You see, even when I am writing about alcoholism, I have to get in something about sport. Did I tell you I had a book out? It is called WINNERS AND HOW THEY SUCCEED. Arsene Wenger is in it. So are lots of other great sports, business and political winners. And so is my pledge that the next big win I have on my own agenda is to change the way that Britain thinks, talks and acts about mental health and mental illness, especially depression and alcoholism. Best to stick to what I know.
What does that have to do with Arsene Wenger, I hear you ask? Isn’t he just that French guy who looks a bit miserable even when they win, and can’t do a zip up on his anorak? Well, that is part of the story. The other part is that he is one of the most intelligent men ever to have managed at the top flight in football, whatever Piers Morgan may try to tell you.
But his name popped up on my twitter feed over the past few days as I have been banging on – apologies but I always feel strongly about alcoholism, and especially when I have just lost another friend to this wretched illness – about changing the culture in our country, changing the awful relationship we have with alcohol.
We are, dare I say from my travels around the world, seen as the alcohol abuse capital of the world. And before anyone says ‘Russia,’ may I offer a rare word of praise for the Putin government who have taken some tough action on this and started to get the needle moving in the right direction. Meanwhile, in France, have you ever wondered why the Heineken Cup is called the H Cup – because rightly they have stopped the alcoholisation of sports sponsorship and I wish they would do the same here.
In the UK meanwhile, liver disease is the only major killer on the rise. It is a disaster and a scandal of epic proportions and we are all conspiring in it by failing to acknowledge the scale of the growth and the cost of it all; and the politicians – with the exception of the SNP government and a few down here – are fuelling it by failing to do what is needed to lead change.
Note that phrase. ‘Lead change.’ Change comes if you work for it and make it happen. The reason Arsene Wenger came to people’s minds as I talked of the need for cultural change was that when he came into English football, he was appalled at the drinking culture among men who were paid handsomely to be professional athletes. He was also appalled at the diet of many players. So what did he do? He led change. And what did that achieve? It led to greater success. And what impact did that have? It led others to study how he did it. And what did they conclude? Hey, you know what, if you don’t drink and you eat well, and you understand that rest is just as important as training, you play better.
Now, though there are plenty of stories of top footballers going off the rails, the ‘culture’ has changed. Wenger can take credit that goes well beyond the walls of The Emirates’ stadium.
It was particularly relevant today as I saw the papers at the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme, and a desperately sad story on the front of the Sunday Mirror about former Arsenal and England left back Kenny Sansom. He is clearly an alcoholic, and he is clearly in trouble And I know there will be plenty of readers who say, well, every time he picks up a glass or a bottle, that is his choice. That is true. But then they imply, and this implication has been in many of the questions I have faced about Charles Kennedy’s death, that it must therefore be the case that alcoholism is effectively a choice too, the result of too many wrong choices on the way.
But it is not. It is an illness and lots of us are suspectible to it. And until we face up to that, and do what is needed to change a culture where drinking is so embedded, so normalised, that you are considered weird if you don’t drink, and even weirder if you don’t get drunk, we are going to hell in a handcart.
So who has to lead the change? Well of course parents do. But ultimately leadership must come from politicians. That is why I admire what Alex Salmond did as First Minister, taking on the powerful alcohol lobby – in the home of Scotch whisky don’t forget – and bringing in measures on price and availability that over time will change the culture as they have where it has been tried elsewhere in the world, as we have done with smoking.
It is also why I feel such anger at the UK government under David Cameron, which brought forward an alcohol strategy full of good ideas and good intentions and then dropped it under pressure from his right wing and, above all, the alcohol lobby who found it easier to get in to see ministers than did any of the NHS, police, ambulance services, charities who are picking up the pieces day and night.
Charles’ death has merely fuelled my determination that we do something about it. I intend to keep on the backs of ministers on this. Also, one of the things I will be asking of the Labour leadership candidates is what their stance will be. Will they stand up and be brave? Or be scared to challenge the prevailing wisdom, and scared to stop people ‘having fun?’ Because leadership is about showing courage to change what needs to change, not pandering to powerful lobbies or people who think life is just about having a good time.
As so often, I think the public are ahead of the politicians. I have never had a bigger response than to the blog I wrote on Tuesday about Charles’ death the day before. Of course this was partly about the fact we were mourning a popular man. But it was also because people know the truth about this issue, that we are drowning in a sea of alcohol, and living in denial of the damage.
Is there any country in the world, apart from this one, where you can buy cheap booze as you pay for petrol? Do we actually have any soap operas that are not basically set in pubs, or in courts and hospitals filled with people driven there by drink and drugs? Have we actually reached the stage were we don’t even flicker now when we see stag parties and hen parties starting at airports at six in the morning with the booze flowing even then? Is it not time to listen to the kind of overseas students I met in Edinburgh yesterday who said they could not believe the drinking habits of their British counterparts, and they could not understand the pressure they felt under to drink, and to get drunk when they did so?
I know there is nothing worse than a convert. But maybe having seen over the edge of the personal precipice on this, I can see more clearly the national precipice coming nearer with every week, month, year that we fail to tackle this. Talk to the police. Like the British Transport chief talking to me on twitter yesterday. Talk to the Royal Free doctor who took me on a tour of the hospital and said there were alcohol related illnesses on display in every single ward, not just A and E or liver disease. Above all talk the the alcoholics themselves, and talk to their families. Then you’ll know.
To those ‘responsible drinkers’ (and what a nonsense that the industry is in charge of the education programme on this) who ask why they should pay a little more, or have availability restricted, because some cannot control themselves, I ask them to look around, and look outside their own little bubbles – you are paying already. In an NHS drowning in alcohol; in police stations, courts and prisons full of alcoholics and drug addicts.
In the Sunday Times today I have a piece in the News Review on my friendship with Charles and our relationship with alcohol. I mention a place in Peebleshire in Scotland I know, called Castle Craig. Many of the people there are Scottish alcoholics. But there are also a lot of Dutch alcoholics and drug addicts sent there at public expense by a more enlightened government than ours which understands addiction is an illness. Until we do the same, and until we treat it as such, until we educate young people properly about the dangers, until we stop seeing drink as a reward for good things and a commiseration for the bad, and until our leaders summon up the guts to do something as difficult and challenging as changing a culture that has gone horribly wrong, looking at price, availability, marketing and sponsorship, and education, then watch out for many more Charles Kennedys. The difference is you will never hear of them. You will never have politicians queuing to pay tribute to them. They will just be yet more victims of one of the biggest killers, the biggest destroyers of hope and humanity known to man.
That, Mr Cameron, and Mr, Mrs or Ms next leader of the Labour Party, is what leadership is about. Ask Mr Wenger. He changed a culture. In Arsene we trust, as the little flag behind the goal says. Would that we could say the same for a government too scared and too in hock to an industry lobby to do what it knows needs to be done, and more people will die as a result. Trust me too on this one.
Ps — I will put up the Sunday Times piece after a day or so. Not happy re the pay well either folks, but they did make four figure donations to Alcohol Concern, and also the MayTree suicide sanctuary, of which I am a patron. For which thanks