Drinking and Public Disorder

Drinking & Public Disorder - download the book in pdf format Dr Peter Marsh & Kate Fox 1992

Click on the accompanying image to download and read the full document using Adobe's Acrobat Reader.


Drinking and Public Disorder
A report of research conducted for The Portman Group by MCM Research

Overview and analysis

The scale of the ‘problem’

Everybody has a view about the scale and pattern of drink-related disorder and violence even though the vast majority have no direct experience of the phenomenon. It is routine for people to complain about the ‘hordes of lager louts’ who turn city centres into ‘no-go areas’. Many express their fear of violent attacks, both inside and outside pubs. Others remark on the ‘magical’ properties of premium lagers which can turn normal, quiet young men into savage demons. These simplistic, and usually ill-informed, speculations have been given both credence and currency in recent years by the news media – acting both as reporters of disorderly incidents and analysts of the causes and patterns of this apparently novel focus of public concern.

What we lose sight of in this sometimes hysterical reaction to perceived events is the simple fact that violence, in its broad sense, constitutes only about 6% of all recorded crime in England and Wales. The vast majority of crimes are acquisitive – they are directed at our property rather than our person. Within the ‘violence’ category, those acts which we might take to be ‘drink related’ form such a small proportion of all crime that we do not even bother to collate them on a national basis. We have figures for drunkenness and for drink-driving, but we have no national statistics which measure directly the phenomenon which has generated such deep concerns and debates and which has occupied so many column inches of our popular newspapers.

There is nothing new in this distinct lack of fact in the midst of expressed outrage. There are a number of precedents, involving substantially the same ‘players’ as those who have been tagged with the label of ‘lager louts’. When ‘football hooliganism’ was at its perceived peak in the late 1970s, nobody could tell us just how many acts of violence or public disorder were actually committed by these convenient ‘Folk Devils’. The ‘Moral Panic’ reaction to their activities was much more important than simple, factual accounts of what fans actually did when they went to football games. Amid the hysterical clamouring for ever-increasing Draconian measures to curb the assumed activities of fans, there was one straightforward, empirical study which indicated that football hooliganism did not actually exist as a phenomenon in its own right. This was a study, conducted not by radical sociologists but by the Strathclyde Police, of all towns and neighbourhoods which hosted football grounds in Scotland. They examined reports of crimes, arrest figures etc. for Saturday afternoons and Wednesday evenings when games were played and when they were not. They found no significant difference overall. In some cases, crime actually fell when football games were played. They concluded that there was about as much crime, violence and disorder associated with football as there was in society in general. Football fans did what they, and others, would normally do on Saturday afternoons and, among that repertoire of activity, would inevitably be some crime and violence.

The report of the Strathclyde Police study was consigned to an appendix of the McElhone Report (Football Crowd Behaviour: Report by a working Group Appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland, HMSO 1977). It was largely ignored by everybody and lay incongruously in complete opposition to the summaries and conclusions drawn both by McElhone and his committee and by subsequent inquiries into the ‘problem’.

We raise this issue here because over the last 18 months we have experienced a distinct sense of deja vu. Having worked extensively on aspects of youth behaviour since the early seventies, we are in a position to compare the development and ‘concretising’ of ‘lager louts’ as a focus of concern with previous outbursts of moral outrage. We find that little or nothing has changed. If one takes typical press reports from 1979 and 1980 and compares them with those from 1989 and 1990, they differ only in the labels applied to the participants to which they refer and in some details of their behaviour. They have in common the same thematic content – the phenomenon is widespread; it is random, gratuitous and vicious; the participants are driven by uncontrollable, savage urges; the phenomenon poses a serious threat to public order and decency; the phenomenon can only be controlled by harsh, punitive measures.

The reason why our society needs repeatedly to cast some of its members as ‘demons’ in this way is well understood and fully documented by sociologists such as Stan Cohen (1972). By having convenient and visible targets on whom to vent our outrage and indignation, the right-thinking majority in our society can take reward from its sense of clear moral rectitude. In addition, our prurient interest in violence and mayhem, which has replaced our earlier fascination with all things sexual, is vicariously consummated. If skinheads, football fans, lager louts or their other post-war equivalents did not exist, we would need to invent them – and that is precisely what we have done.

All of this might be taken as a prelude to a conclusion which says that we have nothing to worry about – that the beatings and stabbings which happen when pubs close on Friday and Saturday nights are not real – they are merely figments of our collective imagination. There will be no such conclusion. Fights happen and participants are hurt. Property is damaged and acts of disorder give rise to understandable fears. But we have to ask a very simple question – is this new, surprising or exceptional? We have to determine what, in psychological terms, is the null hypothesis. Would we be more surprised, for example, if there was no violence on the streets on Friday and Saturday evenings? How would we react if the ‘lads’ suddenly stopped their macho displays in the pubs and clubs and abandoned their traditional, ritually aggressive activities? Would we then commission research to explain why these time-honoured venues for antagonistic role-playing had suddenly become oases of passivity in an otherwise moderately violent society? Or is it the case, following the view taken by the Strathclyde Police on football hooliganism, that we have about as much disorder related to drinking activities as we would expect, given the same people in any other social context?

In Appendix A of this report we have drawn together all of the statistical data concerning, even tangentially, the frequency and nature of allegedly drink-related disorder that was available to us. Appendix A also includes a more detailed analysis of the figures from one of research locations - Coventry. The ways in which the data are collated vary considerably, making comparisons almost impossible. It is also hazardous to infer base rates of drink-related crime and disorder from these figures for two main reasons. Firstly, the figures reflect not only the behaviour of offenders but also the varying determination of police forces to apprehend the offenders. In some regions there have been well-publicised ‘crack-downs’ on ‘lager louts’. As a result, the number of arrests have increased. In other areas where a more ‘low key’ approach has been taken, arrest figures are lower or have decreased. (Note the comments made by the Acting Superintendent, Oxford Police, in Section 5)

Secondly, the figures will inevitably reflect the degree to which certain patterns of behaviour are perceived as criminal and, therefore, reported to the police. As our awareness of the problem of drink-related disorder has increased over the last three years, partly as a function of media coverage, it is very likely that reporting has increased accordingly among members of the public, publicans, restaurateurs etc.

A further problem arises in the determination of ‘alcohol-related’. In most cases this assessment is made by custody officers when prisoners are brought into police stations, but without any consistent criteria being applied nationally. In some cases (eg Coventry) some assessments of ‘drink-related’ have been made solely on the basis that an offence was committed around the time of pub closing! (Note also the observations made in custody rooms which are reported in Appendix C)

Bearing in mind these caveats, some of the figures provide us with simple frequencies of the number of people arrested for drink-related disorder offences in some city and town centres. Oxford, for example, had, on average, just under 11 arrests for such offences per week in 1989. In Coventry the figure was very similar, but based on a slightly narrower definition than that used in Oxford. In Wakefield, the equivalent figure was between 8 and 9 arrests per week, although here it is not quite clear how the definition of ‘drink-related’ was determined. In Lincoln, just under 13 arrests per week were made.

These figures, however, are difficult to interpret, or can be the subject of quite different interpretations. Some might argue that they constitute a relatively small proportion of all arrests – typically about 8-9% – and therefore reflect only a minor problem. (If we look at crime reports, as opposed to arrests, then the proportion of drink-related disorder offences, in relation to all crimes, becomes even smaller.) On the other hand, it could be argued that since, typically, over 50% of the arrests are made on Friday and Saturday nights, the problem is a very specific and troublesome one and presents a very ‘focused’ difficulty for both the police and users of town centres at these times.

There is no easy way of resolving this dispute. But whether we perceive the problem as a minor or a major one, it is clear that a problem of some nature exists and that it warrants attention. Effective tackling of the issue, however, requires a clear appreciation of the factors which may contribute to the behaviour with which we are concerned and, subsequently, the identification of appropriate, specific strategies for eliminating or reducing these factors. It is to these areas that we direct our attention in the following sections.

Characteristics of participants

We have noted earlier that most research projects have failed to distinguish, in demographic terms, the participants in drink-related disorder from those who inhabit similar social worlds but refrain from disorderly acts. We have also failed to find any distinguishing features of ‘lager louts’ in these terms. There is little, for example, to separate (in terms of age, social class, employment etc.) members of the ‘Squad’ in Oxford from the ‘Pool Team’ in Preston (See Section 5). Yet the attitudes and behaviour of these two groups is radically different. The former are thought, by the police, to be responsible for the bulk of public disorder offences in Oxford while the latter, to our knowledge, have never been apprehended for any such offences.

Broad sociological theories, which explain, for example, acts of deviance and violence in terms of traditional, ‘tough’ working class values and ideologies, seemed doomed to failure in this area. There is also a problem with the alleged links between crime and, say, unemployment when we consider drink-related problems. During economic recession, consumption of alcohol products tends to decline. If there are increases in disorder, crime and violence, they cannot, therefore be attributed to increased alcohol consumption. In times of relative economic affluence, certain acquisitive crimes rise in frequency (perhaps because there is more to steal), but other types of crime, including violence, tend not to rise at all. The available figures do not allow us to chart drink-related disorder against GDP but, quite clearly, it would be difficult to see such offences as merely expressions of alienation resulting from economic hardship. Some of most violent members of the ‘Squad’, were among the most affluent of all our research informants, holding down the most prestigious jobs, paying mortgages and driving the better cars. (See Section 5).

The ‘ideology’ of participants

On the basis of the material which we have collected we are obliged to view drink-related disorder as, primarily, an ‘expressive’ activity. By this we mean that it serves personal and social ends other than simple outburts of anger, hostility and violence. It achieves specific goals which include, principally, the achievement of particular forms of social identity. This was very evident in Harrisson’s work in the 1930s. ( "My reason for drinking beer is to appear tough", etc. – see Section 2) and seems to have continued largely unchanged until the present day.

The extracts included in Section 5 give both a flavour of the social worlds in which disorder takes place and highlight the structured pursuit of ‘excitement’ - which we see as the second, motivating factor. In all of the discussion of violence and disorder, this is the aspect which most people fail to mention. For the participants, aggressive displays, fights and violence are exciting and enjoyable activities. Consider the extracts from interviews with the ‘Squad’ in Oxford. Here we see very clearly how the emotional involvement is a primary reward for these young men. They stress both the ‘adrenalin’ of public displays of violence and the sense of status and belonging which accrues from such displays. The combination of these two factors provides us with an immediate explanatory model of the phenomenon in which the assumed biochemical effects of alcohol need not, at this stage, be considered. In one sense the pubs and the drinking activity are significant only to the extent that they provide social arenas which a) allow relative status positions and social identities to be assessed, and b) facilitate ‘excitement’ through shared emotional states and experiences. The details of the social arenas are relatively unimportant and were equally provided by the dance halls in the days of Teddy Boys, the beaches of Clacton and Margate in the era of the Mods and Rockers or the stadiums of the more recent football hooligans.

The fact that pubs, and their historical equivalents, have always provided ‘stages’ for macho behaviour adds to their social utility for ‘lager louts’. Fighting is not seen as ‘out of place’ as the pubs close and therefore requires little in the way of further rationalisation on the part of the participants. From their perspective, the acts which come to be labelled as deviant, disorderly and criminal are a quite legitimate defence of personal integrity, group status and, above all ‘a good crack’. To this extent, British ‘lager louts’ are not unlike their European youth-culture counterparts. While we may have been led to believe that only British youth fight each other and rampage through the streets, all other European countries experience substantially similar problems. The real difference is that, in southern Europe in particular, such activities are only very rarely associated with drinking and going to bars and pubs (as we discuss further in Section 6)

The ‘attraction’ of disorderly behaviour becomes further clarified when we look at it in the context of the ordinary, weekday lives of those who participate in it most centrally. Here we start to see what really distinguishes the ‘lager lout’ from his less deviant contemporaries. For him, weekend activities provide a marked contrast with a life which, while it may bring with it a well-paid job, does not offer sufficient in the way of  personal ‘worth’ or social identification. It is perceived as ‘routine’ and unremarkable. In the town centre on Friday and Saturday nights, however, there are opportunities to remedy the shortcomings of the weekday world and to become a quite special person in the eyes of valued peers. Whether a young man is unemployed or an estate agent he can compete for the kind of adulation and respect which is gained by being ‘fearless’, ‘tough’ and able to ‘look after himself’.

Many of these values are, of course, dominant in mainstream culture. They are fostered by a society where traditional masculine roles are reinforced by each generation and held up as ideals to which ‘real’ men should subscribe. The ‘lager lout’ may have what we see as a rather warped interpretation of these values but he is, in his basic philosophy, exceptionally conventional. His views are often surprisingly similar to, say, those expressed by members of the armed forces or the police or, in particular, night club door staff.

This is not to imply acceptance of the ‘merits’ of disorder or of the ideologies which underlie the phenomenon. It is, however, essential not only to appreciate the rationale offered by ‘insiders’, but also to understand how that view derives, in part, from elements of mainstream, hegemonic ideology.

Situational factors

We have been struck over the past 18 months of fieldwork by the near inevitability of some disorder in the town and city centres in which we have spent our time. Consider how we might deliberately design situations in which disorder might occur. Firstly, we would encourage young men to drink large volumes of beer or other alcohol in a very short period and in a traditional, macho style where such patterns of consumption and ‘manliness’ are reinforced by the marketing and advertising of the products. At a fixed time, well before most of the participants are motivated to return home, we would close the places which sell drink. Before doing so, however, we would encourage a peak of consumption, resulting in a peak of intoxication just prior to leaving. At closing time, we would roughly expel the drinkers onto the street, suddenly increasing the density of people and maximising the potential for friction and conflict. We would ensure that there was very little in the way of transportation so that people would have to queue for the few buses and taxis and remain in the town centres even longer. Food facilities, if available at all, would be of poor quality and, again, people would have to stand in line in order to obtain even a hamburger.

Little attempt would be made to control the situation by active policing. Instead, police officers would, in the main, sit in vans with riot shields attached and leap out on occasions to arrest groups of unruly young men. Some people, of course, would remain in town to frequent a night club or discotheque. These, however, would all close at the same time some two or three hours later, leading to a smaller, repeat performance of the earlier activities.

Clearly, such a design would be rejected. Yet, with a few variations, this is exactly what happens in many of our urban centres which cater for predominantly young drinkers. To identify concrete, causal factors related to disorder we have to do no more than spend an evening in these settings. The levels of frustration and the obvious potential for conflict, fuelled by a pattern of drinking which occurs in only a few countries in the world, provide settings in which fights, violence and disorder are so predictable that one is forced to wonder why there appear to be so few. Even as researchers, staying in relatively comfortable hotels a few minutes walk away from the ‘action’, we have found ourselves becoming frustrated, depressed, argumentative and, on occasions, deeply fed up.

While we might not be able to do much about the striving for excitement and status so evident among the central ‘players’ on the disorder stage, we can certainly change some features of the settings in which they find themselves and which can so directly influence their mood and behaviour. We should also note that the true ‘lager lout’ is also a relatively rare individual. We estimate that only about 1% of the punters in a typical town centre on a Friday or Saturday night would hold to the firm ideologies expressed by, for example, the ‘Squad’. Most of our respondents, as is evident from the extracts which we have provided, were motivated to ‘have a good night out’ but to avoid trouble in the process. These young men, however, were easily drawn into disorderly situations simply because they were all milling around in the same place at the same time as ‘trouble’ occurred. We have numerous examples of small-scale fights developing into what local newspapers have luridly described as ‘riots’ solely because everybody in the street stopped to watch and, in some cases, vent their frustration by joining in.

We explore ways of removing some of the situational factors which contribute to disorder in Section 7. In the following Section, however, we are obliged to deal with the role which alcohol may or may not play as a causal factor.