Monday, 16 March 2009

In Vino Veritas, In Cervesio Felicitas

The advice of the chief medical officer to set minimum prices for alcohol addresses an important problem in exactly the wrong way. Britons drink more than anyone else in Europe, yet in attitude you'd think we'd only just discovered the stuff. The stereotype of French kids sipping wine at a family dinner, German teenagers knocking back a few social half-litres, and British youths marauding on White Lightning is extreme, yet the number of alcohol related incidents that tax NHS and police resources in Britain tell us there's something to it.

And it seems, we've always been this way. Samuel Johnson saw it as the great escape, Byron as an end in itself. Ambrose Bierce even credited it for the creation of an Empire, and the triumph of the Christian over the "abstentious Mohammedans" of India. This idea, that conquerors get drunk, work hard play hard, continues to permate our society. Why shouldn't we have a drink after work? Why, after spending all week bored at work and sat in traffic, can't we let our hair down at the weekend? This goes to the heart of the issue. When we work the longest hours in Europe, and are the most likely to live alone, is it any wonder the bottle seems a decent option?

The mixed messages from the government don't help. The issue time and again is that what works in other countries just doesn't work here. We all know that alcohol is far cheaper on the Continent, and more widely available, so that can't be the problem. Yet governments continue to participate in a sort of double-think. "Cafe culture" wouldn't work over here, because of existing issues with British society, so we're going to enact laws which restrict consumption, without dealing with the social concerns that make it a problem. It's cyclical. We won't have a more healthy relationship with alcohol until we approach it as adults, yet we can't do that while constantly being treated like naughty children whenever we pick up a bottle. Denial leads to excess, just look at 'abstinence only' sex education.

This action will not do one thing to limit the abuse of alcohol by anyone. If it takes an extra tenner a month out of a drunk's pocket, that's a tenner less he'll spend after alcohol. Another regressive tax from the party of the people. Alcohol in moderation is fairly benign, and a pint is probably doing you less damage than the pork scratchings you have with it. Taken to excess, drink is a route to oblivion, same as any other. And people who want to escape reality will do so, regardless of the cost. Someone who realises the risks to their health and wellbeing from getting trashed, and does it anyway, will not be discouraged by an extra quid from their pocket.

No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we're looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn't test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.
-P.J. O'Rourke

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Sometimes we do learn from history

The success of the rallies by UNITE in opposition to the shootings of two British soldiers and a police constable demonstrate that the people of the six counties are tired of bloodshed, whatever their community. There will be no loyalist retaliation, there will be no slide back to civil war. The Real IRA are on the wrong side of history. The utter abhorrence and contempt with which these killings have been met across the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic shows that the civilian support which sustained Sinn Fein-IRA for so long has gone, and is not coming back.

This has been top of the news for a week, and many have wondered why. The cynical have pointed out that these men were about to fly off to Afghanistan. Had they done so, and died on the Asian steppes instead of on an Ulster army base, they would scarcely have registered in the press. Yet I think the media attantion is more than justified. It is necessary to show these murderers what the world, even the people they claim to fight for, think of them. For murderers is the term. They are not warriors, they are not soldiers, they are hnot even terrorists. They are criminals, and when caught will be treated as such. That is the progress we have made, and it cannot be hidden by a balaclava, nor killed with a kalashnikov.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Gordon in Oxford

It seems somehow fitting that the first post on my now ressurected blog should come with the visit of a Labour Prime Minister to Oxford. Addressing a packed Sheldonian theatre, the PM was witty, charming, entirely different from the image we so often see on television. He referenced Gladstone, Disraeli, and of course the left's new icon of protection, Barack Obama. Indeed, the peculiar way the Vice-Chancellor introduced the PM put me instantly in mind of the inauguration. "We have had many Prime Ministers give this lecture; past, present and future." Now, perhaps I am just a suspicious sort of chap, but I think this may have been a reference to David Cameron who presented the lecture previously. Talk about calling it early! The Vice Chancellor probably objects to a non-Oxonian as PM, they don't go down too well.

Gordon's point though, about Britain needing more scientists, more engineers, more inventors was sound in many ways. Yet it's an old cry. The fact is that even during Britain's industrial heyday, the mills were just there to buy you a title. The giants of industry might have made their fortunes as Northern innovators, but they died as squires in the Home Counties. It seem we all want to read Greats. Even in the midst of a recession Teach First, one of the surest jobs around, can't get enough science teachers. The shift has to be cultural. We don't think an engineer is as good as a barrister. We'd like to be the boss, but actual employers? As my politics teacher once said, none of us want to be Mike Baldwin. And this in a way has led us to the financial mess. We want jobs where we don't get our hands dirty. We're a great nation for ideas, and a great nation when it comes to owning the fruits of those ideas. Yet the middle bit, the grimy bit, where the idea is made real with dirt and sweat and steel, that we don't like. We're above it. Or at least we think we are.

Yet that's the crucial step that gives you a manufacturing base, that provides the high tech jobs Gordon's always talking about. And it's why you should never count out the United States, who still have a passion for it. For you see, still in Britain, it's not how much money you make. It's whether that stain on your fingers is ink or oil, whether your uniform is a black gown or a blue boiler suit. We remain the most class-bound society on earth. We shuffle money. And we're damn good at it. But there's only so long you can trade on the Imperial reputation. Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to get our hands dirty.