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National and local: policy lessons from the history of alcohol

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As we approach the General Election, the main political parties will begin awkwardly to negotiate the minefield of alcohol policy. Alcohol policy is a thorny issue for political parties. This is not simply because it is a classic 'hot potato', touching on issues of trade, revenue generation, freedom and social harms, but also, as studies of recent UK alcohol policy have shown, because it cuts across conventional ideological lines.

Historically, Tory support for market freedom and connections with the brewing trade have clashed with moral conservatism and the desire to be tough on social disorder; Labour's traditional instinct for business regulation risks looking like an attack on popular cultural activities when it adds to the cost of a pint. While Nick Clegg faces electoral meltdown over tuition fees in 2015, William Gladstone blamed the Liberal Electoral defeat in 1874 on the party's links with the temperance movement and its calls for greater alcohol control, famously complaining that 'we have been borne down in a torrent of gin and beer'.

However, national party dynamics are only part of the equation.  The history of alcohol regulation also draws attention to the key role of local implementation in determining policy success. Established in 1552, the alcohol licensing system in England and Wales creates a deep tension between national legislation and local implementation. Local and National Alcohol Policy: how do they interact?, a new report from the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, highlights the degree to which variation in local practice has shaped - and often distorted – the achievement of national alcohol policy goals.

The prevention of sales to drunk customers is one striking example. From Jacobean legislation aimed at curbing the 'odious and loathsome sin of drunkenness' to pilot trials of breathalysers in pubs and clubs today, it is a policy issue inextricably tied to variations in practice at the local level.  As Paul Jennings shows, Victorian legislation to crack down on public drunkenness was widely undermined because implementation practices varied enormously, with police action often depending on how strict magistrates were perceived to be.  Difficulties implementing national legislation on sales to drunks remain today, as the recent report One Too Many illustrates.

Local implementation issues are partly a consequence of the discretion necessarily afforded to local regulatory authorities in adopting national policy directives. Local licensing teams and police officers cannot apply blanket regulations rigidly, but their discretionary powers mean that often implementation practices become the law in effect. In addition, the use of local appeal courts by trade interests to derail national legislation runs throughout the history of alcohol policy.

This not only creates a ‘clumpy’ regulatory landscape, but also challenges the idea that national policy can predictably transform culture. The grand narratives of policy impact quickly split and fracture when they hit the realities of local political contexts, competing interests and discretionary regulation.

The dynamics of alcohol policy implementation also point to another phenomenon in policy studies: the extent to which 'evidence' works differently at various levels of government and among different policy networks.  At a national level, alcohol policy debates often revolve around the presentation and interpretation of high-level, aggregate research data published in peer-reviewed journals.  However, while this type of evidence may look compelling from the perspective of an academic researcher, it can count for very little in a licensing committee where local knowledge, the experience of 'street level bureaucrats' council politics and the competing claims of directly-affected stakeholders carry more weight. 

This may seem like a failure of evidence-based policy; but it points to the different 'cultures of evidence', standards of proof, and bodies of knowledge at work. This is true not only for alcohol policy but all policy areas where local regulatory or administrative services hold the key to implementation.

Alcohol policy demonstrates many characteristics of 'multilevel' governance. Whether operating at transnational, national, regional or local levels, different power dynamics, stakeholders, and bodies of evidence gain traction. As a result the ideal of uniform policy effects is rudely awoken by the noisy realities of local delivery. 

What lessons can history provide?  It cannot tell us how to overcome these dynamics (if that is the goal at all), but it can reassert their centrality to policy delivery. National policy that does not fully consider the practicalities of coalface delivery, or establish proper systems for evaluation on the ground, is hamstrung from the start. Many of the policy failures and unintended consequences that litter the history of alcohol legislation in Britain are due to a failure to understand this properly.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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