Trust me, this isn't good. If you need proof, just look at the Daily Mail, positively gushing at the ConDem government's plans to 'rebalance' the licensing laws. It was in 2005, just a few months before the 2003 Licensing Act came into force, that the Mail suddenly decided that anarchy was about to be unleashed on the streets of Britain and launched its 'Say No To 24-Hour Pubs' campaign.
We knew then, of course, that the 24-hour pub was a myth. The trade even fought back against its favourite newspaper, and forced it to drop the slogan. But now the Mail is saying it was right all along - as proved by government proposals it says will put an end to the thing that never existed in the first place.
The Mail's euphoria is like a big flashing light and siren warning us what the ConDem plans mean. And even before the headlines, there was the announcement that responsibility for licensing was switching back to the Home Office. This is a clear signal that going out for a few drinks is now seen primarily as a law and order issue, and Home Secretary Theresa May has duly charged in to tackle 'binge drinking'. It makes no difference that alcohol consumption is falling, especially among the young, and that drinking circuits are becoming better managed. May's claim that alcohol-related crime is on the rise is, well, just wrong, as the Home Office later admitted. Nor does it matter that the problems that do come from a high concentration of large pubs in town centres stem from the Tory planning policies of the mid-1990s, not the 2003 Act which, by making closing times more flexible, has actually made those problems easier to manage.
No, this is politics, and the new government wants to be seen to be doing something. So we've got a whole series of measures designed to make it harder for pubs to make a living in these already difficult times — handily summarised here. Pubs that stay open late could be required to pay a levy, and not only will the authorities be given more powers but so will the 'public'. Soon after the new laws came in there was a clarification of just who consitituted the local residents who could object to a licence, and proximity was the qualification.
Now it appears that this proximity clause will be dropped, meaning all and sundry can stick their oar in. Worse, there's the possibility that the promotion of public health could be added to the licensing objectives, as it has in Scotland.
In combination these measures could open the way for alliances of public objectors, ideologically motivated by a general dislike of pubs, drinking and people enjoying themselves. Indeed, the germ of such an organised force already exists, set up by the temperance-funded Institute of Alcohol Studies.
True, the Open All Hours? network doesn't seem to have done much yet, hampered perhaps by the proximity clause, but the reforms could give it just the opportunity it needs. The only winners will be the licensing lawyers. The 2003 Act was a half-arsed muddle and it has had only a marginal impact on the pub trade. But it represents progress towards a civilised drinking culture, and it must be defended.