- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2005

LONDON — More than nine decades after Britain curtailed pub hours to get wartime munitions workers back to their jobs, round-the-clock public boozing is about to become a fact of 21st-century life.

Hundreds of pubs, clubs, hotels and inns across England and Wales have been granted licenses to serve alcohol for up to 24 hours a day beginning Thursday.

Paradoxically, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government is promoting the change as a solution to “binge drinking,” a national problem that leads to city streets and town lanes being awash in vomit and urine nightly from alcoholic overindulgence.

Mr. Blair and his ministers hope the relaxation of the drinking laws will lead to a European-style cafe culture in which patrons linger for hours over a bottle of wine as in Paris or Rome, or a couple of steins of beer as they do in Berlin.

But police, judges, doctors and other critics fear they will, instead, get a quantum leap in the binge drinking that — along with loutish behavior, street fighting and related crimes — already plagues the land.

Even Mr. Blair’s culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, who helped spearhead the changes in the licensing laws through Parliament, concedes that, “Yes, you may see a rise in violent alcohol-related crime.”

Her ministerial colleague, Home Secretary Charles Clarke, suggested that, far from leisurely sipping glasses of Beaujolais around an outdoor table late in the evening, Britons may take years to overcome their penchant for binge drinking.

The British love affair with beer and bottled spirits is anchored deep in history, and it became a matter of national security during World War I, when Prime Minister David Lloyd George found himself faced with the problem of munitions workers lingering in bars instead of turning out bullets and bombs for the war effort.

Britain, the exasperated prime minister said, was “fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink — and as far as I can see, the greatest of these foes is Drink.”

Resulting legislation reduced the strength of beer, banned the buying of rounds in public houses and sharply restricted pub hours — laws that remained on the books until the dying days of the 20th century.

The relaxed licensing that comes into effect Thursday amounts to the biggest overhaul in legalized drinking in Britain since those dark days of World War I.

Barely a month ago, Licensing Minister James Purnell insisted that “little evidence exists of more than a handful of bars and clubs applying for 24-hour licensing.” But the “handful” has grown rapidly, to more than 700 and is climbing.

In addition, thousands of other pubs, hotels and inns have been granted permission to extend their hours by an hour or two beyond the traditional 11 p.m. closing time.

“What is clear,” said Member of Parliament Theresa May, the opposition Conservative Party’s culture spokeswoman, “is that the government is heading blindly into a dangerous world of 24-hour drinking. There is clearly chaos.”

The Blair government also has begun a $4.35 million campaign to try to combat drunken behavior — including a poster campaign threatening drinkers with $140 on-the-spot fines if they misbehave.

But police are not convinced such measures will be effective. Glyn Smith, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, told journalists “extended hours are going to make life exceedingly more difficult” for the nation’s police officers.

The Blair government remains adamant. Changing Britain’s drinking habits “will take a long time,” Mr. Clarke said, “but we have got to take that first step. It’s a long journey, but that is what we are doing.”

That argument doesn’t wash with Nottinghamshire police Chief Constable Steve Green. “If we want a continental cafe culture,” he said, “build cafes. If we want 24 hours of hell, let’s keep on the way we are going.”

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