Less alcohol: Are the British shedding their harmful habits?

Taken from The Spectator, 25 May 2013

“Gripped by his habitual despair, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote to a friend in 1872, ‘I am appalled at the state of society. I’m filled with the sadness that must have affected the Romans of the 4th century. I feel irredeemable barbarism rising from the bowels of the earth.’ Warming to his bleak scatological theme, he continued, ‘I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.’ Many commentators would feel that exactly the same words could be applied to modern Britain. According to the pessimistic narrative of national decline, Britain is now drowning in the effluence of moral collapse. We inhabit a country supposedly awash with vice and decadence.

If we aren’t playing poker or bingo on our computer screens, then we are watching pornography. Our streets are said to be dominated by betting shops and lap-dancing clubs, by drug addicts and binge-drinkers.

Yet for all its hold on the popular imagination, the idea of worsening degeneracy in modern Britain is not backed up by the evidence. Our society is becoming less disordered and depraved. What is falling out of fashion is not personal responsibility but the kind of destructive behaviour that used to worry the puritans.

New figures show a fall of no less than 8 per cent in recorded crime, continuing a trend that has lasted for almost two decades. Indeed, the crime rate has halved since its peak in 1995 and is now at its lowest level for 30 years. Almost every type of offence is down significantly, including murder, violence and burglary.

This welcome change is replicated in so many other aspects of our society, including alcohol consumption. We have been led to believe that we are living in a new age of excess, and Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ finds its modern equivalent in debauched, 24-hour nightclubs peddling dangerously cheap cocktails and strong lagers. The Prime Minister has fed into this notion with his talk of minimum alcohol pricing. But it is all a myth. Drinking is actually on the wane. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, total alcohol consumption was 16 per cent lower per head in 2012 than in 2004, while the average annual amount drunk fell below eight litres for the first time since 1998. Fears about binge-drinking among the young are equally exaggerated. One survey last year showed that only 48 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 had consumed a drink in the week before, compared with 70 per cent in 2003. Moreover, the number of children aged 11 to 15 drinking alcohol has fallen by 29 per cent in the last five years, while convictions for drunken behaviour have halved since the year 2000… If Flaubert came back to Britain today, he might be surprised at the signs of hope for civilisation.”