Congratulations if you, like me, have just completed a Dry January. My feeling of smugness at having not touched a drop of alcohol since new year’s eve is diluted somewhat by the fact that I am a moderate drinker, and can go a week or two sans booze without noticing. For many more people, a month without even a swift half after work or a glass of Merlot with dinner is a much more significant achievement.
Alcohol Concern organises Dry January to draw attention to the prevalence of cheap alcohol in our society, and to the dangers of its misuse. The challenge of Dry January is for people who are not dependent on alcohol to turn it down. It’s amazing how often in a month one is offered a drink. Booze is, of course, an addictive, poisonous narcotic. If it appeared today as a new, manufactured drug it would probably be banned. Because it has been consumed for as long as humans have cultivated plants, of course, it has a unique place in all cultures and societies. From Jesus’ miracle at Cana, to Hogarth’s Gin Lane, alcohol forms the central part of our myths, legends, rituals, customs, habits and shared culture.
People abusing alcohol cost the NHS around £3bn a year, from the treatment of bumped heads, to traffic ‘accidents’ and domestic violence. It costs many millions of people their families, their livelihoods, their health and their lives. Yet alcohol abuse is tolerated, and at times encouraged, in many parts of society. I’ve worked alongside alcoholics whose addiction was given far more latitude than if it had taken another form. Drinking heavily is still seen as ‘fun’, and excused as part of someone’s character and personality. So-and-so ‘likes a drink’ is more often than not a compliment than a warning.
There is a close link between alcohol and political culture. It is well known that parliament supplies its members with plentiful, subsidised alcohol, in a way that it doesn’t with other legal drugs such as nicotine. Parliament is powered by booze. It is no surprise that so many members of parliament have alcohol addictions. Many are voting through laws when they would be banned from driving cars. In May last year Speaker Bercow alluded to the problem of drunk MPs, and suggested, ‘There is some evidence now that more members and staff who have got drink-related issues are seeking help and that’s a positive.’
The case of Eric Joyce, who attacked fellow drinkers in one of the many Commons bars, drew attention to a much older, more widespread problem. In 2006, Charles Kennedy lost the leadership of the Liberal Democrats after admitting his alcoholism. Former Labour MP Fiona Jones, first elected in 1997, was found dead by her husband surrounded by 15 empty vodka bottles. She was just 49. George Brown was drunk for most of the time he was a senior Labour MP, including famously on national television giving a tribute to President Kennedy after his assassination. When Brown stood against Harold Wilson for the leadership in 1963, Tony Crosland called it a contest between ‘a drunk and a crook’. In my 20-odd years of hanging around the House of Commons and party conference I’ve seen plenty of MPs so drunk they cannot stand, speak or go about their business.
Is politics any worse than the law, banking, business or advertising? Certainly other high-pressure professions contain a fair share of people abusing drugs and alcohol. The difference is that admen don’t pass the laws or allocate the budgets that affect the rest of us. Bankers aren’t supposed to set a good example. Business leaders are not there to establish a moral tone for the nation. Yet members of parliament are not supposed to be some representative cross-section of the public – they are supposed to set a good example.
They should start by being sober when addressing parliament or passing laws (including voting). Parliament is their workplace, and being drunk in the workplace is forbidden in most organisations. Second, all subsidies should be removed from parliament’s bars. Third, greater support and treatment needs to be given to those MPs battling their addictions.
The Labour party was founded by people such as Keir Hardie who learned their organisational skills in the temperance movement. I’m not suggesting we bring back the ‘Pledge’, but we do need to recognise the huge misery and harm done by alcohol abuse when we design public policy across the fields of education, health and criminal justice.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.