Arguably, the growing backlash against New Labour top-down nannying was one of the dynamics that lost Labour the 2010 election. David Cameron’s small state Big Society rhetoric struck a chord with a nation tired of parenting tsars and citizenship classes.
So it grates to hear Cameron and co talking about the need for minimum prices for a unit of alcohol, to stop us drinking so much. Voices of dissent talk about how this is an unacceptable brake on the free market, and therefore probably illegal under the EU’s competition laws. But what about the basic right to get drunk? Specifically, why should the rich be allowed to exercise that right so much more freely than the poor?
The class conceit is astonishing. Having found myself more than once in a West End bar where a pint of beer costs a lot more than a South London full breakfast and having occasionally observed feral City of London suits at full throttle, I can certify that binge drinking is not the unique curse of the prole.
Not that class conceit is the unique curse of the Tories: the Blair/Brown war on fags and deep fried food (cheered on by a middle class public dieting on TV images of fat poor kids sent to bootcamp and thin posh ladies telling us what not to wear) was as at least in part a cultural crusade against an underclass who refused the aspirational myths of New Labour’s classless society. Behind the Big Society makeover, there is a striking continuity between the Islington prejudices of the Blair coterie and the Notting Hill prejudices of the Cameronians. The Coalition government actually has a "Champion for Active Safer Communities", which is about as New Labour as you can get
What’s galling, though, is the hypocrisy and double standards. There’s the duplicity of talking libertarian while doing authoritarian. But there’s also the duplicity of refusal to regulate the rapacious turbo-capitalism that pays for the banksters’ binge-drinking combined with an insistence on regularing the private drinking habits of the low income majority.
Despite Cameron’s fresh-faced new man image, there’s something deeply Victorian about this hypocrisy. I was reminded of Stephen Sedley, reviewing a history of British law, and his comments on the nineteenth century:
Reading Smith’s sometimes comical account of the legislative drive against prostitution, gambling and obscenity, I wonder whether the main restraint on the prurient outrage of the good and godly was probably not so much principled libertarianism as the need of respectable male society to have private access to prostitutes, to be able to place bets with its own bookies and to keep its own private libraries. So it was street prostitution, street betting and the public sale of offensive literature that were criminalised by Parliament and energetically prosecuted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice and its avatars.That’s the Cameron Tories isn’t it: binge drinking for the Bullingden boys, but protect the proles on the street from their own vices.
Rant over. Off to open a can of Tennent’s Super.