The culture that says it’s OK, and in some cases compulsory, to
drink to excess in order to have a good time is responsible for
many of society’s ills, argues Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
One of the many advantages of being in the European Union (
albeit most reluctantly) is that we are forced to compare our
society with those of other countries who share this continent. A
new polemic book, England: The Making of Myth, by Maureen
Duffy shows how Britain instinctively believes itself to be
superior to every other nation including all those in the EU.
But a growing body of evidence now shows that while there is
much that we are right to be proud of, we should lay down our
unnatural pride about all things British and learn a thing or two
from our continental relatives.
And we could start by looking at a recent survey which showed
that teenagers in Britain drink more alcohol and use more drugs
than anywhere else in Europe.
I am not surprised. I have been horrified to watch my
23-year-old son and his friends go through what are considered
“natural rites of passage” in this country. Asian, Chinese and
Vietnamese Britons find this both shocking and worrying, especially
as our children begin to imbibe these values.
Even though we may drink alcohol, most of my Asian friends don’t
regard drink as an essential part of our lives. But in Britain
today, after the age of 13, there is an expectation in the air that
children breathe that they will start to behave badly. By 16, drink
has settled into the lifestyles of vast numbers of young people and
by the time they go to university, getting drunk is a vocation; it
separates the cool from the uncool.
Getting drunk is a laugh, and those who don’t quite see the joke
are regarded as killjoy Ayatollahs. Although there is much talk
about whether we should legalise drugs or not, there is no national
conversation about the dangers of young people drinking alcohol in
the way they do in this country.
Young people in France and Italy also drink, but they do so
within the folds and ritual of family life, not as acts of
rebellion against family and society. Until 10 years ago, excessive
alcohol consumption among the young was mostly found to be a
problem for young men. Now, of course, young women are as likely to
get paralytic during a night out.
What is extraordinary is that policy-makers, educators and
others have failed to make the connection between these statistics
and those other alarming figures about young Britons.
Male-upon-male violence is also a serious problem in our country as
are the suicide rates among young men. The role alcohol plays in
both these problems needs to be better publicised.
We also have the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Europe.
It is more than possible that many of these are the result of
post-pub liaisons where drink has eradicated all thought of safe
sex messages. In fact I interviewed a number of young lone mums for
a book I am researching on mixed race Britons, and many of them
said that they had got themselves in “trouble” after too much drink
and then did not tell anybody until it was too late to consider an
abortion. It was not a date rape drug, but alcohol freely consumed
which had led to them having sex they could barely recall.
This government promised joined-up thinking between departments,
so where are the big speeches about the effects of alcohol and drug
abuse on the sexual behaviour of young people? In fact I distinctly
remember the home secretary Jack Straw saying that he was keen to
extend pub times for people who can “hold their drink”, whatever
And let us not forget that when William Hague wanted to be seen
as a man with true leadership qualities, he boasted to the nation
that he regularly drank 14 pints of beer. It is my view that
alcohol is in some ways a greater problem than soft drugs because
it is such an accepted part of life, although it is worrying that
drugs are now affecting children as young as 10.
If we want to tackle teenage pregnancies and male on male
violence among young Britons we should move away from the tedious
debates about sex and drug education and focus much greater
attention on the use and abuse of alcohol.
Policy-makers need to look at drinking behaviour in the other EU
countries and start to develop better ways of educating our young
about the dangers of drinking yourself into the ground.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and