LONDON – Some see the dawn of civilized cafe society, others a boozy Armageddon.
Either way, it is last call for the early pub closing times that have shocked many a visitor since their introduction during World War I. The government hopes the change, which takes effect today, will stop the flood of binge drinkers spilling onto the streets of England and Wales at the traditional 11 p.m. closing time.
The new rules allow pubs, bars, shops, restaurants and clubs to apply to stay open any hours they like, although each license must be approved by local authorities. The government’s licensing minister, James Purnell, said the new law means that “at last grown-ups will be treated like grown-ups.”
Supporters say the changes will end the scramble to guzzle as much booze as possible in the last minutes before closing time, thus cutting down on alcohol-fueled violence. They hope the new law will nudge Britons toward a Continental culture of gentle tippling rather than relentless chugging.
British consumption of alcohol is not the heaviest in Europe, but it is the most notorious. The propensity for bingeing has spawned newspaper headlines warning that around-the-clock drinking would unleash tides of “drunken yobs” and “booze-fueled louts” on the nation.
“We are nervous that there will be an increased amount of drunkenness and disorder into longer hours,” said Tim Godwin, assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police.
Police chiefs warn of a rise in booze-fueled crime and health agencies say alcohol consumption, and its attendant ills, inevitably will increase.
The World Health Organization says Britons consume less alcohol on average than people in Ireland, Germany, France, Hungary and Spain, among others. However, Britons are more likely to drink in concentrated bursts.
Britain’s licensing laws – largely unchanged since they were tightened in 1915 to keep factory workers sober – have long been derided as an anachronism. They required most pubs to close at 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 10:30 p.m. on Sundays.
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said the closing time was effectively a “national curfew” that had been “unfair in principle and wrong in practice.” The new rules give police stronger powers to close troublesome bars and punish underage drinking, meaning “yobbish behavior will be cracked down on,” Jowell said.
Thousands of pubs and bars have been granted later licenses under the new rules, although the vast majority have asked for an extra hour or two – hardly the “24-hour drinking” endlessly repeated in headlines.
“The changes are not as dramatic as has been suggested, with most pubs opting to open for a few extra hours a week,” said Neil Williams, spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association.