Out of Control
To claim that drinking in pubs is intrinsically better than at home is ill-informed special pleading
WE’RE OFTEN told nowadays that pubs provide a “controlled drinking environment”. The implication is that the restraint imposed by the presence of the licensee and other customers leads people to drink in a more responsible manner than they would if they had bought a load of booze from Tesco and were drinking it at home.
This idea has only really appeared in the past couple of decades. Back in the 1970s, when pubs accounted for the vast majority of drinking, whether responsible or irresponsible, it would have been unheard of, except perhaps to distinguish well-run pubs from poorly-run ones. It’s only in recent years, when on-trade consumption has been clearly losing ground to the off-trade, that it’s become popularised as an attempt to distinguish the two.
It has some validity in the context of socialising young people into drinking in a restrained and moderate way. They’re much more likely to do that in pubs under the watchful eye of the licensee and older customers than experimenting on their own on a park bench. But, as a concept applied to general adult drinking, it’s basically special pleading that bears little relation to reality.
People drinking in pubs on average probably consume considerably more per session than those doing it at home, and are also more likely to be involved in drink-related disorder, whether as victims or perpetrators, and also to be the innocent victims of traffic accidents. For many people, a weekly pub night is an opportunity to cut loose a bit, whereas at home they would probably stick to just one or two glasses of wine or bottles or cans of beer. Even in the best-run community pub, you will find customers towards the end of Friday or Saturday night somewhat the worse for wear, if not actually drunk, and certainly guilty of binge-drinking as defined by the anti-drink lobby.
The alcohol-fuelled disorder that we see in some of our larger towns and cities is often laid at the door of “pre-loading” on cheap off-trade spirits before going out on the town. However, it seems perverse to blame the state people end up in on the first drink they had rather than the last, and people wouldn’t be pre-loading in the first place if their intention wasn’t to go out afterwards.
Anti-drink campaigners are sometimes heard praising the role of pubs and regretting that they have been allowed to decline. But this really comes across as breathtaking hypocrisy, when over the years they have consistently opposed the liberalisation of licensing hours and supported every anti-pub measure going. It wouldn’t surprise me if their equivalents of fifty years ago had advocated a move to more at-home drinking with the family and with meals, as opposed to men boozing together in the pub.
Nobody who reads this column can doubt that I view pubs as a valuable British tradition that has an important role to play in bringing people together and encouraging a sense of community, and at their best are havens of conviviality that bring pleasure to millions. But to claim that pub drinking has some kind of privileged moral status is frankly just silly and unhelpful.
Over the years, social changes have led to a marked shift away from on-trade drinking, and most people now mix the two depending on the context. The attitude of “we never have drink in the house” now comes across as quaintly old-fashioned. Each form of drinking can be done either responsibly or irresponsibly, and the vast majority of drinkers fall into the first category. The anti-drink lobby must be laughing into their sarsaparilla over this pointless squabbling about “my drink is better than yours”.