Take nine bars, add 650 members of Parliament and an equal number of journalists, lobbyists and staff, multiply by a vast quantity of taxpayer-subsidized booze, and what do you get? One giant political hangover.
Even by the bibulous standards of Britain’s House of Commons – where the day care is located in a converted bar – the behaviour of Scottish Labour MP Eric Joyce was considered out-of-bounds. After drinking in the Strangers Bar, one of the parliamentary taverns, on Wednesday night, Mr. Joyce, 51, a former army officer, is alleged to have head-butted a Conservative MP and lashed out at other members of the House. (Andrew Scheer, Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons, was a guest in the bar, according to his spokesman, but left before the scuffle.)
Mr. Joyce, known in the press as “Airmiles Eric” for his lavish parliamentary travel expenditures, is said to have been annoyed that there were “too many Tories” in the Strangers Bar. Mr. Joyce was arrested and suspended from the Labour Party.
Extreme behaviour, perhaps, but hardly uncommon in a country that is struggling to contain an epidemic of drink-related bad behaviour, and where politics and alcohol go together like – well, bangers and mash.
Located only steps from the offices where David Cameron’s government is working on plans to curb Britain’s culture of excessive drinking (more drunk tanks, a possible minimum price on alcohol), the nine parliamentary bars are where politicians, lobbyists and journalists gather and gossip, often late into the night. A taxpayer-subsidized glass of whisky costs only £2.55 ($4), according to The Daily Telegraph, or about the cost of a Coca-Cola in the rest of London’s pubs.
“The British drink more than Canadians, and they binge drink more,” says Lauren Dobson-Hughes, who worked in the office of Labour Minister Harriet Harman and now works in public affairs in Canada. “British politicians reflect that. Then you pile on the stress that they’re under, and you see what happens.”
In the Strangers Bar, one of the more disreputable in Parliament, the motto is “What happens in Strangers stays in Strangers.” Ms. Dobson-Hughes says there is an “exit” sign located about a foot from the floor, so that those crawling home can find their way.
One of the problems, she says, is that votes sometimes happen late at night: “You’ve got MPs sitting around waiting for a vote that may or may not happen, and they’re surrounded by all this subsidized booze.”
For some, the vote never comes. In 2010, rookie Conservative MP Mark Reckless missed a vote on Chancellor George Osborne’s budget after overindulging in the hospitality of the parliamentary bar. He told BBC radio, “I don't intend to drink at Westminster again.”
Of course, Mr. Joyce and Mr. Reckless are not the first British politicians to enjoy a tipple, and the electorate has never seemed particularly worried about its leaders’ desire to enjoy a pint or six. Winston Churchill famously made it through the Second World War with a drink by his side, and Margaret Thatcher consulted with her cabinet over stiff Scotches late at night in 10 Downing St. In his memoir, A Journey, Tony Blair wrote about how he worried he might be drinking too much while in office. “The relationship between alcohol and prime ministers is a subject for a book all on its own.” Mr. Blair said that while he was “not remotely a toper” his alcohol intake – stiff drink before dinner, half a bottle of wine with – put him “at the outer limit.”
At least he wasn’t often seen drinking in public, unlike former (and possibly future) London mayor Ken Livingstone, who was spotted by a documentary crew drinking straight whisky during a meeting of the Greater London Assembly. Mr. Livingstone suggested the whisky was a cure for his bronchitis, and helped him with the “numbing tedium” of the sessions. Not to be outdone, Boris Johnson – who defeated Mr. Livingstone in the 2008 mayoral election and faces him again at the polls in May – told a magazine last year that two pints of beer during the day were beneficial: “You don’t feel drunk, you just feel ever so slightly superb.”
There has been a greater spotlight recently on the problem of British professionals who drink to excess. Last week the BBC aired Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics, a documentary by the political strategist Alastair Campbell, who was Mr. Blair’s main adviser. “I should know” about secretive drunks, he says in the documentary. “I was one of them.”
Mr. Campbell was drinking heavily when he worked on Fleet Street in the 1980s, but stopped before he went to work with the Labour party. In an e-mail interview Thursday, he said that despite the evidence of Mr. Joyce’s case, things were actually much more uproarious in the old days.
“When I was a journalist I would say journalists and MPs drank more than the general public,” Mr. Campbell said. “Now I think they drink less. There used to be all sorts of incidents through drink in Parliament but they tended not to get reported. That's all changed.”