Monday, December 08, 2008



My sexy, charismatic, wise (well, after a few shorts, anyway) friend Mr Costigan Quist writes today of the Labour Government’s latest puritanical sallies back into the progressive-conservative don’t-do-what-you-want-it’s-not-good-for-you brigades of a century ago. Occasional drinking is, they suggest, exactly on a par with helpless drug addiction, and it’s just as harmful for your child to see you with a glass of wine in your hand once a week as it is a glass syringe once an hour. Is it bollocks. Good timing, though, with debates raging on how libertarian Liberals should be, and at the seventy-fifth anniversary of prohibition’s scrapping.

If you saunter over to Mr Quist’s Himmelgarten Café this morning for a tipple, then, you’ll find something rather hard to swallow: Costigan thoroughly fisks a report for the Department for Children, Schools and Families (shortly to be renamed the Department for All-Purpose Reasons to Boss You About) that takes a pathological approach to any drinking at all, attacking any views other than their own in increasingly hysterical terms.

Labour – The Party That Likes To Say ‘Don’t Do That’

New Labour was born with a streak of bossiness. I remember back in 1995 calling Mr Blair a “Social and Christian Democrat” and predicting that, as they’d given up on socialist pretensions to muck about with the economy, their controlling instincts would now turn to bossing people about in their personal lives. For several years, this tendency fought with what, in retrospect, now look like a few more liberal instincts – though the moralising forbidders were almost always on top. These days, as they’re trying to rediscover the joy of ordering the economy about (but not actually sure what to do with it), most of the Labour Government’s day-to-day initiatives remain an ever-increasingly shrill and ambitious wish-list of control over people’s everyday lives and choices, even when everyone involved is consenting, simply because they think a couple of people in government know better than 60-odd million other people I could mention if I tripped over another discarded Labour Government data stick in the street.

The Labour Government often tries to hide its bossiness, whether as a health measure or a ‘crackdown’ (because those are always bound to be good), and while I used to think they were just pathetically desperate to cuddle the Daily Mail (a ‘disgust reaction’ is of course a very bad reason to oppose anything in politics but, well, Eeewww), after more than a decade it’s quite obvious that they mean it. Mr Brown sincerely believes that anyone not in (Labour Government-approved) work is a moral degenerate and so naturally punishes the old, the sick, the parents or the increasing army of those who can’t find jobs after he’s trashed the economy; many of his underlings betray similarly fanatical zealotry against many ways in which people consentingly enjoy themselves, but try to bring in harshly bossy legislation in stages and recruit armies of form-fillers and curtain-twitchers, so they don’t have to defend their outright prohibitionist instincts.

We won’t actually completely ban smoking, say the Labour Government… But we know it’ll be good for you if we stop you doing it in as many particular places as we can think of, even if everyone there consents. We won’t actually completely ban prostitution, say the Labour Government… But we know it’ll be good for you if we conflate utterly different statistics to justify making it virtually illegal for any man to pay for sex with a woman (because all prostitutes are women and all clients are men, at least in Labour Government Ministers’ reality-detached minds)… We won’t actually completely ban alcohol, say the Labour Government… But we know it’ll be good for you if we found ways to manage it slice by salami slice. And so on.

Liberals Say “Fuck Off To the Daily Mail

The fact that many of the newly invented ‘crimes’ that Labour use the law to crusade against as gross moral turpitude are introduced in an incremental fashion so that each stage can be spun as reasonable, or that many of them are only indulged in by a minority – or that only a minority will admit to them – and that they can whip up tabloid hysteria against Nasty Things (Except On Our Pages) means that Liberal politicians are too hesitant to oppose them with the resounding “Fuck right off!” that they deserve. It’s sadly true that the Liberal Democrats have a sizeable minority of ‘ban nasty things for people’s own good’ mentality, but certainly much more unfortunately true that a large body of Liberal Democrats have no interest in banning things, say live and let live, but aren’t willing to stick their necks out for something that isn’t very important, doesn’t affect many people, and is very unpopular anyway.

I’ve said for a long time now, and feel much more free to say out now I’m no longer on the Federal Policy Committee, that the Liberal Democrats should announce a presumption against any new bans on anything, and make a much bigger noise each time the Labour Government gets bossy. I know we do it on occasion, and sometimes very well, including making a start on what nonsenses we’d repeal in a Freedom Law, but it’s far from an across-the-board line. It’s certainly never a campaigning issue, except on rare occasions where we can say it’s about money – such as ID cards – or doing something nasty to ‘nice’ people – such as holding the DNA of innocent people and kids because, hell, they’re bound to be guilty eventually. People ought to know, instinctively, that the Liberal Democrats are against people being bossed about, and for people being able to do what they want as long as they don’t harm others, whether people are nice or nasty. At the moment, I doubt a lot of even our elected representatives know that, and I’d be hard-put to point out solid policies to make it clear (when we were all writing the 2001 Manifesto, for example, it was fairly straightforward to come up with a ‘Green Action’ point on every page, but there were big arguments on coming up with even the most anodyne points to fill equivalent freedom boxes – partly because our policies were so threadbare on freedom directly, and partly because people disagreed with delivering it).

One example of the party’s occasionally mind-boggling timidity that remains close to my heart was when, some years ago, I wrote a letter to a newspaper expressing my frustration and disbelief at the media hagiography of Tony Martin. I pointed out that calling him a “hero” for shooting an unarmed man who was running away in the back was not a definition of “hero” I would be comfortable ever teaching a child, and that just because he was found sufficiently mentally disturbed that he wasn’t legally a murderer wouldn’t have stopped what he did being a murder if he’d been in full possession of his faculties. I signed myself as Vice-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee, which indeed I was. I was called into Cowley Street and read the riot act, and told in no uncertain times that I was not to mention I was Vice-Chair of the Policy Committee if I wanted to say anything so wildly contentious, and that people had been ringing up and threatening to resign their memberships because of me (and to think a decade earlier that was only happening because I wanted to legalise drugs and abolish the Queen, rather than say something really radical like ‘murder is bad’). I know, I know, I’m against bans and all that, but – on the one hand this, on the other hand that – I do draw the line at murder, which I know makes me a dangerous Liberal to many insane frothing right-wing bigots, as long as it’s the wrong kind of murder. As I’ve said so often before, the law should focus on whether actions are right or wrong and what harm is done by them, not on making moral judgments about whether people are nice people or nasty people.

Liberals must stand up against the Labour Government / Daily Mail axis of bossiness. The Liberal Democrats should shout that we will stop government meddling in things that are nobody’s business but your own. That it’s government’s place to stop bullying, not to be the biggest bully of the lot. That the government and that hysterical, reactionary rags do not know best for you; that you know what’s best for you, because everyone’s best is different. We should state as a policy principle that people can do whatever they like, as long as they don’t hurt others, and as long as they give their informed consent. So, naturally, all sorts of things should have to wait until you’re an adult and can make an informed decision – but it’s not the job of one set of adults with power to order all the adults in the country to conform to their whims. The very idea of ‘victimless crime’ should be an abhorrence: if there’s no victim, there shouldn’t be a sodding crime. And rather than running piecemeal to paper over each of the Labour Government’s insane bits of bossiness, depending on what time of day it is and what our own spokesperson’s whim is, we should leave people in no doubt what our presumption is.

Years ago, I suggested the slogan “Liberal Democrats: the party that says sex is all right”; I came up with it again last week during a lively debate on expressing what the Liberal Democrats stand for in a sentence. I then suggested, again slightly tongue-in-cheek but still getting the point over better than most of the others, “Liberal Democrats. For people and things the Daily Mail doesn’t like” or “For government by the Daily Mail, vote for the other two. To tell the Daily Mail to f*** off, vote Lib Dem.” It may not cover everything but, perhaps tellingly, people seemed much more energised by that than by my (completely ignored) attempt to put ‘freedom to live your own life’ into on-the-doorstep language.

Because Prohibition Went So Well Last Time

Of course, politicians who claim to be progressives but who are in fact deeply socially conservative have been here before, always under the rallying cry of ‘We will improve you, because we know best for you’. Most infamously, a huge coalition of ‘progressives’ and social conservatives, with plenty of religion – though, as ever, they arranged both for people they didn’t like to be victimised and for the law to have a socking great get-out for religion itself, just like modern churches’ vicious bigotry and discrimination while wailing that anyone who hurts their feet when they kick them is persecuting them – and ‘we know what’s best for working people’ stirred in for good measure, managed to get prohibition of alcohol into the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

It was a disaster of epic proportions.

Last Friday, then, was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the repeal of prohibition through yet another amendment to the US Constitution, after all the people who charged into it were forced shame-facedly to admit that it had been utterly counter-productive. Those amendments are incredibly hard to deliver, but the fact that prohibition incredibly made it to the heart of US federal law tells you a lot about how bans can work. The letter of them passes because, although a large minority of people may be criminalised, and the majority may well not give a damn, moralising political and media hysteria can bully so many people into silence that opposition is too intimidated to stop it. But then the ban is a disaster in practice, because otherwise law-abiding people find ways round it – which means a jackpot for gangsters, no quality control, and that such a patently absurd law brings the whole of the Rule of Law into disrepute. Just because you can browbeat people into acquiescence, that’s not a good basis for law (and note that I’m not even going into one about how the law shouldn’t be used by genuine majorities to bash minorities, or I’d be here all day).

Prohibition is the criminals’ best friend. And the more popular the thing that’s prohibited is, the better. Governments can get away with banning small, little-practiced activities that they have no business banning; but if they ban something that a large section of the population does, prohibition is shown up as the massive absurdity that it is. Let me count just a few of the ways. From the government side, they have to expend massive extra law enforcement resources, at exactly the same time as people lose faith in a crazy law and the government loses its tax revenues, too. If the argument for banning something was that it’s associated with health problems, then that’s a disaster, too. Doing something illegal means people are far less likely to seek medical advice. Doing something illegal that most people know to be relatively harmless means that they’re much less likely to take seriously government warnings about something that may be much more harmful. And, while legal substances or activities can be subject to government quality control and health and safety inspection, the more illegal it is, the more slipshod and dangerous it can be with impunity. And, best of all, prohibition takes something that would be practised with a degree of openness and safety and gives every penny of the money to crooks who have it in their interests to keep it hidden and have very little interest in safety. Prohibition gets ordinary, law-abiding people into contact with crooks, undermines respect for the law, stops them being safe, and lets international and local gangsters all laugh all the way to the bank. It’s the biggest boost for crime on the entire planet.

Still, it’s a good job that we all learnt our lessons from the United States seventy-five years ago and that, say, no drugs less harmful and addictive than alcohol are massive money-spinners now for international crime.


In Which Alex Meanders Down Memory Lane, Surprisingly Without the Aid of Getting Off His Face

And, at last, back to the drinks table where I started. Though I’ll drink a lot more of the non-alcoholic stuff to fuel a colossal series of raids on the buffet, I’m happy to have a glass of champagne at a wedding, wine at a do, or embarrass friends hideously by asking for a chocolate liqueur instead of something butch in a bar… But, those aside, I rarely drink. I never have, despite worrying my parents as a child when a report came back to them from a Sunday School class in which all the kids were asked what their favourite food and drink were: I answered “wine and cheese,” despite not particularly liking cheese and not being in any position to tell whether I liked wine. The odd thing is, when the other kids were saying things like chocolate, chips, burgers or beans on toast (all of which I still prefer to wine or cheese to this day, admittedly), I was the only one who was impeccably Biblical – King David had cheese, you know, and he never did anything dodgy, did he (not that was mentioned in Sunday School, anyway), and the Bible’s tanked up with wine from end to end. But, no, I was the one who got it in the neck. I suspect it wasn’t about the cheese. Thank goodness they were strict Baptists rather than Methodists, or they’d have chucked me out many years earlier than they actually did. So why this particular eccentricity? Well, because I was reading Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks, in which the Doctor binges on both at taxpayers’ expense and hypocritically has a go at a leading diplomat for keeping a well-stocked larder, as he empties it. So, with the Doctor a more vivid role model to me even than that bloke who arranged to have the husband of the woman he fancied cut to pieces or that bloke who turns non-alcoholic party beverages into highly intoxicating ones, each of whom Sunday School tried to persuade me was better, it was only natural that I should testify out of allegiance rather than taste. If I’d been five or so years older and seen the story on TV, of course, I might have seen the two lead characters and been put off by their whine and cheesiness.

I suspect I never got into the habit of drinking much in part because I once helped ‘serve’ drinks at my Dad’s office party, sometime before the age of ten, was fascinated by all the buttons to push, pushed them (being an experimentative child) and made myself very ill. It’ll also be because I didn’t like the taste of much of it when all my friends were throwing surreptitious parties in their parents’ absence, and was sufficiently non-conformist that I didn’t see the point in either pretending to enjoy it or in ‘acquiring’ the taste. Oh, and because I was gay and – difficult as it is to believe now – was wary enough of betraying that secret that I didn’t want to lose control. If they’d done alcopops back then and I’d had a boyfriend (sniff), maybe I’d have done more than experimented with getting drunk a couple of times and not thinking much of it.

Hmm, something I’ve not thought about for about eighteen years: when I was at Sixth Form, I’m sure I went away for the weekend with some sort of temperance society. I don’t remember much of it, except that it was pretty countryside, and I viewed it very much as weekend away with a friend of mine, with all the temperance propaganda washing straight over me. It certainly didn’t turn my friend Tom into a raging campaigner: I’m fairly sure he only got the non-alcoholic freebie because it came through the religious studies people, and he was their mate. It absolutely wasn’t because he was a total abstainer. He picked me to come along partly as a mate and partly because I tended not to drink and could therefore attend the freebie with a straighter face than he could, and possibly act as cover if he sidled off to the pub. I often found myself in that position: because I couldn’t be arsed about drinking, friends would get me to go down the offy and buy them whatever they wanted. It wasn’t that I looked older, particularly, but that I didn’t care, so I didn’t give off those waves of teenage desperation. Well, not about booze, anyway.

I did once land a friend in trouble when being the presentable, non-drinking one; he’d been knocking it back at a church youth social (yes, all right, two different churches every Sunday and Catholic comps meant masses of religion in my misspent youth), so I was prodded forward in the early hours as a demonstration of sobriety to impress the ferocious aunt he was staying with while he lurked biliously behind me. “Hello!” I cried cheerily. “This is your early warning make-up call.” And just because I tripped over my words ever so slightly, she wouldn’t believe I was sober. Life can be so unfair to teenagers. On the other hand, she looked terribly disappointed when she cruelly cooked a massive fry-up for us in the morning, and I brightly asked for seconds. I like fry-ups. Her nephew couldn’t manage his, for some reason…

At this stage, it would of course undermine Mr Quist’s case as a moderate drinker were I to mention I was at his stag do, so I’ll stop there.

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Are you going to catch up with your Doctor Who posts now you're better?

I was enjoying those;-)
Thank you - I enjoyed yours, too, and my equivalent may have quite a bit in common ;-)

Yes, I will, and have been pottering away at some drafts. Not sure yet whether to catch up all the way in one great wodge or fire them out in irregular bursts.
At the risk of sounding like Rod Stewart: Have I told you lately that I love you?

PS: have been indoctrinating the young one. She asked if I had any old episodes of Doctor Who that had Sarah-Jane in, and so we watched the first two episodes of Genesis of the Daleks before today's SJA...
Wow. I agreed with (and read!) virtually every word of this. Brilliant post Alex :)
It's both profoundly depressing and entirely unsurprising that you, as the writer of this post, are "no longer on the Federal Policy Committee".

I'm »« this close to telling Cowley Street and most of the Parliamentary Party to fuck right off, but there's still nowhere less bad to turn to.

Oh, and bravo! once again :)
Thanks Jennie (big hug), Charlotte and Pete!

Jennie - and I you. How was Genesis been going down? And have you considered Robot, btw? Sarah Jane and the Brig, and story I can't help loving.

And, gosh, Charlotte :$

And finally, Pete... I always have to smile at "nowhere less bad". I know. I'm usually more optimistic than that, but it still holds true! Don't worry tremendously about me not being on the FPC, though; I'll probably restand at some future point, but it's not because of conspiracy, losing an election or me leaving in a huff - I was just frustrated that, with my health the way it is, I was missing half the meetings, so I should stand down and hope someone I agree with and can actually get there gets elected! Must work out what I think of the new Committee at some point... ;-)
I too agree with you on this. I remember being shocked at the reports of the levels of binge drinking in this country. However I then read that the official definition of a binge drinker (for a male at least) is someone who drinks 8 units in a session at least once a week. In other words, if you're in the habit, say of going out on a Friday night and having four pints, you are classed as part of our "binge drinking problem". Maybe it's just the circles I move in but I really don't think that a regular drinker of 8 units has a problem (I had at least 8 units at last night's local Exec) and including such people in binge drinking figures renders those figures meaningless.

I think a fair bit of the blame can be placed at the feet of the healthcare prfession. Ian Blair was rightly criticised for using his position to try to weigh in on areas outside his remit but doctors etc. have been doing this for years in the most brazen, achingly self-righteous manner.
Painfully Liberal might be interested to know that although the government's recommended limit for men is 21 units a week, this figure was, in fact, plucked out of a doctor's arse because they hadn't done any studies. Now they HAVE done studies, they have discovered that the optimum level of alcohol consumption is between 35 and 50 units a week, and you have to drink more than 60 a week before you become as unhealthy as a tee-totaller.

Of course, the government doesn't want you to know this, but if you look for it, the research is out there.

Alex is right: this government is all about hectoring control, and you don't want to take any of their puritanical moralising at face value.

Also: don't despair of our party. There are plenty of genuine Liberals in it. I know, I'm one of 'em.

Alex: Robot sounds like a plan to me. Mmmmmm Brig...
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