The role of the state: a binge drinker’s view

9:00 am - March 3rd 2008

by Alix Mortimer    

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Many left-liberals will have been indulging in some top-level indignation at the totally unstartling news that the Tory hereditary peer Lord Mancroft is a creaking frothing shouty plonker who shouldn’t be allowed into public spaces, never mind a legislative assembly.

First off, he has a go at the nurses who treated him in an NHS hospital in Bath for being “grubby“. If not exactly civil, this is at least a legitimate concern and the nursing profession, unsurprisingly, is up in arms at the slur. So his fartship has been on the Today programme on Saturday morning doing what presumably passes among Tory peers for retrenchment; no, he was not actually complaining about the treatment he received; yes, he fully acknowledges not all nurses are grubby, and made this clear elsewhere in his speech.

No, the true horror of all this grave frothing is yet to reveal itself. This is how he goes on to talk about these young working women whose life choices are absolutely none of his business.

But worst of all my Lords they were drunken and promiscuous. How do I know that? Because if you’re a patient and you’re lying in a bed, and you’re being nursed from either side, they talk across you as if you’re not there. So I know exactly what they got up to the night before, and how much they drank, and I know exactly what they were planning to do the next night, and I can tell you, it’s pretty horrifying.

I do not recommend you locate the audio clip, because the prurience in the shaking timbre of his voice as he says “pretty horrifying” will make you feel a bit queasy. And it only got worse on the radio when his fartship gave us the benefit of his full assessment of the problem. John Humphrys has just asked him whether, well, there is a widespread problem at all (I paraphrase):

Well, you read about this in the papers, don’t you. Young women vomiting in the street and so on. Some of those young women will be secretaries, some will be teachers and some will presumably be nurses.

Later he must have thought, damn, I left out the seamstresses

Now, this would be nothing more than yet another diverting right-wing-shouty-plonker-mouths-off-looks-like-a-cretinous-dinosaur story, if it weren’t for the fact that the prejudices on display are not limited to the right.

Recently, Jacqui “wetter than a haddock’s wet bits” Smith announced a new crackdown on underage- and binge-drinkers. Among her sophisticated suggestions to Her Maj’s police force are to stop drinking in problem areas* and close down “dodgy premises”. That drinking in public is a Bad Thing, and a Suitable Subject for a Crackdown seems to be taken as read by Ms Smith:

[Confiscation of alcohol] does make a difference, because it makes it very clear that young people should not be drinking alcohol on the streets with the sort of concerns that brings to local communities and the potential for them to go on and get involved in crime and disorder.

I’m sorry, the potential for them to get involved in crime? This bit of special pleading is rooted in nothing more than good old-fashioned suburban housefrau disapproval. How has it gained such currency, this Victorian notion that public drunkenness is a terrible problem in and of itself? It’s so conventional an assumption that even some liberals slip into using the language of illiberalism, as the Chair of the London Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (oh the rich irony!) recently did in this piece for Lib Dem Voice:

Everyone but me seemed to be devoted to the single-minded pursuit of the cheapest available route to drunkenness in the shortest possible time.

The writer himself was engaged in buying bread – try substituting the word “bread” for the word “drunkenness” in the above sentence and see what you learn about yourself. Somewhere in all the handwringing about binge-drinking and that well-known social demographic the Young People we have lost sight of the most fundamental liberal principle of all – who does it harm?

The binge-drinkers? Well then, we must have a discussion on whether the state has the right to save them from themselves, which alone could take the comments thread comfortably through a six-pack of Carling. And even if the state does have the right to intervene, should it do so via the route of law enforcement?

Innocent passers-by? But if someone is stabbed, assaulted, raped, robbed, jeered, threatened or otherwise inconvenienced by a street binge-drinker, there are laws which deal with and punish it, and oddly enough the punishment is exactly the same as for those who perform any of the above acts without being a street binge-drinker.

The Fabric of the Nation? Please. The entire business world today is run on coffee. Two hundred years ago the entire diplomatic and trading world was run on snuff and, not infrequently, laudanum. Five hundred years ago the whole of society was run on – yes! – alcohol again. We’ve always been high on something. The drug du jour is entirely incidental.

What the Home Secretary and the other tutters on the left cannot admit even to themselves is that they are just as guilty as the likes of Lord Mancroft when it comes to implicit prejudice about “things that nice people simply don’t do”. What the hell is wrong with the physical act of standing in the street getting wasted? Will Jacqui be sending police into middle-class homes on Christmas Day to arrest mummy and daddy for giving little Daisy a sip of sherry? The binge-drinkers live here too, Ms Home Secretary, whether you like it or whether it causes you to purse your mouth into something resembling a dog’s bottom.

The way this Hyacinth Bouquettish attitude is become mainstream in public life, I shouldn’t be at all surprised ten years down the line if sentences do start being varied according to the alcohol levels in the blood of the perpetrator. From there it’s but a step to simply banning alcohol, and this position would at least have the merit of intellectual consistency and prevent thick middle-class ministers from being able to legislate against lower-class habits in the name of public health.

The social fabric of Britain is under threat, not from binge-drinking, but from a truly terrifying marriage of barking right-wing paternalism and dour left-wing mumsyness, and it is my firm belief that every true left-liberal should lead the rearguard action by gathering up all their friends and hanging around in a big slouchy group outside the library swigging from bottles of merlot and shouting environmentally-aware abuse at passing 4×4 drivers. Direct action is what’s needed here.

* Yes, I read it that way the first time. But I think she means the police should stop other people drinking in problem areas.

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About the author
Alix Mortimer is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a freelance writer and researcher living in London. As a Liberal Democrat party member she was recently shortlisted for the party’s Campaign for Gender Balance Best Blogger Award 2008. Also at: The People’s Republic of Mortimer
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Reader comments

” it is my firm belief that every true left-liberal should lead the rearguard action by gathering up all their friends and hanging around in a big slouchy group outside the library swigging from bottles of merlot and shouting environmentally-aware abuse at passing 4×4 drivers. Direct action is what’s needed here.”

No there’s a policy I can get behind!

These are the sort of posts that libertarians can happily cheer along to too!

Except the environmentally-aware nonsense but it is ok, that is just another leftish fad which will be surpassed once technology moves on a bit and makes state intervention unnecessary:)

I’m surprised Lord Mancroft uses the NHS.

I wouldn’t venture into the hellhole that is the typical NHS hospital myself – I have seen what some friends and relatives have gone through.

“If not exactly civil, this is at least a legitimate concern and the nursing profession, unsurprisingly, is up in arms at the slur.”

Slur? So they all scrub up properly then? Right.

Good post, but as you allude to it is only the thin end of the wedge, the seemingly “acceptable” end where people have been misled in to the wider direct effects of alcohol on society and indeed who put those people causing a problem because of alcohol in to situations where they would cause a problem (hint: The party rhymes with savour)

Oh what a shame my local library is so far from yours…

Can I have zinfandel instead of Merlot?

This isn’t difficult, is it?

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant

There really is no need for further discussion.

*wipes tear from eye*

I’m so getting drunk and obnoxious tonight.

Direct action is what’s needed here.

I’m always up for direction action, especially that which involves alcohol.

Would a piss-up on Parliament Square fall foul of SOCPA?

Come on, Sunny, start organising.


Good point Dave. We’ll have to ask Tim Ireland – he’s the authority on those things. Maybe if he comes wearing on of his LOLCAT t-shirt we may be in trouble. Let’s do it.

11. Terry Kelly

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant”

Well said, however – there is the slight consideration about whether binge drinkers should expect the state to pick up the pieces (which of course leads to that tiresome debate about whether the state should administer to the self-inflicted)

I still like to binge drink occasionally – and still expect the state to treat my alcohol related gastritis and hiatus hernia. However, neither of these mild illnesses – nor my drinking affect my ability to do my job, and more importantly pay my taxes. And I’m 41 FFS !!

Ultimately though, it’s about snobbery. The old story about the University Rugby team getting drunk being ‘high spirits’ while the unemployed being drunken louts still holds true today – as it did when I was young enough to vomit up a stomach full of cider.

Terry, that’s very true. I went to a private school (horror of horrors!) in a small town. Local youths were drunkards; we were experimenting with alcohol. People from the town were alcoholic; students were exuberant.

Insert joke about the Bullingdon club here.

When is there going to be a Liberally Conspiratorial Imbibation?

cjcjcj: Why is that those that are always so dismissive or offensive towards the NHS are those that actually haven’t come into contact with it? My grandmother went into hospital last month and spent the best part of 3 weeks in a ward that was clean, where the nurses were always courteous and helpful, and who always scrubbed up before touching any patient. Quite frankly, she was better off in there than she currently is back home on her own.

Here here Alix. There is indeed an unsavoury marriage between the more tedious authoritarian elements of both the Mail-ite right and the social worker/medical liberal/”left” establishment to push this new prohibitionism. It is the former who are worse though. I’ll never forget a front page headline a few months ago in the Mail, or possibly the Express:- “THANK YOU MR BLAIR!” a reference to relaxed licensing hours amidst photographed scenes of the sheer Colonel Kurtzian Horror of…er……..some men being sick and some women showing their arses in town centres. And therein lies the true nature of this scare. The same thing has been going on in towns the length and breadth of our gloriois nation since time immemorial…..but now the papers and the crappier prgorammes have a lot more access to CCTV footage of it going on.
Get some historical perspective you tossers. In short, grow up.

Well if we’re going to be picky then technically historically it *hasn’t* been as bad as it is right now. I’m a staunch advocate of what the OP here is saying, and frankly the attitude Labour takes towards alcohol and narcotics is counter-productive to their aims, but we cannot deny that there is a problem that wasn’t here before. That’s not to say it’s the huge problem that Labour and the Mail like to make out, in fact I believe the average person stays well below their daily guideline limits on alcohol consumption so on a whole we’re all very good (or at least savvy enough to look good in surveys which is half the battle I guess). But the reality is that we are drinking more and binge drinking it more than we did in the past.

But the perspective to be followed is that figures do show that we have overcome the real problem of the alcopop generation (of which I guess I am one, just) of the early 2000’s and got our drinking back to levels a decade ago. Something certainly needs to be done based on what we know, but that something is cultural change…something Labour have actually been directly walking in the wrong direction from given that they have managed to change culture out of pubs and bars and in to homes from supermarkets, or on to the street if you’re a youngster.

Labour have brought elements of this problem on themselves, and the 24 hour licensing was a way to try and reverse that…however such a change will take another decade to truly have any effect just as Labours increasing taxes on alcohol and forcing people out of licensed premises has ended up doing.

Lee, the binge drinking culture of the English as been going on since at least the 1700s:

And you really seem to have swallowed the line that the puritans are dealing. So what if people want to get pissed and show their arses? What harm does it do to you? To repeat Terry’s quote of JS Mill:

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant”

17. Margin4 Error

Interestingly no one has picked up the worst aspect of this.

Ignore our right to harm ourselves if we please. Even ignore the presumption of innocense being trampled on by this ludicrous notion that booze makes crime (I drink heavilly and yet stay law abiding even under severe provocation).

Consider instead “confiscation of alcohol”

It is legal to drink alcohol from the age of five. It is legal to own alcohol at any age though not legal to sell it to some one young. (Anyone can give a gift of alcohol perfectly legally).

So the state is moving towards the arbitrary confiscation of private property from law abiding citizens.

huzzah! for liberty.

Margin4Error, hm, in that case I am confused.

My understanding was that it was already legal for the police to confiscate alcohol specifically from underage drinkers if they had reason to suspect that they had been drinking it or were going to. The extended SuperLabour version is that they can take alcohol off children without any such suspicion.

This was from the Beeb coverage. I suppose it depends on whether the new version of the law does just apply to children or whether Thickie Smith is hoping to apply it to everyone so as to catch the “Young People” – in which case your point stands. Either way, of course, your point about the basic legality of drinking at any age stands (I didn’t know it was 5 though – favourite new fact of the day).

16. I’m not swallowing any line and perhaps you should read my many many posts that show I absolutely hare what is being done legislatively, and I’m not denying binge drinking has existed in the past, but in modern history we have a marked increase of drinking and binge drinking. To simply wash over this stating even further historical evidence is to ignore the increased knowledge we have on the subject now.

To also argue that we should therefore let people do what they like because it’s their body is also naive. There are social costs to binge drinking, though hugely exaggerated by the anti-drinking lobby. There are medical costs that we all incur because of drinking and the direct/indirect actions caused. If we lived in a libertarian society where everyone paid for their own healthcare then you’d certainly have more of a point, but as it is I can’t see the liberal stance in saying the state should completely stand back and let a minority of individuals cause any certain strain on state resources or put them in a situation which ultimately inflicts a negative impact on those around them.

We of course should stand up against the infringement on our liberties here, they are without need, but lets not belittle our own argument by not recognising that there are collateral effects to society with binge drinking.

17. I assure you I have picked up on that many a time, though the law technically is that you can drink from the age 5 as long as your parent is in agreement. Perhaps the law should be that you can’t confiscate alcohol as long as you have a letter from mummy? 😉

18. There is a law which allows confiscation of alcohol from people believed to be under the age they’d be able to buy it.

What is interesting about it is particularly its manner of dealing with the repossession of your personal affects. Rather than taking the alcohol from you and confiscating it, they pour it away. I can’t get my head around how it is ever right to take something that through all intents and purposes probably isn’t illegally gained (as the stats show, most alcohol is got from friends and family) and then destroy it simply because of a location of drinking. But then it would be unworkable for police to enforce the law in such a way that means they have to keep all the alcohol intact!

21. Margin4 Error



I believe that alcohol is the only property a person can lawfully own and carry but have confiscated by the police on mere suspicion (no evidence required) of a crime having taken place.

And the new move seems to be that it will be confiscated with no suspicion of any crime having taken place.

Its a hell of a failure of liberty that we have reached such a point that the state can take stuff off citizens for no reason – and it doesn’t seem much of a change.


Perhaps we could reverse that and parents can give their kids a note saying they permit them to drink alcohol.

Many parents would hapilly do so. (It is imorral to tell a seventeen year old that he or she is ‘too young’ to do anything – and many parents know it)

I agree, and the figures show at least three quarters, if my memory serves me correctly, of parents don’t mind their kids drinking.

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