I’m writing this letter after watching your appearance on the Andrew Marr Show, and having read your thought-provoking piece in the Sunday Times Review on the sad death of Charles Kennedy. There is much in your article that I agree with – particularly your insight that what is central to understanding alcoholism is an understanding of the relationship that the alcoholic has with drink, rather than seeing alcohol as a substance which in itself causes a chemical enslavement that the drinker is powerless to resist. And I found your account of Charles Kennedy’s loneliness stuck in a flat in Westminster many miles from home, with all the pressures of leadership and the remorseless spotlight of the media on him, to be authentic and moving.
But what frustrates me, both about your article and your comments on the Andrew Marr Show, is that your conclusions just don’t seem to match your analysis. Alcoholism is “an evil disease”, you declare. And there are numerous other references to alcoholism as a disease in your article. Given all the insights you expressed about Charles Kennedy’s problems, and indeed your own struggle with alcoholism, you then make the classic mistake of confusing symptoms with causes. Did Charles Kennedy simply need to find the resolve to embrace lifelong abstention, or might his relationship with alcohol have changed for the better if he addressed the problems that caused that relationship to become disordered in the first place?
If alcoholism is a disease, no one actually knows how it is caused and no one has found a cure. I want to suggest that alcoholism is an existential problem, not a medical one. I think we need to resist the modern trend to medicalise personal unhappiness. I didn’t know Charles Kennedy, but if as you suggest, loneliness, isolation, pressure and depression are what caused Kennedy’s excessive, and solitary drinking, then surely those who sought to advise and help him needed to assist him in overcoming those problems, which were the cause of his unhappiness, rather than seeking to book him into a clinic that would address their symptoms. I don’t know, he was your friend not mine, but if someone is unable to walk unaided, should we blame the crutch?
In both your TV appearance and your article you used Charles Kennedy’s death to dramatize what you think needs to happen at the policy level to tackle alcoholism. You refer to England’s relationship with alcohol as “a disaster waiting to happen”; and to the need for politicians to understand that “unless we as a country face up to the damage being wreaked by addiction across families and communities, overwhelming our NHS, tying up our police and filling our courts and prisons, then there will be many more Charles Kennedys.” And on TV you re-stated that we have a “cultural problem” with alcohol, and you cited a personal anecdote about drunken teenagers on a train as evidence. Indeed that was the only piece of evidence you provided in support of your assertions.
In a genuine attempt to fill this fact-free zone, I offer this list of alcohol-related problems, all of which have fallen dramatically over the past decade: young adults drinking frequently down 66%; per-capita alcohol consumption down 18%; 25-44 year-olds binge drinking down 24%; and amongst 16-24 year-olds down 38%; alcohol consumed in pubs and bars down 26%. And as for alcohol-related crime: criminal damage down 48%; murder down 44%; violent crime down 35%; domestic violence down 28% and public order offences down 9%. And an NHS “overwhelmed” by alcohol? Nowhere have the problems caused by alcohol been more greatly exaggerated than in relation to the NHS – the cost to the NHS caused directly or indirectly by alcohol in England is approximately 3% of its annual budget. Overwhelmed?
In the light of these facts (which you can verify for yourself if you look at ONS statistics), how do you arrive at the conclusion that we as a nation have a relationship with alcohol that is a “disaster waiting to happen”? To be blunt: it’s an emotional conclusion, not a rational one. It doesn’t surprise me that you have been recruited as an ambassador for Alcohol Concern – like all true believers they love a repentant sinner, it confirms their sanctimonious sense of self-righteousness. What does surprise me is that you seem to have uncritically bought into their policy conclusions that we need to reduce alcohol’s availability, affordability and its advertising.
Alastair, we have a name for the desire to restrict everyone’s choices around alcohol because a small minority of people make bad choices. It’s called ‘puritanism’.