Last week was supposedly the most depressing period of the year.
The third Monday after Christmas, with its perfect storm of broken resolutions, Christmas credit card statements on the doormat and about five years of winter left to go, is supposedly ‘Blue Monday’, the bleakest day in the calendar.
So it was good of JD Wetherspoon (JDW) to try to take our minds off it by opening a pub on a motorway the following day.Just like being hit by a bus can take your mind off that toothache that’s been bothering you, JDW’s Black Tuesday made me instantly forget about my cumulative woes.
In case you missed it — for example, if you were on the moon or you live in some moorland stockade with no access to radio, TV, internet or newsprint — the pub company thought it would be a good idea to open a new branch, the Hope & Champion, at a service station just off junction two of the M40 near Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. The pub will be serving alcohol from 9am, and will be open seven days a week from 4am to 1am.
This has led to the kind of debate that usually has me manning the barricades on behalf of our right to drink. No one is forcing drivers to drink. The pub serves meals and soft drinks. Passengers can have a drink even if the driver doesn’t. We are all in possession of free will. Supermarkets at some motorway services already sell alcohol, and anyway, as the crow flies there is already a pub near that junction that is actually closer to the motorway, and no one has a problem with that.
This pub opening does not actually change how easy it is for a driver to drink alcohol if they really want to.
On the other side of the fence, we have people claiming that it is putting temptation in our way, that for all the arguments, it’s simply not a good idea. Those who think the worst of human nature fear we won’t be able to prevent ourselves necking 10 pints of lager before getting back behind the wheel.
This is one of those arguments where, whatever your position, it’s unlikely anyone is going to change it for you by the force of their views. That’s because both sides make points that are right.
PR own goal
So where does the balance of opinion sit? Well, according to an RAC survey, only 12% of the public think it’s a good idea to have a pub on a motorway service station, while two thirds are strongly opposed to it. Perhaps that tells us where the balance between free will and temptation truly lies.
That’s not something a columnist can ever solve. The debate on right or wrong will continue until the first crash caused by someone who has had a drink there — because this will happen, eventually, whether or not you think JDW will be to blame.
But even before that dreadful day arrives, leaving aside the ethical arguments, this is a colossal PR own goal for the pub industry.
We are in the trenches of a fight against those who wish to portray drink as evil and those who peddle it as irresponsible, and JDW has just given those people a late Christmas present. As the real problems caused be alcohol abuse decline, Alcohol Concern and its ilk have been increasingly turning to distortion, deliberate misrepresentation and even blatant lies to build a case against our industry, and now they don’t need to go to all that effort.
The latest statistics on drink-driving fatalities showed the first increase in a decade — what a perfect time to open a pub on a motorway! In the current climate, Sir Ian Gilmore is able to say something as ridiculous as the opening of one pub “has the potential to undo all the good that has been done in drink-driving campaigns”, and be quoted in all seriousness without anyone telling him not to talk such nonsense.
If pub openings were governed with the same rigour as alcohol advertising and packaging, this pub would never have been allowed thanks to the mere possibility of someone succumbing to temptation and having their reaction times dulled just enough to make a terrible difference.
In most cases I would say we should be grateful that pub openings are not subject to that kind of speculative ruling. But if JDW actually wanted to bring the pub industry into disrepute and give ammunition to those seeking to prove it is irresponsible, I can’t think of a more inflammatory move.
Opening pubs in schools ‘just for the teachers’, perhaps?