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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Reclaiming Temperance – Establishing a responsible and sociable drinking culture

6th February 2015

Britain has for centuries repeatedly faced the problem of binge drinking. As this article from January 1903 demonstrates, our current travails in tackling problem drinking are hardly new. What is required but is rarely addressed is culture change. When it comes to the consumption of alcohol we are arguably at a key moment where social attitudes are changing. People are increasingly appalled at the worst behavioural problems associated with late-night excessive drinking and want to see change, but what is lacking is the institutional and cultural architecture to foster that change.

Part of the problem is that the Temperance movement has been historically associated with abstinence, teetotalism and even prohibition. For Brits, Dry January may be a widely adhered to month of self-denial motivated by both perceived health benefits and more especially financial necessity, but the somewhat puritanical total self-denial that became the main practice of temperance advocates including Wilberforce has meant that we have lost the true meaning of temperance when it comes to the enjoyment of drink. Temperance is a virtue, an espousal of moderation which, yes, does involve personal restraint and delayed gratification – but one thing it is not is total abstinence.

We need to pursue, as a country, a joyful recreational and (properly understood) hedonistic but sociable approach to the wide variety of tasty alcoholic beverages that are available to us and, in particular, how they are best combined with eating well as a common social experience to be celebrated with friends and family across all generations. To be avoided is a simplistic authoritarian approach which often involves some sensible measures but alone is certainly inadequate, if not counter-productive. Indeed the attempts outlined in the Government’s Alcohol Strategy have yet to decisively address the problem – as shown by a recent WHO Report which ranked the UK 13th out of 196 countries for heavy drinking.

That recent discussions are even happening about charging people for using A&E when a clear contributing factor to their misfortune was the fact that they were under the influence shows that what is seen as acceptable behaviour is changing.

Culturally, drink driving is now understood to be completely unacceptable. Smoking indoors in pubs, clubs and restaurants (and soon in cars with children) is now viewed so negatively that it is banned across the board.

So it is becoming with the disorderly and sometimes violent conduct associated with irresponsible levels of drinking. Simply put, the overwhelming majority who enjoy alcohol sensibly and socially are pretty fed up with a significant minority ruining it for everyone else. But given that ‘drunk and disorderly’ and ‘drunk and incapable’ have long been offences that the police have powers to deal with, new work needs to be done to resolve this issue that is particularly blighting our town and city centres.

Let us, early in this century, finally break with the historical pendulum that has swung from excessive binging to puritanical abstinence. To this end, ResPublica, within our Virtue programme, is seeking to develop a radical new policy model consistent with the principles of restorative justice and genuine temperance that will equip communities across the country to finally deal conclusively with this persistent problem within our nation.

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