Jayne Dowle: The anti-alcohol crusade that insults us all

WE’RE in the middle of the biggest shake-up of the NHS ever witnessed, a shake-up that nobody, only the Government, seems to want. And even among senior politicians there is no means a united front. There is lots of work to do here, especially now we hear that the new NHS emergency helpline is under fire from the British Medical Association.

So what does the Prime Minister do? He creates a diversionary tactic? Suddenly, on a visit to a hospital in Newcastle, he announces his vow to tackle the nationwide “scandal” of binge-drinking.

No one would argue with the fact that there is a problem with alcohol abuse in Great Britain, especially with increasing numbers of younger people contracting serious illnesses such as cirrhosis of the liver, and with the violence, accidents and criminal damage which happen as a result of drunkenness.

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But is it just me, or does this pontificating from our puritan Prime Minister have a cynical ring? Is this not a subtle attempt to suggest that yet again, we are “all in this together” – apart from the ones whose wilfully self-destructive behaviour is wrecking things for decent law-abiding folk?

And let’s take a bit of political context. As he enthuses about introducing “drunk tanks” and “booze buses” to transport these heinous drunkards to the cells for the night, I am sure that police chiefs are clapping their hands in delight, as they sit there already scratching their heads over slashed budgets and massive cuts to frontline policing.

So, I am pretty sure it’s not just me who is unimpressed. I am sure too that Mr Cameron has been fully-briefed by his experts, but I can almost guarantee that he hasn’t been out on the town in a good few months. Not a town like Barnsley at least, which we can use as a good measure – excuse the pun – for countless similar towns up and down the country. The story here, from bar-owners, taxi-drivers and in that curious tabloid phrase “revellers”, is that is has never been so quiet.

I heard the Prime Minister frothing at the mouth on the radio about the debauchery that characterises our town centres, “every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night” and wondered, not for the first time, if he was actually living on some other planet.

Let me tell him this. If he was to come up and take a stroll around Barnsley on a Thursday night, he would find more bars closed than open. Limited opening hours are just one tactic the pub trade is having to employ to keep afloat in these tough economic times.

He can say all he likes about A&E being over-run with drink-related injuries in a vain attempt to butter up the nursing staff, but he is missing the point. Any publican will tell you that more and more young people are not even bothering to go out. They would rather stay at home with a few cans and Facebook.

It won’t be Mr Cameron’s sympathetic gestures which will turn the tide, it will be the fact that people will simply run out of money to spend on beer. Especially with unemployment spiralling upwards. And especially if moves to recommend a higher minimum price for drink are introduced later this year.

I can’t stress this enough. There is nothing big or clever about drinking so many shots that you end up having unprotected sex in a shop doorway. There is nothing to be gained by abusing alcohol so much that you die young, in agony, a victim of liver disease or mouth cancer.

But the Prime Minister appears to have lost all sense of perspective. He needs to ask why people feel the need to drink to excess, and think about diverting some of his ire into supporting the charities and organisations which help them. And more dangerously, for him, by banging on like some latter-day Temperance Leaguer, with every vehement word he utters, he makes himself sound further and further out of touch with ordinary people.

This is old-fashioned right-wing paternalism at its most condescending, and he won’t gain anything from it, except contempt. Ask yourself. Is it really the role of the Prime Minister to tell us how much we may have to drink?

He talks about the minority who cause the problems. But the measures he proposes to curb irresponsible drinking, such as increasing the price of alcohol in supermarkets, affect everyone, not least the retail trade.

What he must understand is that there are people who like a drink occasionally. And then there are people who drink to excess.

And somewhere on the scale are millions upon millions of people who enjoy a big night out once a month, or look forward to a glass of wine, who are no more likely to throw up in A&E at the end of the night as they are likely to find themselves in rehab. All in this together? By making us all feel the guilt, he insults us all.