Britain has a drinking problem. There I said it. And if you think we don’t, let’s have this conversation at 11.30 in any City Centre on a Saturday night.
The sprawling masses of Orc-like beings shouting, chanting, throwing up, falling over with their pants around their ankles is a sight you rarely see on the continent. Yet, according to recent studies Europeans drink more than us, but don’t demonstrate the same loutish-drink behavior that we do in the UK… why is this?
Many studies have been conducted into analysing this exact question, yet none come up with a definitive answer. However, it is in my opinion that the concoction (pun intended) between our history and geography has contributed to a permanent genetic ‘lets get as abhorrently drunk as possible’ component to develop within us Brits. This genetic trait has since become normalised within our society, compared to other countries (particularly in the Med), where the opposite has happened. Civilised drinking accompanied with controlled inebriation in a peaceful and harmonious environment is the norm. Why has the divide happened and when/what contributed to it?
Firstly let me briefly brush upon our problematic drinking culture.
Without delving too far into boring news articles/shocking headlines I believe that this survey summaries our drinking problem very nicely:
When asked to name British people’s worst characteristics, from 5000 non-Brits people surveyed, 27 per cent of those ticked “drink too much alcohol” – a figure which rose to 34 per cent if the person had actually visited the UK and experienced the drinking culture first hand.
This is hardly surprising given our loutish behaviour abroad infecting nice coastal towns and regions of Europe- but given that this statistic rises once those surveyed had visited Britain, really does amplify our drinking problem that is so embedded within our society.
In addition, it’s hardly surprising that liver disease is the only major cause of death in Britain which is rising, with liver cirrhosis fatalities in Britain up fivefold since 1970, whereas France, Spain and Italy have gone in the opposite direction.
Attempts to tackle this
Of course sucesssive Governments recognise that there is indeed a problem within Britain and British society as a whole, which has led to a multitude of policies in order to tackle our drinking problem.
Taxation has been the main form a deterrent from the liquor which has seen Britain rise to third-higest in alcohol taxes in Europe. Yet despite the price of booze rising over the years, people are still willing to spend more on getting cut and make sacrifices elsewhere.
The Government realised that slashing taxes on wine and beer would not make people in Glasgow and Belfast drink like Italians or Greeks. So far attempts to create a more mature drinking culture through relaxing closing-time laws (a maddening and infantilising restriction) have also failed to curb booze Britain.
So if it’s not the price of booze, or the urgency to drink it, then what are the reasons why we drink so much?
First let me start with a tenuous point, but one that I still feel is relevant in this debate. Geography. The location of our glorious British Isles lends itself to crappy weather.
The atavistic lure of a roaring fire and the warmth of the pub on dark winter afternoons is too much for most people to turn down at least 10/12 months of the year when the weather is awful. Historically pubs gave the overcrowded, urban poor a surrogate home away from the slums, which is perhaps why so many of them still feel like someone’s living room. We’re losing some of that now, but the need for a short, sharp burst of comfort remains, and can be seen echoed in modern, competitive drinking games
Agriculturally our geography and weather may also contribute to our historically embedded social norm of being completely wasted too.
Unpredictable weather patterns produced lean years for the grains or honey from which booze was made. And the lack of sunlight may make people more depressed and susceptible to heavier drinking in winter. It is well documented that in northern European culture consumption was characterised by extremes of heavy episodic drinking, but also periods of abstinence, due to the weather and climate. Sound like you most weekdays/weekends, or Dry-January after a boozy Christmas? Blame the climate.
Conversely societies with generally positive beliefs and expectancies about alcohol (variously defined as ‘non-Temperance’, ‘wet’, ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘integrated’ drinking-cultures) experience significantly fewer alcohol-related problems; negative or inconsistent beliefs and expectancies with booze, compared to us temperate, ‘dry’, ‘Nordic’ or ‘ambivalent’ drinking-cultures, which are associated with higher levels of alcohol-related problems.
Most importantly it is the circumstance of our historical predicaments, alongside pure chance which has cemented the ‘booze trait’ into our society.
First, let me start from the beginning.
Alcohol has played a central role in almost all human cultures since Neolithic times (about 4000 BC). All societies, without exception, make use of intoxicating substances, alcohol being by far the most common. Yet documentations of attitudes towards alcohol and its relationship within society weren’t documented until Roman Empire.
We didn’t get on to the vinum until the Romans came with their wine diluted with water – a habit they picked up from the Greeks (one part wine to four parts water when the weather was hot). Which perhaps explains why their contemporaries said the Greeks were among the most temperate of ancient peoples.
The Romans, despite what you see on the telly nowadays, were generally moderate too, though their traditional values of temperance, frugality and simplicity did give way at times to heavy drinking, degeneracy and corruption.
Just our luck, then, that their arrival in Britain coincided with one of their binge periods – the four emperors who ruled from AD37 to AD69 were all known for their abusive drinking.
So from the outset there were two cultures. Under the Roman model, wine was consumed with food. Drunkenness was not the norm, and children were often given diluted wine with meals. Or as a modern sociologist would put it, drink was associated with few psycho-social problems and few policies were in place to control the use of alcohol. It’s a model which still holds sway in Mediterranean countries.
In contrast northern Europeans, and the British in particular, had never been known to drink sensibly – as far back as the early medieval period, continental observers spoke with horror about the Anglo-Saxons and their hopeless drunkenness (indeed many English soldiers got drunk on the eve of the Battle of Hastings; I can’t imagine the sight of 9,000 heavily armed Normans would play well with a hangover)
Now, when the Roman empire fell did this schism of ‘two cultures’ continue to further embed itself into each civilisation?
Again, there is convincing evidence that the development of agriculture – regarded as the foundation of civilisation – was based on the cultivation of grain for beer, as much as for bread.
In the early days beer was primarily a food, rich in carbohydrates. Some historians have speculated that ale, a thick and nutritious soupy beverage, may have preceded bread as a staple.
Brewing was then left to women. There was another practical point. Beer had been boiled, contained bug-killing yeast and alcohol, so it was less likely to give you cholera than the local water.
And it could be stored longer than grain or bread without fear of pest infestation or rotting. Beer was good for you
In medieval England they got three fermentations from the mash, with the strongest going to the men, the second to the women and the “small beer” of the third – with an alcoholic proof of about 2.5 per cent – to the children, the nuns and the monks.
They were not stinting. In some monasteries they were allocated 10 pints of small beer per monk per day. And some of the monks kept the strong stuff back for themselves. As the Middle Ages reached their height selling beer was a key component of many monastic economies.
However gradually the home breweries became inns and taverns to provide sustenance for travellers and pilgrims. Brewers were recognised as a guild in England. By the 16th century, in Coventry, the average amount of beer and ale consumed was 17 pints per person per week.
Wine continued as a minority interest. The monks, again, made the best vino use in the Eucharist. But the wine the nobility drank was imported, mainly from France. Later there were also some spirits, which had been invented by Muslim alchemists, made its way to Europe in the 11th century.
But wine could not withstand the onslaught of gin. The Navigation Act of 1651 dictated that European vessels were only allowed to import goods from their own nations into England.
Gin was invented in Holland around 1650 by distilling grain with juniper berries. It was cheap and the supply was fed by laws in 1690 to encourage the distillation and sale of spirits to increase incomes of the landed aristocracy
When the law was passed gin production stood at a million gallons a year. Within seven years the English population, of less than seven million, was drinking an annual 18 million gallons.
The gallons of Gin entering the UK conicided with the Industrial Revolution, which help facilitate the Gin Epidemic.
Many of the Industrial Revolution’s poor remained permanently inebriated in their search for relief from the terrible factory conditions.
Eventually gin consumption waned as beer became better and cheaper, and tea and coffee became available. But in the industrial revolution factories needed a reliable work force. Drunkenness became a threat to industrial efficiency. As towns grew rapidly around factories problems such as urban crime, poverty and high infant mortality increased. Gross overcrowding was the root cause but alcohol took a lot of the blame.
When did Governments start to act?
It was only when booze became an issue of national security that the government decided to act. During the First World War, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female arms workers. Britain was “fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink”, he said.
So as you can see, booze was heavily embedded within our society from a matter of historical circumstance, chance and climate. Yet how has this affected not only our social norms, but also our genetics?
Like the Asian flush, some alcohol-related genes are particularly prevalent in certain ethnic or geographic groups. A recent study in Nature found that a rare variation in the HTR2b gene, linked to severe impulsiveness, is found almost exclusively in Finnish people. “Almost all these severely impulsive individuals are also alcoholic, and their worse impulsive problems occurred while they were drunk,” says Dr. Goldman, the study’s senior investigator.
The Finns are famously reckless and uncontrollable drinkers, and Finland has even higher alcohol taxes than Britain, but attempts by the government there to lower them have coincided with increases in violence (a few years back a Viz wall poster of Europe illustrated Finland with a man surrounded by vodka bottles, which is not entirely unfair).
Compared that to the Roman-influenced, wine sipping Europeans we can see further why the genetics and social climate has contributed to our seemingly non existent calm and harmonious drinking culture in Britain.
Will this predicament ever change?
I’m sure you can appreciate how through the combination of socialisation alongside genetics we have developed into a nation of unrelenting booze-hounds. Will this ever change? Probably not in my lifetime. It’ll take a seismic cultural shift and a change in our attitudes for us to begin to develop our Mediterranean neighbour’s traits. And even then, as discussed above, our genetical deposition to drinking still may hold firm over changed social norms.