Prohibitionists And The Dangers Of The Empty Gesture

Closing pubs at 10 pm will do nothing to combat the second Covid wave, but everything to further destabilise and demonise drinking.

When the pubs reopened after a few months of lockdown, there was not the Covid infection spike many had worried would happen. A few isolated breakouts, yes, and definitely some dreadful behaviour from the sort of ghastly pubs and punters alike who looked at the hygiene and social distancing restrictions as a bit of a joke or a terrible imposition on their civil liberties/violation of their rights to have pubs remain unchanging forever. But most venues and most people appear to have not been dicks about it, and as experiments in easing people back into normality go, it seemed a qualified success – not one without dangers, but by and large well handled. The mass return to work and the reopening of schools seems to have been more immediately connected to a spike in Covid cases than pub opening.

So, faced with the facts about what has probably caused this new wave, what was the immediate British government response? Why, to close pubs at 10 pm. Obviously.

This seems the most arbitrary and pointless attempt at stopping an infection spread imaginable. Why pubs, which seem to have handled the New Normal remarkably well, and why 10 pm? What happens in that last hour or two of opening that is so especially dangerous? The only likely effect this will have is to eat further into the bottom line of pubs, most of which are only just clawing their way back from the original lockdown.

It only makes sense when you consider that the Covid lockdown has been a boon to the prohibitionist movement, and the various anti-alcohol groups with friends in high places have been flexing their muscles, lobbying for more and more restrictions. As we’ve pointed out before, temporary measures have the uncanny habit of taking on permanence – look at how wartime restrictions on pub opening hours remained in force for decades. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a 10 pm closing time might well become the New Normal, even when (or if) the Covid situation is finally brought under control. It is, after all, being leaked right now as a sensible compromise – that the government looked at another lockdown of pubs but were talked out of it. But make no mistake – there will, right now, be pressure groups who’ll push for this to remain in force forever, for the public good. These same groups are already pushing panic stories about more people drinking more alcohol during lockdown, even though the independent evidence shows quite the opposite – more booze was bought for drinking at home, especially at the start of lockdown, but then no one was going to the pub; there was also a huge increase in the sale of toilet roll, but I’m not sure people were suddenly shitting more. All figures that don’t come from prohibitionist bodies actually show a slight reduction in drinking levels, with levels generally being the same as before. Britain has not, despite what some hysterical or uncritical press reports might have you believe, descended into mass alcoholism since March.

Of course, the ‘Britain is drinking more’ angle, and its associated horror stories of domestic abuse, is a necessary lie – a noble lie in the eyes of its supporters – to further push the prohibitionist agenda. There are those who want to stop sales of booze entirely during the pandemic – and let’s not forget that the pandemic is probably not going anywhere any time soon – and have pushed for that with varying degrees of insistence. Understandably, the government is reluctant to go that far, because that really would be the breaking point for the nation – but further restrictions, the drip drip drip effect of legislation where people are slowly eased into further restrictions without even noticing, are not beyond the realms of possibility.

And then we have awful, awful events like Sober October, now being relentlessly pushed with TV advertisements that might make a person question just how much money charities have sloshing around and why they are spending it on glossy media propaganda campaigns rather than the cause that they ostensibly exist to fight. You might think that someone, somewhere might have pointed out that in the middle of a global crisis where many pubs and brewers have been pushed to breaking point, maybe this year they could let their prohibitionist push disguised as a ‘fun’ health kick slide, rather than doubling down on it. But that would be too much to hope for.

As regular readers will know, we are far from being swivel-eyed, paranoid Covid deniers, and we have little trust in the ability of the general public to be remotely sensible about anything unless made to do so. But this new rule will do nothing – not one tiny thing – to prevent a second wave or reduce the spread of the virus or stop it mutating further. Closing pubs an hour or two early is nothing more than gesture politics and a pointless exercise – unless the exercise is less about the pandemic and more about setting standards for the long term. Cynical? Yes. But we’ve seen how the prohibitionist movement (not just alcohol prohibitionists, we should say) operate and how they have been barely able to conceal their glee at the opportunities that this crisis has provided. I don’t agree with those who say that the new rules will be the death of all pubs – I think the industry as a whole is more resilient, and not every venue is dependent on the late-night economy –  but it certainly isn’t going to help. Let’s face it, every time you add a new restriction, you not only put off the pub traditionalists but also dent wider public confidence – because if pubs have to close at 10 pm, then the implication is that pubs are not very safe places full stop.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a concerted push to denormalise and demonise drinking as I have in the last year, and it’s a cause for concern, because today it’s the pub, tomorrow who knows? It’s enough to drive you to drink, frankly.

DAVID FLINT

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