It is the year 2020. You have had a hard day at the commune processing excerpts from the Thoughts of Benefactor Brown for public display and you feel in need of refreshment.
Collar up, you trudge through the rain and swirling litter down bleak streets. Shadowy figures scurry past, CCTV lenses swivel as you pass, and every now and then a metallic voice triggered by your approach intones: ‘Electricity Kills. Save Energy’, one of a thousand similar slogans emitted night and day from what were, until Climate Change Edict 124, lampposts but are now wind-turbine driven PIPs – public information points.
You reach your goal: a grey, unmarked door set in a grey wall. You push it open and step inside. You can make out one or two shapes in the gloom, possibly human, possibly just shadows. There is no music, no laughter, no voices. The place smells damp. Something scuttles across the floor. A rat maybe. Or possibly a MIG – a mobile information gatherer – these little sensors are everywhere. You walk over to Automaton Three, push your PEAC – plastic entitlement of alcohol card – into the slot and out dribbles your 1.2 permitted units into a recycled paper cup. You down the contents in one and, as the warming liquid slides down, you sense for the briefest moment something joyful, some half-remembered thing that belongs to the past. You sense freedom. The feeling passes quickly. You turn and walk out into the lonely night.
This vision of a future Britain might not be as laughable as it sounds. Back in the 1980s, when this column warned the day would come when smoking would be banned, health warnings put on bottles of alcohol, and cream buns classified as dangerous substances, that, too, was thought laughable. It’s not so funny now.
Britain is indeed two nations; not the rich and the poor, or the North and the South, or the chavs and the toffs, but those who wish to be grown-up human beings breathing the air of freedom and those who want to stop them – for their own good, of course. We are all born either with an itch to live life or an itch to improve upon life. The improvers soon discover that the path to utopia is strewn with obstacles, mainly in the shape of all those people who want to be left alone. There is an inevitable clash between the two, and the improvers tend to come out on top. Why? Because they have the power. Their sense of mission leads them into medicine, social services, single-issue lobby groups, and, above all, politics. They are single-minded and driven, unlike the freedom lovers who are far too busy getting on with the serious – and fun – business of living to trouble themselves with things that are unimportant, such as the given fact that life is full of risk. That is how freedom is lost, not in a single blow like a pulled rug, but bit by bit, so we hardly notice its shrinking.
It is happening with alcohol now. As soon as the prohibitionists achieved the goal for which they had long yearned and for which they had striven so hard – the criminalisation of smokers – and celebrated with a cup or two of camomile tea, they turned their attention to alcohol. Here was unfinished business that could now receive their undivided attention.
The parallels between this campaign and the anti-tobacco mission are plain. The relentless, drip drip of propaganda; the increasingly hysterical warnings; the mounting, pseudo-scientific evidence of new and terrible effects of even modest consumption; the calls for health warnings, price increases, bans and prohibitions.
In the last few weeks alone The British Medical Association called for the alcohol content of drinks to be displayed on signs and posters in bars, and on wine lists; the Royal College of Physicians called for restrictions to be placed on supermarkets selling discounted alcohol; the Government announced that middle class wine lovers will be targeted alongside anti-social teenage binge drinkers; the European Commission called for the dangers of alcohol to be highlighted on bottles and cans; Alcohol Concern said parents who give alcohol to children under the age of 15 – even with a meal at home – should face prosecution; a “team of leading scientists” said alcohol was “much more harmful” than the Class A drug ecstasy; various experts said, inter alia, that binge drinking more than doubles the risk of breast cancer, alcohol costs Britain £55m a day, the only safe level of alcohol for pregnant women is none at all, alcohol costs the NHS £65m a year; on and on goes the propaganda in a relentless stream leading inevitably to something very like prohibition. You have been warned.