Thursday, 8 January 2015

Alcohol and larger hopes

I don’t usually write particularly personal blogs, and I’m occasionally mocked for my slightly po-faced attitude to Twitter – it’s for my professional life and interests, while I use Facebook for the personal.  Striking this balance is, I think, more important for politicians, who feel the need to present a ‘human’ face through public (social) media, than for academics and civil servants (like me) who can more easily divide their personal and professional lives.

But today I do want to write something a bit more personal (or perhaps self-reflective would be more accurate) but with clear implications for policy – and I think it’s important because of the original purpose of this blog to contribute to informed and open debates around policy.

The prompt for this post is the slightly odd conjunction of reading and old blog post by Will Davies on Boyhood by chance today, and then an IAS newsletter noting Labour’s commitment to introducing public health as a fifth licensing objective.  These two together got me thinking (yet again) about why policymakers get interested in alcohol and other people’s drinking.

Fundamentally, this is the point Jon Foster made to me recently in an exchange with me on Twitter.  I was wondering whether it was right to say someone should necessarily reduce their alcohol consumption simply if they’re drinking more than healthy guidelines, if they’re not dependent.  For me, the health consideration and a doctor’s advice are only a part of what a utilitarian might think of in terms of a cost/benefit analysis: do the positives of taste, intoxication and (possibly) social interaction outweigh the health risks?  One factor perhaps shouldn’t trump the others.  Jon, though, was unequivocal that, yes, that individual should drink less.

We can argue whether this is best labelled a ‘moral’ injunction (as I think Henry Yeomans would, given his recently published book), but it’s certainly something normative that hints at some Aristotelian idea of the good life, even if that’s perhaps unconscious or not fully formed.  It’s the old dilemma for liberalism of higher and lower pleasures.

And here’s where Will Davies’ stuff comes in.  He sees in Boyhood and My Struggle something of an acceptance of ‘conservative communism’ through the family – in the words of Billy Joel (which Davies certainly doesn’t use), we’ve ‘found that just surviving was a noble fight’.  Davies finishes his commentary, though, with a message of sadness: “What is moving and saddening in both Boyhood and My Struggle is the beauty and failures of such ‘communism’, but this is also partly about the lack of any larger hopes beyond the struggling through.”

Well how is this blog personal, as I promised (or threatened)?  Jon Foster is arguing that people should drink less on the basis that there are (not in his words) ‘larger hopes’ to life beyond the pleasures of (relatively heavy) drinking.  And the same thing occasionally occurs to me: I try to judge my actions (particularly professionally and politically) by the somewhat naïve adolescent question: ‘am I making the world a better place?’  At some level my political views are based on the idea of improving the ‘lot’ of a wider public than I think contemporary politics manages, and my professional work – whether for the council or as an academic – could be seen as aiming to improve the situations in which people find themselves making decisions about their lives.

But in fact I don’t have any of the certainty of Jon Foster or those brandishing new year’s resolutions or personal achievements on Facebook.  I’d like to think there’s ‘larger hopes’ than sex and drugs and rock and roll (and fame and fortune for their own sake), but I’m not quite sure what those are for me, beyond opening up possibilities for other people to achieve their larger hopes.

And this does have some kind of relevance to policy, because it explains my slightly strange, ambivalent attitude to alcohol policy and public health of both supporting public health aims and dismissing them, almost simultaneously.  I defend my own right to drink ‘excessively’*, and there’s no doubt I find it pleasurable, but that’s partly a result of my past experiences and the society I’ve grown up in.  At the same time, I do hope that there are some larger hopes, and that people can find these for themselves rather than automatically resorting to alcohol as a source of pleasure, as those in my particular cohort seem to have done.**

So as Dry January continues, I can only drink to other people’s health and hope for a more healthy debate on alcohol policy, where we can admit that our underlying values and principles shape the policy positions we take.

And maybe my confused position is in fact an alcohol policy fit for our time, if Will Davies is to be believed:

“The Culture Wars are not over, and have not been won by either side.  But we are exhausted by them.  We are now at the stage of muddling through, hoping still for justice, but perhaps making do with the form of conservative communism that the family can still offer.”

Perhaps the pub is another institution of this conservative communism, with its communal space and practices, the rounds where we don’t calculate or ‘settle up’, and the drinking without explicitly aiming for intoxication – a place where we’re just muddling (or fuddling) through.  And that's not such a sad thought to start the year with.

*In different forms and to different extents depending on the occasion, but generally in breach of the recommended guidelines.

**Although I’d have to do some more careful analysis to prove it, we represent something of a bulge in the figures for drinking, which has declined since we hit our mid-20s, as the 18-24 year-olds since haven’t drunk as much, and have continued not to drink as much as they’ve got older.

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