Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spokesman, examines the British middle class’s troubled relationship with alcohol and his own long and complicated history with drink.
To read the headlines about Britain’s drink problem, you might think it is largely an issue of teenage binge-drinking in town centres up and down the country.
You would be very wrong. Young people drinking too much is a problem. But it is not the biggest drink problem Britain faces. The real problem comes in the form of our hidden alcoholics.
Back in my hard-drinking days I was one of them – professional, successful on the surface, with a good job, a steady relationship, a mortgage, nice holidays, lots of friends. But I was heading for a very big fall.
The Office for National Statistics tells us that the professional classes are now the most frequent drinkers in the country and that 41% of professional men drink more than the recommended daily limit of three to four units at least once a week. Women are also drinking much more than they used to, with alcoholic liver disease now split evenly between the sexes.
My own drinking reached its peak while I worked in Fleet Street in the 1980s – a time when the pub was an extension of the office.
Anne Robinson, one of my colleagues on the Daily Mirror back then, was one of the many casualties of the hard-drinking culture.
Reflecting back on the days before she too gave it up, Anne said: “It was just a sea of alcohol. If you were editing the paper, people just came in to your office to empty your drinks cabinet.”
Annie has been dry for years. I paid a heavy price for the same sort of lifestyle when my drinking, coupled with depression, triggered a mental breakdown that landed me in hospital.
It forced me to confront my drinking, and by 1986 I’d stopped and started a slow road to recovery.
Since then, even in newspapers, Britain’s boozy workplace culture has largely disappeared.
Yet, paradoxically, more people are being treated for alcohol problems.
Recent figures show that nearly 9,000 people die each year in the UK from alcohol-related diseases. Perhaps more alarmingly, liver disease in general is the only major cause of death in Britain that is on the rise, year after year – claiming 100 lives every week – whereas mortality for all the smoking diseases is falling dramatically.
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Panorama: Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics
BBC One, Monday 20 February at 20:30 GMT
That Britain has a problem with drink is highlighted not just by the figures, but by the fact that the government is busy devising a new strategy to address alcohol-related ill-health.
David Cameron has signalled his appetite for reform, including the possibility of minimum pricing as already being taken forward in Scotland, and tougher rules on promotion and marketing. So how did we get here?
Well, as with so much of our recent history, the answer lies in Europe. With closer ties came cheaper travel and a newly developed taste for all things European, wine included.
Then came the booze cruises to France and the birth of a seemingly unquenchable British thirst. Since 1970, our consumption of wine has gone up five-fold, according to the Beer and Pub Association. We now consume 1.6 billion bottles a year (not counting the ones we drink when we go abroad). It has gone from a middle-class luxury to an everyday part of middle-class life.
Anne Robinson remembers a “sea of alcohol” in the newsroom
Though ultimately individuals have to take responsibility for their own relationships with alcohol, governments have to set the framework, which is why the planned new strategy is so important.
I defend virtually everything done by the government I worked for under Tony Blair. I confess however, as he and Tessa Jowell will confirm, that I was never a big fan of the laws to introduce 24-hour licensing, surely one of the factors in the troubled relationship between Brits and booze.
I had left Downing Street by the time the law came in, but it had been mooted for some time before and I never really bought the argument that Britain would suddenly become a continental-style drinking nation.
I think we have always had this tendency, where there is drink, to drink it to excess. Did it make things worse? Was it a mistake?
On the one hand it is quite nice to have a sense of London and other cities being more European in their approach to drink.
But I think it is entirely possible to see a link between increased availability of alcohol and our increased consumption.
Britain is, after all, the nation of the gin epidemic – back in the 18th Century. While in 1914, the government had to bring in the Defence of the Realm Act because our own drinking was deemed a threat to our ability to defend ourselves in war. Health campaigners cite those as the first major British drinking crises. They believe we are now facing the third.
The big shift in recent times has been the rise of drinking at home, which is why the binge-drinking stereotype is neither accurate nor helpful. The issue is largely about price. Pubs charge a lot for a pint. Supermarkets don’t. It is a sad paradox that the decline in pubs has come alongside what seems to be a rise in drinking and alcohol-related problems.
In 1970, 90% of all pints were poured in a pub. Today, it is only 50% – the other half are bought much more cheaply in supermarkets and off-licences.
The government has to do its bit. But in making a film about Britain’s relationship with drink, and in meeting some of the hidden alcoholics, I met people who had each come to their own arrangement with alcohol.
For most, the answer is complete abstinence, or complete loss of control. I too said no for 13 years, but then I started having the odd drink again.
This time, I feel as though I am more in control. To be frank, it would be hard not to be.
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But, having met others as they underwent rehabilitation treatment, I do wonder if I am doing the right thing. Partly I am testing myself, having one or two so I can then enjoy the satisfaction of being able to say “No”.
I also like being able to be “normal” like other social drinkers, just have the odd one and then call it a night.
I cannot say I have not drunk since first falling gently off the wagon in 1999. But I can say I have never been drunk, never had a hangover, never touched spirits and never felt the loss of control that had me hospitalised prior to my 13-year unbroken dry spell.
The psychiatrist who I see for my depression thinks that even occasional drinking on my part is a bad idea, and interestingly, in making a documentary on the subject, I did once again stop drinking altogether, not least perhaps as a result of the tour of Queen Mary’s Hospital anatomy department, where I was shown a few damaged livers.
I do feel that my own relationship with alcohol is more secure.
And while government has a role to play in setting rules and regulations on responsible drinking, on a certain level I think that our connection to alcohol is a deal that each of us has to make with ourselves. I hope this film helps some of Britain’s drinkers to do that.
Panorama: Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics, authored by Alastair Campbell, is on BBC One, Monday, 20 February at 20:30 GMT and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.