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Thursday, November 24, 2005


The First World War Ended in 2005

As I've said before, the Brits do not, in general, observe the holiday of Thanksgiving because they have nothing whatsoever to be thankful for.

This year is an exception, because last night, at the stroke of the midnight hour, England's surreal and despicable "licensing" laws were finally put out of everyone's misery.

These laws prohibited bars and stores from selling alcoholic drinks after 23.00 (22.30 on a Sunday, since British legislators have never seen anything wrong with laws respecting the establishment of religion). There were a couple of loopholes, for instance strong drink could be sold in conunction with food (cruel to expect a man to digest traditional British cuisine sober), and places of entertainment could apply for "late" licenses if they played music. In practice this tended to mean that every overambitious lounge bar would put in a boombox, treble the drinks prices, charge people fifteen pounds for the privilege of going in the door and call itself a nightclub (liberal readings of the nightclub loophole allowed the flourishing of bolge such as Sevilla Mia, a cramped and frankly insanitary dive off Oxford Street whose "music" consisted of an elderly Spaniard with a classical guitar and a stutter. (Yes, I used to drink there. It was cheap. They didn't charge for going in the door and their drinks were only twice the usual ruinous London prices).

Most aspects of life in Britain are living fossils, which made sense at the time they were adopted but have persisted beyond all reason and utility out of sheer inertia (or frequently, fear that whoever reforms them will do so in his own interests; that's why Britain had a hereditary house of the legislature until 1999(!) - and when this was eventually reformed, it was reformed so as to blatantly favour the political interests of the reformer, one T Blair). Licensing laws were no exception to this rule. They were introduced as a temporary war-time measure during the Great War - the worry was that if munitions workers spent all night drinking, they risked coming into work still drunk and drop shells on the factory floor; it was felt that this might prove detrimental to the War Effort. So repressive Singaporesque laws were enacted, forbidding the sale of spirituous beverages at hours when the lower classes damn well ought to be sleeping in their beds, or someone's beds at any rate.

(The upper classes were, of course, not captured by the licensing laws, which did not apply to private members' clubs on the wonderfully Clintonesque grounds that private members' clubs were not actually selling drinks because the drinks were already the property of the members.)

The Gipper once said that nothing lives longer than a temporary government programme, and so it proved in this case. The Great War was won, the Kaiser deposed; the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich rose and fell; the Berlin Wall was built up and torn down; and still the licensing laws cramped the style of the British toper. When the licensing laws were enacted, the Soviet Union was just a murderous glint in Lenin's eye; they outlasted that other repressive horror by more than a decade. When the Blair administration ascended to power in Year Zero (1997 under the old calendar), a plank in the party manifesto was the abolition of these absurd laws and finally, a mere two elections and eight years later, they finally delivered.

It's rare indeed that I will ever have a good word for the domestic policy of our beloved Leader the Lord God's Anointed Blair, but slaying these vile licensing laws was a genuine good dead. (And may I say, it took a certain amount of moral courage, given that pretty much every one of Britain's trashy newspapers have been blasting on this policy since it was announced, on the grounds that it will apparently promote the abhorrent sin of "binge drinking" (journalists disapproving of drunkenness??? Pride by Insolence chastened? Indolence purged by Sloth?))

It gives me hope that as his political career draws to an end, the Maximum Tone may get around to abolishing certain other examples of governmental outreach that were enacted as temporary wartime measures - like the income tax (a temporary emergency measure introduced during the Napoleonic Wars). Hope springs eternal, and it will be all the springier now that it can treat itself to a nice Hoegaarden at 23.30 should it be so inclined.

I regret to inform you that I read this piece after watching Fahrenheit 1861, and so in my mind I "heard" your whole thing about the licensing laws in the voice of the MIT-undergrad-sounding kid who narrated Fahrenheit 1861. I wish it hadn't happened that way, but there you go.

In spite of all that, this was still one of the better things I've read on a blog recently.
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