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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

May 25, 2011



The pub on the Left. Part one: the burden of government

Earlier this month the people of Brighton & Hove, where I live, voted in a Green Party minority council. We are already represented by the nation's first Green MP, Caroline Lucas. This is, in most ways, a good thing. But the Greens have funny ideas about licensing. They want a blanket closing time of 11.30pm on pubs outside the city centre.
This might change. I have every hope that it will. The policy is based on two massive misconceptions: that there is no nightlife in Brighton's local neighbourhoods, and that - a common one this - people who use pubs have different interests to people in general. Which is nonsense since they are pretty much the same people.

It's perhaps not something you expect from a party to the left of Labour (which isn't that difficult these days, but you know what I mean), and it's another example of how difficult it is to read off attitudes to drink from general political perspectives.

There have been moments in history when there was a clear divide. For instance when the Tory House of Lords, then cosy with the brewing industry, saved the pub trade from the Liberal government's 1908 Licensing Bill. The labour movement at the time was right behind the temperance-inspired legislation. But jump forward a century and you find the Labour Party introducing long-awaited licensing liberalisation and adopting a progressive harm reduction approach to alcohol problems - at least in the title of of the policy.

Today the Tories are threatening to roll back these gains, have increased VAT and continue to ride Labour's crippling duty escalator. At the same time they have riled medical temperance by announcing a responsibility deal with the drinks industry, and make warm syrupy noises about our wonderful pubs while doing nothing to save them.

None of this is new. Whatever the colour of the government it is stuck with running a state that has to negotiate a path between sustaining a healthy drinks industry, and the revenue it brings, and protecting the economy as a whole from the perceived threat of drunkenness, disorder and dissolution while jinking this way and that according to political expediency and the obsessions of the Daily Mail.

But what about those too far to the political left to have to carry the burden of running a state? What do they have to say about drink? Find out in the next installment. (A two-parter! How thrilling!)

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