Saturday 24 March 2012

The Conservatives' Drinks' Proposal

It's the Culture, Stupid 

A two litre plastic bottle of white wine bought in a Belgrade supermarket can cost as little as GBP 1.50. Not for the sophisticated palette perhaps but it hits the spot when chilled. In Vienna, parting with as little as 50p for a can of 5% beer is not unheard of and it too can be refreshing when put to the lips.

But the likelihood of you witnessing or being the victim of a drunken assault in public is very slim in both capital cities. If this fact is anything to go by, the Tories’ proposal to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol is completely misplaced.

What David Cameron et al have failed to recognize is that the inebriated brawling that is a fact of life on Britain’s streets has nothing to do with the availability of cheap booze but can be attributed to a drinking culture that has become uncivilized. The Conservatives’ laissez faire policies have much to answer for this more than anything else.

In Europe people sit down to drink and their beer or wine is generally bought to them by a waiter. Alcohol lubricates conversation. In the UK, in many city centre establishments, furniture is at a premium and people stand in close proximity. They also jostle one another at crowded bars. Add booze to this simmering cocktail and it is little wonder that things kick off.

The concept behind these ergonomics is clear, pack them in and get them drinking. Turn up the music full blast so that conversation is limited and consumption maximized along with turnover. Then spill all these frustrated drunken punters out on to the street and let others deal with the consequences.

Access to alcohol in Austria is restricted in that supermarkets close early and bar prices are considerably higher than in shops but in Serbia’s main cities booze is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and a night out is one of the cheapest that can be had anywhere in Europe. Belgrade also has an annual beer festival, which, naturally enough positively flows with the amber nectar. But during my visits to the event I have never seen a fist raised against anyone. The most illicit act is men relieving themselves in the bushes when all the portaloos are occupied. And this in a country regarded by many as war criminal personified.

I have lived and worked in a number of cities in Europe, most of them in the post-Communist part of the continent, and while alcohol-induced anti-social behaviour is not unheard of in some, it pales into insignificance compared to what can be seen on a weekend night in the UK.

While you can generally chug to your heart’s content without any bother in Belgrade and Vienna, social imbibing can, admittedly, get complicated in the likes of Warsaw and St. Petersburg, two other cities I have been a resident of. The Polish capital has its drunk tank nightmare to be wary of and Russia’s window to the west is home to a police force that have been known to relieve western foreigners of their cash, particularly if they are the worse for wear. You may also turn the wrong corner at the wrong time and run into a group of lary lads who might want to make your life uncomfortable for a while. But in general any tangible police presence you see in these places will be due to a political demonstration or post-football match disorder, not because people are out ‘enjoying’ themselves.

It is surely one of the great anomalies about contemporary Britain that when the police cars and vans gather routinely it’s because people are trying to escape the daily grind by getting ‘hammered’, ‘smashed’, ‘pissed’, ‘bladdered’ ‘bollocksed’, ‘arseholed’, ‘slaughtered’ or ‘shitfaced’. We have more terms for getting drunk than the Eskimos have for snow. The process of softening the mind towards a more pleasant disposition towards your fellow man has become vulgarised by an end result that the rest of humanity doesn’t much care for.

Despite the perils that exist in Poland and Russia during a night out, as a rule I have felt completely at ease once I have entered a pub or club, though this might be misplaced confidence at times. But in the UK, the tension is unremitting. Both outside and in the pubs on Broad Street in Birmingham (where I am from) the menace follows you around. Young men traverse the bars in large groups. Unfortunate eye contact with one is a sour invitation to them all. You are going to get punched. Money is no object.