for licensees.

Even so, the Government was not satisfied with police efforts to entrap licensees, and has increased the intensity of scrutiny from this month, by making it "two strikes and you're out".

When you analyse Government policy with a cold towel wrapped around your head, it's quite stunning how irrational and stupid it is.

Promote responsible drinking

Government ministers, like policemen, judges and everyone else used pubs before 18; they know and permit their children to use pubs before 18 like the rest of us, because they generally prefer the supervised environment, yet their entire policy is based on persecuting pubs for what they themselves did, and for what they condone today on a personal level.

Pubs are clearly the new instrument of imperial hypocrisy. In the meantime, the issue of binge drinking, primarily a cultural issue, combined with the side effects of less pub use and increasing off sales, goes unchecked.

As with drink driving, the message needs to be put across that drinking combined with some forms of behaviour is unacceptable and undesirable for everyone concerned.

We need to get back to the situation of teenagers drinking with their parents and grandparents, which I first did along with many others, at the age of about 15, rather than in the teenage ghettos created by parties and the crackdown on pubs.

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