THE BLOG
26/03/2012 06:33 BST | Updated 25/05/2012 06:12 BST

The New Alcohol Strategy Raises Some Old Questions

If the government's new Alcohol Strategy was brought forward to deflect attention from a badly-spun budget, then the plan worked.

If the government's new Alcohol Strategy was brought forward to deflect attention from a badly-spun budget, then the plan worked. Last Friday, headlines were dominated by the announcement that a minimum unit price would be introduced to tackle binge-drinking and alcohol-fuelled violence.

That minimum pricing was initially conceived as a public health measure, designed to bring down overall levels of consumption, has been lost somewhere in the translation to policy. However, it is in keeping with the stated goal of the Strategy to mark a 'radical change in the approach' to alcohol.

Other radical plans in the Strategy include proposals for 'sobriety schemes'. If introduced, minor offenders may be ordered to abstain from alcohol and wear tags to ensure they comply. This, we are told, will 'end the notion that drinking is an unqualified right'.

In their 2007 Alcohol Strategy, New Labour insisted 'rights and responsibilities are at the heart of Government approaches to alcohol'. The new Strategy, however, goes further: drinking is not only an explicitly qualified right, but alcohol is a commodity that can be subject to extraordinary pricing controls designed to reduce levels of consumption.

We have been here before. In On Liberty, the great Victorian liberal John Stuart Mill argued that anyone convicted of alcohol-related disorder should be banned from drinking. However, he vehemently rejected wider controls on consumption, insisting that drinking was 'a subject on which every sane and grown-up person ought to judge for themselves under his own responsibility'. Mill's opponents in the temperance movement disagreed: the consumption for alcohol, they said, created an irrational desire for more drink in both the short and long term. Mill's famous assertion that a man should not be free to sell himself into slavery was regularly turned against its author by temperance campaigners.

Nowadays, we tend to follow Mill when talking about alcohol - though not when talking about illegal drugs. But alcohol is drug many of us find pleasurable, some of us find rather moreish, and a significant minority find addictive: to that extent, it is like a number of illicit substances. We also know alcohol can, taken in large quantities, cause significant health problems - which undermines Mill's other famous principle that we should be free to do as we wish as long as we don't harm others. Public health campaigners have worked hard to quantify the costs of alcohol to the NHS not least to show that heavy drinking, even when not antisocial, can create measurable public harms.

It has been argued that public health lobbying represents a new form of 'medical temperance' - a claim health advocates would, no doubt, challenge. However, there are parallels: not least that Victorian temperance campaigners felt apparently intractable social norms around alcohol should, and importantly could, be transformed through political action.

Recently, we have seen this happen with smoking. Health campaigners won the political argument on smoking in public, and the success of the smoking ban gave health advocates new impetus to tackle alcohol. Their optimism is understandable. If smoking could be re-framed as a fundamentally antisocial activity, why can't excessive drinking also become socially unacceptable? Who knows: in 100 years time, historians may look back and marvel that we ever let such a powerful drug as alcohol be so widely consumed with such regularity across such swathes of society - just as we marvel that our forebears ever sent children up chimneys or thought it was fine to pass wind at dinner parties.

Or maybe not. Lots of people like to say the Brits have always been drunk - though half a century of very low consumption between 1920 and 1970 suggests it's not so simple. But while a future of universal, buttoned-up water-sipping seems unlikely, the terms of the debate may change - as they did for smoking, and as they have for other seemingly intractable cultural norms. It is not inconceivable that we may come to see alcohol not as an everyday commodity which just happens to bring certain social responsibilities, but as a drug which should be consumed with care, perhaps only occasionally, and not as a simple right.

That probably strikes many of us as a rather gloomy prospect, but then I was once horrified at the prospect of not being allowed to smoke on a bus. Things change, and can do so remarkable quickly. The Alcohol Strategy is not going to usher in a radical social shift by itself - nor, I'm sure, do its authors intend it to. However, it does mark something of a high-point in the adoption of public health perspectives on drink, and in doing so returns us to questions that strike at the heart of our ideas about alcohol and individual freedom. Whether that high-point is also a turning point is yet to be seen.