Not Saussure

June 5, 2007

Binge drinking and citizenship

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 9:09 pm

Two pieces of apparently unrelated — other than that they annoyed me — news that maybe have a bit more in common than at first I thought.

First, the BBC reports:

Health minister Caroline Flint denied they were targeting “middle-aged, middle-class hardened drinkers”, but said: “There are people, adults, who on a very regular basis are probably drinking twice the amount that is recommended.”

Just so we’re clear what that means, the Department of Health tell us that

men should not regularly drink more than 3 – 4 units of alcohol per day, and women should not regularly drink more than 2 – 3 units of alcohol per day.

and produces a handy chart so we may calculate what this means.

According to the chart, ‘A 175ml glass of red or white wine [represents] around 2 units.’ Now, I have no real idea what a 175ml glass looks like, but a bottle of wine is normally 750ml, so that means there are 4.28 of them to a bottle. So according to my calculations, a woman who regularly splits a bottle of wine over dinner at home with her partner is already getting pretty close to twice the recommended daily amount, and if she accompanies this with a decent sized pre-prandial sherry or gin and tonic, she’s well over twice the recommended daily amount and thus, according to HMG, a regular ‘binge drinker.’

While I’m sure we’re all grateful to

Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker [who apparently] added: “It is unacceptable for people to use alcohol and urinate in the street, vomit and carry on,”

(he gets paid ¬£90,000 a year to tell us this sort of thing), that’s not normally the behaviour I associate with women who’ve had half a bottle of wine and a couple of sherries of an evening. Presumably the women with whom I tend to socialise must be such hardened topers that they seem to take such excess in their stride (though obviously it wouldn’t be a good idea to drive after drinking that).

I’m not completely sure why I find this sort of thing so irritating; I hardly ever drink myself, on medical advice, so it’s not because I have a vested interest. Maybe, in fact, that’s part of it. My GP, whom I trust far more than I do any government minister, and who certainly knows considerably more about me than do they (though, of course, that may change with all these databases that are being set up in our own best interests), put it to me that, for various reasons, I had choice between stopping drinking and dying considerably sooner than I might otherwise expect. She also — and this, I think, is the important bit — treated me like an adult, explaining exactly why this was a particular problem for me and saying, in terms, ‘it’s entirely up to you what you decide to do about my advice, but you do need to know the consequences so you’re making an informed decision.’

The government, though, seem to prefer to treat us like children to be lectured and cajoled. By all means provide sensible medical advice, though I for one would rather have it from my GP rather than this broad-brush approach from ministers. But then, it’s surely up to people what they do with their lives; obviously we want to discourage people from getting falling down drunk in the street, but this isn’t what Caroline Flint seems to be talking about. The government seems determined — with, I’m sure, the best possible motives (which always alarms me) — to intrude more and more into our private lives.

This expansion of government interest is, I realise, one of the many things that so irritated me about another piece of ministerial nonsense, the proposal from Ruth Kelly and Liam Byrne to have a ‘citizenship day’ and give would-be citizens credits for doing voluntary work and the like. The great thing about voluntary work, it seems to me, is that is something people do because they think it’s important; it’s people getting together and deciding, of their own initiative, that here is something worth doing. No one makes them do it and the government doesn’t tell them how they ought to be doing it. Involve the government and it seems to me that voluntary work becomes an unpaid arm of the state. Indeed, there’s some voluntary work that seems to annoy the government no end; we’ve several times been told, as I recall, that supporting rough-sleepers (rather than trying to get them into hostels) is a bad idea, and I get the impression that some work some people do supporting asylum seekers isn’t always as greatly appreciated by Liam Byrne as it might be.

One of the things that I recall astonished the Mayor’s Office in St Petersburg back in the early ’90s — and, which once they’d got their heads round the concept, they thought was absolutely brilliant — was our idea of charities and community organisations doing things themselves, rather than — as had been the case under communism — the state and the party organising everything. The idea, for example, that people would actually undertake first-aid training, join the St John’s Ambulance and help provide support at sporting events because this was what they wanted to do rather than because it got them kudos with the local party was revolutionary. Seems to me that we’re in danger of losing that in this creeping nationalisation of just about everything; it’s as if state control of the economy is out, so the state has to find some other way of making our lives better for us, whether we want them to or not.

It’s enough to drive you to drink.



  1. […] and Not Saussure are also unhappy. The latter also has some excellent […]

    Pingback by How to stop the middle classes vomiting in our streets « Gary Andrews — June 5, 2007 @ 11:52 pm

  2. In Poland in the 1970s, after the 5-day week had been introduced, Party members were expected to devote some of their “free Saturdays” to “voluntary work”. (This did not mean what we’d regard as charitable activity, but rather the sort of thing others might otherwise be paid for on a weekday, digging ditches or suchlike.) The idea was — of course — to demonstrate their high standards of social awareness. The effect was — of course — that unwilling people pretended to do things for which they were unfitted by experience or inclination. It was around that time that the Labour Party sent a delegation to the Congress of the PZPR.

    Comment by pedant2007 — June 6, 2007 @ 3:30 am

  3. You’re absolutely correct. With these shysters, if it’s outside the ambit of political initiative it’s either harmful (and must be banned) or (if it’s unharmful – even beneficial) it must be co-opted. And it’s not just the scum in office. The laughingly named “opposition” is all for using charities to do the state’s work as noted here. To quote the article “Cameron hinted that the third sector would play a valuable role in public service delivery under the Conservatives”. This undermines the disinterested and beneficient side of “charity” and, at the same time and unsurprisingly, increases the boundaries of the state.

    Comment by Umbongo — June 6, 2007 @ 12:28 pm

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