Sunday, October 30, 2005

Policies of Titanic decision: Why Booze is a Scapegoat

Theresa May claims that government plans to ban alcohol on public transport, alongside its steps for longer drinking hours, show that the government is in "complete disarray". More of her comment in the BBC article, where she backs dropping the proposals for 24 hour drinking.

There are, I think, many points being bandied around, but no-one seems to want to address any of the fundamental issues involved here. We can talk about banning booze, licensing hours and the "right" to go unharassed in the street as much as we like, but as long as we restrict ourselves to these lines, we only consider effect, and never cause.

In 1994, Rod Rhodes set out a vision of the "Hollowing Out of the State", encapsulating a group of trends that made up a loss of control by the British State. While he considered factors such as increased European governace, and increased privatisation as being part of the scenario, over the last 10 years, the situation has perhaps diversified even further. Relevant to the increased level of drink-related problems is not just the Hollowing Out of the State, but also of the Public. The difference between these two, and mirrored in their reactions, is that one has direct access to legislation, whilst the other merely has the tools that have been left to them over an extended period of disempowerment.

One of the (more sensible) observations directed towards unsavoury activity is that often there just isn't much else to do. I haven't heard of any empirical evidence to back this up (let me know if you have), but I believe that this is an important (certainly not the only) factor in explaining our current malaise. The purpose of a State is partly to combine decisions, and partly to exert power (to implement those decisions). Without either one of these, the State is effectively useless - either it can't decide what to implement (or implements badly), or it lacks any authority (at all, rather than in the -arianism sense) to have any effect. If Rhodes is particularly insightful (and I don't see why he isn't) then much of both of these have been removed from our government, for a variety of reasons (not least, for example, the 1980s).

The flipside, or perhaps simply the extension, of this, is that power has also been removed from the people the government represent. Firstly, there is the loss of power that used to be invested in government, but is now in further-removed hands as outlined above - primarily non-democratic industrial players, and European politics. Secondly, as Whitehall struggles to appear effectual in the spotlight of media attention, its grab for power/attention can often come at the expense of local government, widening the gap between the public and their "voice". And thirdly, as a new era of communication is ushered in (following the globalised industrial comms era), whereby those with the facility and the know-how to form ad-hoc alliances and pressure groups do so, the voice of the "public" is increasingly skewed towards a relative minority. This blog could be held as proof of this, perhaps...

The end result of all this is a government and the majority of a public caught in limbo, between a large, complex variety of actors and parties, all of whom have their own agenda, and all of whom are well-versed in keeping the pace of politics ticking over so fast that keeping up is difficult - especially when you work 45 hours a week, or have a mountain of paperwork to climb.

And so we are the heirs to a government that must apply ever harsher (read "media-grabbing") measures in order to court public opinion, and a public that resorts to the menu of cheap cocktails as their remaining source of choice. We are, and shall be for a while, stuck in this vicious cycle of despair, escape, revelry, and desparate measures which lead to more stringent law, and an increased lust for escape.

This is why relaxing drinking laws is both a couragous step, and a foolish one. To address one part of the cycle but not the others may have a breaking effect on it, but this will probably take a fair while more than the 4 year election cycle. If the other factors affecting the situation aren't realised at the same time - working hours, disempowerment, et al - then all that tension will simply be released into a 24 hour binge, and the plan will fail. The policy ship will jhave ploughed head first into an iceberg it thought only surface frost.

But each party involved is too concerned about how they come across to others to change anything.

Update: This quote from Lib Dem Mark Oaten sums a lot of it up... "This government seems obsessed with banning things." Jail time and heavy laws may achieve a "peaceful" society, but where's the Respecttm, Tony?

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