Thursday, Feb 09, 2023

Opinion: Britain's drinking problem is a lot bigger than Boris Johnson

Opinion: Britain's drinking problem is a lot bigger than Boris Johnson

According to reports, multiple parties where alcohol was served -- in breach of the government's own Covid restrictions -- took place in Whitehall during the pandemic. Most recently, Downing Street has admitted that up to 30 guests gathered to celebrate Boris Johnson's birthday on June 19, 2020, when almost all indoor gatherings of more than two people were banned.

In an attempt to defend his presence at a "bring your own booze" garden party held at No 10 -- his official residence -- in May 2020, Johnson told journalists that he'd thought he was at a "work event."

It's an insipid excuse -- and according to lawyers including Adam Wagner, a barrister and expert in Covid law, almost certainly legally indefensible. But as Johnson probably realizes, it isn't just the fact of our nation's cabin crew boozing their way through the pandemic that offends the British populace.

The real insult is that while we abstained, he and his colleagues did not. And incredible though it is that so many people shouldering huge professional responsibilities were prepared to attend these potentially dangerous gatherings, the ingrained presenteeism in Britain when bosses or colleagues hit the bar has always come at a heavy price.

The Metropolitan Police is investigating "a number" of these occasions, alongside a separate inquiry led by civil servant Sue Gray. In a stripped-back version of Gray's report made public on Monday, the Cabinet Office said, "The excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time. Steps must be taken to ensure that every Government Department has a clear and robust policy in place covering the consumption of alcohol in the workplace."

Prime Minister Johnson with customers in the beer garden during a visit to a pub on April 19, 2021.

That's a fine idea, but these statements fail to capture the scope of the problem or address the reality that it's not just alcohol inside the workplace that's at issue. And while the report scrutinizes Johnson, it's important to consider that he wasn't the only attendee at these parties -- nor will these investigations and his ultimate political fate exorcize the toxic element of British culture they represent.

Regular and excessive bouts of group drinking are chronic throughout British working culture -- and the political world of Westminster is an exaggerated caricature of what goes on elsewhere. In non-lockdown times, Whitehall pubs spill onto the streets from 6 p.m. onward -- and overflow even more with proximity to the Houses of Parliament. Drinking carries on until late every weekday. Junior advisers know the value of showing up for pints if they want to endear themselves to their superiors and as a result, journalists cruising for stories do the same, habitually stalking the House of Commons' heavily subsidized bars.

An array of risks -- which include regular hangovers, doing something you'll regret under the influence, finding yourself drunk and friendless after dark, and hemorrhaging your paycheck -- are priced in when you enter this world.

According to a 2020 report by the British Medical Journal, MPs in Westminster are almost three times more prone to "risky drinking" than the general public, more likely to binge drink, more likely drink at least four days per week, and more likely to tot up a minimum of 10 units on a typical day. It's chaotic, laddish, and can expose the inexperienced or vulnerable to a deluge of professional and personal hazards -- not least to their health, as a result of imbibing so much so often.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that pressure to partake isn't just social -- it's professional. As well as a legitimized excuse to get wasted, work drinks are often framed as a career-building necessity.

They're an informal chance to network, gain intel, form crucial connections and simply show themselves willing. Attending is a mark of dedication the significance of which seems to outweigh the precarious positions regularly doing so can put people in -- particularly the young, inexperienced and physically lightweight. As a result, it's far easier for some people to get ahead this way than others.

Work-related drinking is inherently prejudiced in favor of people with spare cash, free evenings, a high alcohol tolerance and few responsibilities outside of work.

In Westminster as elsewhere, this typically translates to men. On Westminster's political side, men outnumber women two to one. This in turn tilts the scale for Britain's political media — as of 2016, just one in five of those registered with the daily press gallery were women. Because of the associated long hours, social obligations and inflexibility, Westminster is an especially inhospitable environment for women who have children.

The entitlement and unfairness nurtured by this environment have been evident throughout the No 10 party controversy. When a 7-year-old girl wrote in March 2021 to tell Johnson that she was canceling her birthday party to avoid the risk of infection, he wrote back to say that she was "setting a great example."

When a video leaked in December 2021 showing government adviser Allegra Stratton joking about an alleged No 10 Christmas party in 2020, Johnson said that he could make "no excuses for the frivolity" of his staff, and insisted no such event took place (Stratton resigned the next day.) Days later, a picture emerged of the Prime Minister hosting a Christmas quiz, while per a source, staff conferred on questions and knocked back fizz, wine and beer.

Ahead of the party which fell the night before Prince Philip's funeral, staff reportedly took a suitcase to the local shop to fill it with alcohol -- a tradition which sources say dates back to Prime Minister David Cameron's time. No 10 then apparently hosted an extended booze-up so off the chain that Johnson's baby son Wilfred's garden swing was broken in the ruckus. The next day, Philip's widow -- and wife of more than 70 years -- Queen Elizabeth, mourned alone in a cavernous Windsor chapel.

If it is decided that the lockdown parties at No 10 over the pandemic broke the law, there will need to be a political reckoning. But these events also point to a much broader, far older problem. Westminster exemplifies a national workplace drinks culture that long predates the pandemic, and has always put unjustifiable pressure on those who fear their career depends on participating.

The contempt that participants showed for the rules in place to keep people safe can come as little shock given the inequity already inherent in their favorite pastime.


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