LONDON — The British relationship with strong drink, which might be even more tangled than the American one, has taken a new twist: London is to experiment with the “sobriety tags” for which much success has been claimed in the United States, where the bracelets are known by a more snappy acronym, SCRAM, or Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring. Those committing minor crimes in which alcohol has played a part will be barred from drinking for up to 120 days in a pilot program employing the alcohol-detecting anklets, which are made by a Colorado company and have been modeled by celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Tracy Morgan and Jayson Williams.
The target of the tags is a much-reviled member of British society: the binge drinker. This loud and leering lout staggered from the shadows and cells into disapproving view in the latter half of the last century, courtesy of our all-pervasive security cameras. He (or, quite often, she) stands accused of turning the centers of British cities and towns into “no-go areas” on Friday and Saturday nights as he vomits, fights and falls over, often at the same time.
At first, the blame was put on Britain’s restrictive drinking hours, said to force people into consuming vast amounts of liquor before the pubs closed. In 2003, the government relaxed the hours amid much talk of Britain’s adopting a continental culture, in which drink was supposed to be seen as an agreeable complement to a relaxing meal — rather than the fuel gulped with eye-watering rapidity for a clumsy clinch of the romantic or aggressive kind, with little apparent preference between the two.
But the binger did not suddenly sit down and call for an interesting Chablis to accompany his entrée, then venture a view on existentialism. Instead, he (or she) seems, inconveniently, to have relished the increased opportunity for bingeing. Or, as a police chief constable put it last year, more diplomatically, “The café culture was an entirely legitimate experiment but I don’t think it has worked.”
Oddly, though, there is still an aspect of continental culture, particularly of the southern European kind, that has been adopted by the binge drinker: However much lower the British temperature might be, in winter or summer, the men stroll about between pub and bar in short-sleeved shirts, and the women match them in dresses more suitable for Barcelona than Bolton, the former mill town in Lancashire, where, on a brisk March evening, I once witnessed a blond girl in a white halter top, bare midriff and short skirt totter on high heels past an older man hunched into his anorak, hood up against the rain, going the other way. It was like that haiku, the one about how marvelous it would be to see a butterfly in the snow.
But that is a minor curiosity. The major one, this being Britain, is to do with class. For the ruling classes have always been quite as heroic bingers as the lower orders, but, in the way of these things, have rather got away with it. One classic example is Winston Churchill, who, though it has been exaggerated, drank steadily through the day, night and World War II, including the occasional glass of hock with breakfast.
The other is the university drinking clubs of Oxford and Cambridge, where, traditionally, a night wasn’t a night without defenestrating a servant, debagging (the local term for pantsing) a passing nerd, hurling bread rolls and breaking things. The most famous is Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, still extant and still a cause of embarrassment to alumni like our prime minister, David Cameron, the chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson — the very man, interestingly, who is introducing the sobriety tags.
Indeed, British history floats on a sea of booze, whether the small beer that was safer than the water (in times of cholera), Falstaff’s sack, sailor’s rum, London’s gin, the copious amounts of Champagne that officers liked to take on imperial sorties, however rugged, or the large amounts of ale that female munitions workers were knocking back that brought in the regulated pub-licensing hours during World War I. The gin is especially pertinent: William Hogarth’s engraving “Gin Lane” brilliantly distilled the government-encouraged 18th-century craze for cheap gin that subsequent legislation struggled to control, a foreshadowing of Britain’s alcohol-related difficulties ever since. (And long before: an attempt by the Romans to introduce a continental wine-based café culture was also largely unsuccessful — and certainly held little appeal for the Vikings who invaded later.)
So one might be forgiven a certain skepticism about the efficacy of sobriety tagging. Despite the view of Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and a former White House drug policy adviser, that SCRAM has had “a transformative effect on alcohol-fueled crime in the U.S.,” the subsequent career of Ms. Lohan, for instance, does not inspire complete confidence. On balance, we should, though, ignore those frivolous people who have suggested that an awful lot of time and expense could be saved by randomly telephoning those convicted of alcohol-related offenses and asking them to say, without slurring, “Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring.”
Still, I feel the experiment would have a greater chance of success if it were far bolder. Let’s extend it as a voluntary program to, for example, politicians: Just imagine the effect of those tags on the legislative efficiency of the House of Commons with its eight (yes, eight) taxpayer-subsidized bars, which served, inter multa alia, the 8,670 bottles of Champagne consumed by members and their guests last year. Other important role models and exemplary figures in public life — bankers, lawyers, economists and such (sadly, journalists wouldn’t qualify as they are admired by no one) — should help beat back the rising tide of binge drinking by joining the sobriety tag movement. It would, if nothing else, make any British social occasion involving the middle classes a little less trying, and a lot less noisy.
And we could continue the progress pioneered by the sobriety tag into other areas of socially unacceptable misbehavior. Big new thought: what about lie-detector tags? Cheers.
Not to be controversial here but this always seemed to me like a story worked up by our tabloid press. Young people in the Uk and all over the world have always drunk to excess. Turning it into ‘Binge Drinking’ made it a story they could put next to pictures of people fighting or falling over and we could all feel superior and click our tongue in disgust at ‘young people today. In other word the Perfect Daily M*** story. I did some checking and all the stuff I can find quotes figures based on question such as “How many times week, do you drink more than 3 pints of beer”. How many 18-24 year old’s will admit that they were at home watching telliy in the bedroom or surfing for porn rather than boldly declaring “Well it was at least 4 times – unless you count Sunday…maybe 5”??