Tuesday, 16 August 2011
The convergence of four crises in the past two years, the near banking collapse, the actual collapse in public faith in politicians and the media and police, and now the explosion of violence from our most socially excluded youth show Britain as never before that a profound social and ethical juncture has been reached in our national history.
When the Prime Minister his deputy and the Leader of the Opposition today have all made the connection between the corruption of Britain’s elites and the free for all that we have seen on our streets, one might be forgiven for thinking that this is grounds for optimism; no longer will our politicians be in the thrall of private interests that at best exacerbate this culture and at worst facilitate it.
Such optimism might yet be misplaced as a huge piece of the puzzle over the causes of the unrest has been conveniently ignored, namely Britain’s absurd and contradictory relationship with alcohol and drugs.
Yesterday, apocalyptic CCTV footage from a London convenience store was released for the purposes of catching young looters who smashed their way into the shop. Without exception, the first place that the looters headed for were the spirits stored behind the counter, the cash register was actually an afterthought. Why? How does this litre bottle of addictive fluid command this degree of power over young people in our society? Why do we see scenes not just during riots but every single day on Britain’s high streets and town centres that Hogarth witnessed in the 18th Century?
Is it possible that there was something of a delayed reaction to the first night of rioting because most people thought it seemed all to similar to a normal night in any of a hundred towns and cities across the country?
The charge of moral decay across the country is a compelling one, and in many instances quite justified, however the moral decay at the heart of the drinks industry, and its alarmingly close ties to the government and to policy making are all but ignored.
When the British Medical Association and five other leading health charities in England and Wales walked away from the government’s Responsible Deal for Alcohol because the government was ignoring evidence led research into the importance of minimum pricing strategies, it was indicative of how successful their anti regulation approach was likely to be.
The current administration has been very effective in labelling regulation as some kind of intrusive, anti competitive and faintly Stasi-esque notion, this is the same administration that would seek to shutdown Facebook and Twitter during riot conditions.
By simply looking at the statistics of the amount of destruction alcohol causes in non riot conditions, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the regulations that exist already on this powerful substance are about as light touch as they get.
There is another question to address as well, one that reaches far beyond the mechanics of pricing, one that extends deep in to our culture and is intimately connected with the other social and existential worries thrown up by the rioting.
Why does a person annihilate his or her own personality with drink or drugs? If we assume our society is something of a people making factory, crafting different types of individuals in different circumstances, what settings are there on this factory that causes it to generate people in such chronic emotional pain that they choose not to be themselves at the cost of their health and sanity?
We may well have been presented a historic opportunity to answer this question, a revolutionary moment where our society can move forward and heal, but unless the issue of alcohol is put squarely at the centre of the debate, it may well be an opportunity squandered.