View attachment 40581 University terms are getting started and this year’s Freshers may be glad to read that The Spectator has always staunchly supported the right to get drunk. In the late 19th century, the magazine took issue with the Permissive Bill, which would allow individual parishes to vote on whether or not to ban the liquor trade.
‘Unless the swallowing of alcohol is a mania in se, a positive offence against morals, then the advocates of the Permissive Bill have no logical standing at all, are simply trying to enable the majority to oppress the minority into acting on the majority’s opinion in a matter of indifference. They might just as well allow the majority to flog the minority for believing in transubstantiation,—for that belief leads to acts which, if the belief is wrong, do them more harm than the belief that alcohol is on the whole beneficial; or to put it in an easier way, they might just as well allow the majority in a cracked parish, because they held vegetarian opinions, to shut up the butchers’ shops.’
The bill would not change the gross amount of national immorality, but would just encourage people to try other drugs. The main objection though was moral:
‘What they have no right to do is to regulate vice according to locality; to make that an offence in Wapping which is fair trade in Shadwell, to allow the rich man to drink because he has a cellar, and forbid the poor man to do the same because he combines with other poor men to keep his cellar at the publican’s.’
In 1891, Dr Mortimer Granville wrote to the Times in support of alcohol, arguing that teetotalism was ‘a weak and mischievous craze’ that had done ‘incalculable harm to the average human organism.'
‘That is plain speaking; but is it not also extravagant speaking? It is quite certain that not only the conquering work of the world, but the work of improving morals, has been done by the drinking races—the Arab being the only imperfect exception—and certain also that two of the hard-drinking peoples, the Scotch and the Swedes, are among the happiest. It is not, however, proved that those races would not have done their work without alcohol, though it is probable that they would have displayed less energy…The real defence of alcohol against the one unanswerable charge, viz., the enormous expense it inflicts upon a nation, is that, taken in moderation, it is, like tea, a blameless addition to the happiness of mankind. Arabs and Hindoos are resigned, not happy.’
Sir Arbuthnot Lane took a similar line in 1924. He had been recently been forced to undergo a dinner party without any alcohol.
‘The dullness of that dinner and the subsequent apathy of the meeting have left a unique and indelible impression on my memory. What I object to is the attitude assumed by many enthusiasts who assert that because alcohol if taken in excessive quantities or at wrong times is prejudicial to health, or to the performance of the finest work, it is wrong to take it at convenient times and in favourable circumstances. The same surely applies to every useful drug we possess—morphia, belladonna, strychnine, quinine, &c. No drug is useful in moderation that is not harmful in excess.’
In fact, he argued, you couldn’t start too young.
‘Early in my professional life I was brought intimately into relation with young infants, some of whom were operated on a few hours after birth. Many of these children were most difficult to feed, they refused to drink their bottles, or if they did they very soon rejected their contents. The addition of a few drops of brandy to each bottle effected a marvellous result. The child swallowed the tasty milk greedily and retained it. As in the case of the infant, the addition to the meal of a reasonable amount of alcohol facilitates digestion, and enables the individual to enjoy a meal which, without the presence of the stimulating action of alcohol, would be repulsive to him. That alcohol is not necessary to the health of the robust individual is well recognized. A moderate amount will often make him a more agreeable companion.’
The negative effects of Prohibition were still in evidence thirty years after it ended; in 1963 Andrew Sinclair listed some of the most serious consequences:
‘It became fashionable to pretend to be drunk rather than sober. Drunkenness became a virtue, meaning manliness, rather than a vice, meaning stupidity… A friend of mine once saw two small boys, aged twelve. who were carefully daubing the lapels of their coats with moonshine out of the bottom of a bottle. They did not drink the stuff; they had merely noticed by the behaviour of their parents that those who smelled of drink were considered smart… And Prohibition criminals into heroes…the huge gangs of criminals who have turned their attentions to other fields after the repeal of the Prohibition which spawned them, so that every American industry now, in some way or other, pays blackmail to their rackets—and the respect in which the gangster is held in the richest country upon earth.’
Auberon Waugh was always deeply suspicious of the temperance movement, and couldn’t understand why the newspapers seemed to so wholeheartedly endorse the anti-drink driving laws.
‘The most obvious explanation is that these editors have been deliberately misled and manipulated by the temperance brigade about the evils of alcohol. They feel guilty, like so many Britons, about their own self-indulgence and feel they can exorcise the guilty by expressing exaggerated outrage against the tiny proportion of ‘drunken’ drivers who are caught.
‘One must obviously agree that it is a very foolish thing indeed to drive a car when seriously or hog-whimperingly drunk, and that criminal sanctions can reasonably be applied as a deterrent, especially against confirmed alcoholics. In partial mitigation, for all except persistent offenders, it might be observed that the decision to do this foolish thing is taken at a time when judgment is impaired. Among the logical and intelligent Japanese, I have been told, it was a defence against any charge of dangerous driving until well into the 1960s to prove that you were drunk at the time, and therefore not responsible for your actions.’
Jeffrey Bernard, who wrote the Low Life column for many years, was The Spectator’s most dedicated drinker. Alexander Chancellor gave the address at his funeral in 1997, and described some of his early writing, a prep school essay recounting the story of The Man in the Iron Mask:
‘This shows that even at the age of eight he had started to show a scholarly interest in booze. Out of everything he had been told at school about King Louis XIV of France, only one fact seems to have stuck in his mind. ‘Louis XIV often got drunk by drinking too much wine,’ he wrote.’
The Spectator/Sept. 23, 2014