This story is over 5 years old.

A Look Back at the Tabloid Panic Over Britain's 24-Hour Booze Laws

A decade ago, the UK's pubs and clubs were given the go-ahead to serve alcohol around the clock. Did this result in "unbridled hedonism," as the "Daily Mail" claimed?
November 25, 2015, 4:30pm

Photo by Vincent Muller

Exactly ten years ago, Britain introduced 24-hour alcohol licensing. At the time, Tony Blair's government pledged it would encourage a "continental café culture," with one parliamentary report promising us "Bologna in Birmingham [and] Madrid in Manchester," as if the opportunity to continue drinking past 11 PM was going to have us regularly dancing to bambera instead of "Falling Stars," or "(Is This the Way to) Amarillo," or whatever else they were playing in Oceana at the time.

The tabloid press thundered about the imminent doom that would unfold across the streets of the UK now we wouldn't have to be kicked out of pubs at 11 PM and clubs at 3 AM. TheDaily Mail warned that the Licensing Act 2003 would provoke "unbridled hedonism… with all the ghastly consequences that will follow." The Sun told its readers to beware of the "inevitable swarm of drunken youngsters" marauding around our high streets, shouting a bit, and getting their kebabs on themselves, and pissing into fountains.


And then we introduced 24-hour licensing—and it was pretty chill, actually. Boys still got naked in public and girls still cried mascara onto their boyfriends in taxi queues, but nothing got noticeably worse. In fact, according to a report released by The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), things actually got better: alcohol consumption per person has dropped 17 percent, there's been a huge reduction in binge drinking, and incidents of violent crime—occasionally caused by people getting shit-faced and attacking each other for no reason—is down by 40 percent.

So to mark a decade since "drinking-up time" was a legal requirement and not just what bar staff say when they want to go home, I rounded up a few predictions from the right-wing press in 2005 to see if any of their concerns were legit.


The Sun, November 24, 2005

"DRUNKS staggering home were yesterday warned they run a hugely increased risk of being knocked down by cars. RAC figures showed nearly half of 20-something pedestrians killed on weekend nights are more than double the drink-drive alcohol limit."

On the day that 24-hour licensing was introduced, the Sun reported that we were now hugely more likely to drink enough alcohol to stumble into the road and get hit by a car. The reasoning is solid; people traditionally do stupid stuff when they're drunk, which can sometimes lead to tragic accidents.


Only, according to official government figures, pedestrian deaths have actually fallen steadily since 2005. This, we can all agree, is A Good Thing.


The Daily Mail, November 3, 2005

"BINGE drinking and easy attitudes to sex are contributing to a soaring increase in infections among young people, doctors warn today… The warning was sounded as a major pub chain announced yesterday that it plans to open its doors at 9 AM. Bosses at JD Wetherspoon say they aim to capture the breakfast trade when 24-hour licensing takes effect in three weeks' time…

"[The findings] come just weeks before the government's new late-night drinking laws take effect on Thursday, November 24. There is growing concern over an explosion in sexually transmitted infections, which climbed to three-quarters of a million cases last year."

Props here for making a connection between 24-hour licensing, chlamydia, and Wetherspoons opening for breakfast. I have no doubt that at least one STI has been shared between new friends in a Wetherspoons toilet at some point in the last ten years, but it seems unfair to imply a £2.99 breakfast deal has anything to do with it.

Again, the prediction didn't quite hold up here: STI rates are decreasing, so there's no need for Wetherspoons to start handing out free condoms with their scrambled eggs.


The Daily Express, November 24, 2005

"A WAVE of chaos and violence is threatening the nation's streets after round-the-clock drinking came into force at midnight last night. Police said their resources would be stretched to the limit as experts predicted 24-hour drinking will lead to outbreaks of crime and disorder."

We should remember, reading this, that people genuinely thought drinking culture as we knew it would change irrevocably with 24-hour licensing. The British Liver Trust even said the new legislation would be a "license to kill." But with no rise in alcohol-related deaths, that doesn't seem to have been the case. The fact the title of the IEA's report was "Longer opening hours have been a success" should be a pretty good indication that, on balance, it was a very good idea.

However, while the report states that both alcohol consumption and violent crime incidents have fallen over the past decade, everything's relative. A recent poll by the Institute of Alcohol Studies found that 50 percent of ambulance staff have been injured while dealing with drink-related violence, and that incidents involving booze take up 53 percent of all police time. Like many of his colleagues, a police officer writing for VICE blamed 24-hour licensing for all this. Of course, since 2005, we got a new government, and they've done an excellent job of decimating the UK's emergency services—so that may also have something to do with all those polled feeling the extra squeeze.

Whatever the reason—and despite the fact only one turned out to be correct—reading these scare stories is oddly comforting. It's like a reminder of a world we forgot existed: a world in which there were no horrible sports bars to take your date for an after-hours nightcap, in which you couldn't theoretically sit in the same seat and keep buying drinks for as long as it took you to run your bank account dry. A world in which Wetherspoons didn't open for breakfast.

Follow Sirin on Twitter.