First Published: Before August 2002
       This is an OutUK Archive Item and so some of the links and information may be out of date.
Some sensible people say that Britain's licensing laws are so archaic that they could have been passed during the last Stone Age. Is it time for the government to loosen up and get liberal?, asks Dave Broom.

It has happened to all of us. You have a few mates round and there's not a drop of drink in the house. Someone offers to go out and buy a bottle, but it's too late. Everywhere is shut. Right enough, hadn't you wondered why there seemed to be lots of people hanging around outside pubs when you got that taxi home from the cinema? No one wants to have an all-night drinking session, just to relax with a bottle of wine. There's a half-hearted offer of coffee, which is politely turned down, and everyone heads off home which, after all, is what the state demands when the clock hits 11pm.

A wholesale solution?

'We know best', say our rulers.
'How can you expect to work tomorrow if you have a drink at this time? You don't need one.'
'But it's Friday night!' you protest.
'Doesn't matter. Off to bed with you.'
When I was moaning about this scenario to a friend recently, he told me of a 24-hour off-license in Brighton which has got round the licensing laws by operating under a wholesale license. As long as they sell everything in sealed cases (a crate of beer, a case of wine or spirits) they can legally continue trading. My immediate response was to write down the number just in case the nocturnal urge to buy booze at 11.05pm strikes again.

In the cold light of day it's not such a great idea after all. There in the front room is a case of beer, but you only drink one bottle a month. The wines on offer are diabolical but you've got another 11 to get through. The 24-hour wholesaler is fine if you're having a party and suddenly run out of booze, but for the average drinker it's pretty much next to useless. But it's the best we've got.

And the alternatives are…

'Not quite!' says the editor. 'You can order drink on the Internet 24 hours a day.' Trouble is, no one has yet perfected the immediate delivery system. Isn't it absurd that you have to find a legal loophole in order to have a friendly drink in a civilized manner? If you haven't tracked down a 24-hour wholesaler, you have to go to a club(pricey), a private members' drinking club (even more pricey), or inveigle your way into the misery of the pub lock-in, where everyone has to whisper in crepuscular gloom and can't go home until the publican decides they can. The late night drinker has to skulk around the darkened streets searching for a fix. These wanderings just accentuate the feelings of guilt for daring to want a pint of Timmy Taylor's Landlord at 11.15pm.

Promises, promises

All of this rancour was kicked off by the government's latest reneging on electoral promises - namely a liberalization of the UK's licensing laws. Apparently, although they promised young people a bill that would liberalize drinking laws in order to buy their votes, they now claim that there's simply not enough time. The fact is that they don't want to change the law. It is an issue, like the decriminalization of cannabis, that the state will never countenance; to do so would mean admitting that it was wrong in the first place. The evidence that liberalization works is there, but the powers that be choose to ignore it.

The Scottish solution

I was living in Edinburgh in the early Eighties when the 'Scottish experiment' started. This was a test by the then-government to see if granting 24-hour licenses to pubs in Scotland would work. At that time, Scotland's opening hours were Calvinist in their strictness. Pubs opened at 11am and closed at 1pm, opened again at 5pm (or 6pm) and closed again at 10pm (10.30pm if you were lucky). On a Sunday you had to find a hotel that was open to non-residents in order to get a pint.

The result? The worst incidence of drunk and disorderly behaviour in the UK. But the experiment worked. We immediately changed our habits. There was time to go home for a meal before going out. You could go to see a film and have a beer afterwards. People ended up drinking less, but because pubs changed their approach - serving coffee, offering decent food - more people, particularly women, began to use them. Incidents involving drunken behaviour fell. Everything pointed to the fact that liberalization worked. But this wasn't what the government wanted to hear. The underlying belief was that by giving 24-hour drinking to the already drunken Scots things would get worse. The plan backfired. It backfired so badly that the government sat on the results.

My gaffe, my rules…

Now the same thing is happening again. What is the government scared of? Losing an element of control? What critics of liberalization forget is that local licensing boards and the police would still be in control. Not every publican or bar owner would want a 24-hour license; and not all of them would be granted one, either. While the government will continue to come under fierce lobbying to change the laws it should be remembered that publicans, too, have a responsibility. Too many still treat customers as irritants that prevent them from getting on with their lives.

In Sussex, where I now live, most of the pubs, even in town centres, still shut at 2.30pm. Even those that do stay open all day stop serving food at 2pm on the dot. Even country pubs which are busy at the weekends refuse to break the 'food stops at 2' rule - when they could easily double trade if they could be bothered. If pubs aren't civilized places to drink, then they won't encourage civilized behaviour. And the more drink-related trouble there is in pubs, the more reluctant the government will be to loosen the licensing laws.


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