Britain will never have a Mediterranean drinking culture

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

The British are never going to have a Mediterranean drinking culture, Ed West argues:

One of the many things I prefer about being in France to England, along with the superior food, beautiful architecture and even more beautiful language, is their civilised attitude to alcohol — cheap, freely available and not used by the authorities as an excuse to constantly tell the population how horrible and rubbish they are.

So on one level the letter by medical experts urging the Government to take “bold action” by bringing in minimum prices for drinks should leave us cold. After all, as Christopher Snowdon points out (after reading his blog about the lies, mania and all around irrationality of the taxpayer-funded health campaigning industry, the term “health fascist” starts to look like an insult to Mussolini), Britain has the third-highest alcohol taxes in Europe.


But the major problem with the libertarian argument is that it tries to compare Britain with other countries, and therefore tends to mix up cause and effect. France has a relaxed attitude to drink because it doesn’t have Britain’s alcohol-related social problems (cirrhosis of the liver, yes, but that is less the concern of policymakers than street violence and wife-beating) — it’s not the other way around.

Slashing taxes on wine and beer would not make people in Glasgow and Belfast drink like Italians or Greeks. So far attempts to create a more mature drinking culture through relaxing closing-time laws (a maddening and infantilising restriction) have failed to do so.

Of course there are nudges that might encourage sensible drinking, such as incentivising people to eat with their alcohol, or to drink in inter-generational groups — although how the state can do this is another matter, beyond more blindingly obvious and patronising advertising campaigns — but it’s unlikely that this would make serious inroads into “booze Britain”.

It’s a cultural thing. Or perhaps not, for alcoholism is thought to have a strong genetic component, and the affliction often runs through families. Furthermore rates of alcoholism are known to differ between population groups — no one would suggest that cafés on Native American reservations start serving wine to create a “continental drinking culture” there. Likewise many east Asians are genetically incapable of drinking alcohol without feeling sick. Yet policymakers routinely ignore the likelihood that there is a genetic component to the northern European weakness for alcohol.


But at no point in history have northern Europeans, and the British in particular, been known to drink sensibly — as far back as the early medieval period, continental observers spoke with horror about the Anglo-Saxons and their hopeless drunkenness (indeed many English soldiers got drunk on the eve of the Battle of Hastings; I can’t imagine the sight of 9,000 heavily armed Normans would play well with a hangover). Further back, ancient Greek writers were shocked that the Scythians, the ancestors of today’s Ukrainians, drank their wine neat rather than mixed with water, as moderate Hellenes did.


  1. James James says:

    One person hypothesised that maybe alcohol helped social activity among Northern Europeans by helping us to overcome our reserve.

  2. Sheldon says:

    Claret [port wine] was a favorite among the English upper class ever since the days before Wellington.

  3. John Dougan says:

    For a large-ish chunk of northern Europe, heaven was a place where you fought all day and drank all night. And there was some attempt to create heaven on earth.

  4. Yann says:

    I’m Spanish, so I know that culture quite well.

    It’s not a drinking culture. It’s a wine culture. When mediterranean people drink beer, they do in a similar way to any other people of Europe.

    But wine, red wine in particular… that’s different. It’s almost a ritual. Traditionally, white wine was considered women’s wine, while men were supposed to know and enjoy a good red wine.

  5. James James says:

    Claret is not port. Claret is an English word for red Bordeaux wine. Port is the fortified wine from Douro.

  6. Yann says:

    Claret is not red. Claret, “clairet” or “rosé” in french, “clarete” or “rosado” in spanish, is mix of red and white wine. It uses to be a low quality wine, served cold and easy to drink. It’s a good choice for the summer or when you wanna avoid white wines but you don’t trust the place enough to pick a red wine.

  7. Grasspunk says:

    The English use the word “Claret” for red Bordeaux. Well, they used to, I don’t hear it from them much any more. They owned Bordeaux for quite a while, so it was a popular wine. Still is, I guess.

  8. James James says:

    Yann, no. Claret is an English word meaning red Bordeaux.

    As Grasspunk says, we don’t use it much these days.

Leave a Reply