Getting smashed: a fine old British tradition?

Is binge drinking in the UK something to be accepted– or even embraced– as a part of British tradition and culture?

According to this report in The Washington Post, that’s what some people are willing to argue.

It is no secret the residents of these isles like a drink or three. An inebriated King James I once fell to the royal floor while greeting the King of Denmark, and a room at the Priory – the London rehabilitation clinic – is something of a rite of passage for British celebrities. But even here, the national outcry is reaching a fevered pitch over lager lad hooligans and, increasingly, their female counterparts, ladettes, turning British cities and towns into what the new Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron denounced this month as “the wild west.”

Concern over “boozy Britain” has been mounting for years, with attempts to curb binge drinking either backfiring or having little effect. But with late-night crime and alcohol-related hospitalizations surging, a fresh push is afoot for stronger local and national laws. A ban on ladies nights and all-you-can-drink specials went into effect in April, as did a law forcing pubs and bars in England and Wales to offer smaller glass sizes to patrons.

Outraged politicians are seeking to roll back late-night serving hours and raise the price of notoriously cheap alcohol, which in supermarkets and convenience stores can cost less than a small bottle of Evian water.

“We’ve got a situation where in some supermarkets you can walk in and buy incredibly cheap drinks, a lot of which is high-strength lager, which people are using to get off their heads before they even go out,” Cameron declared while endorsing a move in Manchester and other local jurisdictions to set a minimum price for liquor.

Social commentaries are flying about how – and whether – government should handle the problem, with the BBC’s popular Radio 4 launching a program last month titled “Britain on the Bottle: Alcohol and the State.” Libation lovers are decrying the latest moves as nothing short of a Victorian conspiracy, defending heavy drinking as part of British culture.

Some compare the current push to the restrictive Gin Acts of the 1700s, which aimed to limit a cheap spirits craze that saw Londoners guzzling an average of two pints of dry comfort per week. Peter Brown, the British author and a self-described “drinker,” recently labeled the hysteria over binge drinking a movement whipped up by “neo prohibitionists.” Fintan O’Toole, the Irish-born author, penned a commentary in the Guardian newspaper suggesting that some nations are simply predisposed to heavy drinking and that the British (and the Irish) should not only accept but embrace it.

Mark Hastings, who represents the British Beer and Pub Association, served the $44 billion-a-year industry’s opinion straight up. “Binge drinking is British,” he said. “Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens are littered with references to heavy drinking. Harold lost the battle of Hastings because of a big night on the mead. You’re not going to change this by fiddling about with a few laws.”

Yet many here contend Britain is literally drinking itself to death, with a record 9,031 people dying from overdrinking in 2008, up 125 percent since 1992. Experts are warning of a national epidemic in liver disease. One major survey released in April showed the British to be the heaviest binge drinkers in the European Union, with almost one in nine reportedly guzzling at least seven drinks a sitting.

I can’t help wondering about that as I read comments from apologists for the English Defence League who claim that the organization– whatever its faults– is at least standing up for traditional British values against those of Muslim immigrants.

Do those traditional British values include getting routinely pissed in a pub and then stumbling around pathetically on the sidewalk? And are the very occasional (but highly-publicized) incidents of female genital mutilation, enforced halal, forced marriages and honor killings among some British Muslims– as serious as they are– really more of a threat to the country than the huge danger to health and safety caused by excessive boozing?

If anything, traditional Muslim attitudes toward alcohol consumption (at least in a modified form) might be a genuine contribution to “British culture.”