Drinking and Public Disorder
A report of research conducted for The Portman Group by MCM Research
One of the aims of this project was to examine the precursors of drinking and disorder among school pupils, and we interviewed over 200 youngsters between the ages of 13 and 17. The importance of this element of the study was confirmed during the course of our research: many informants in our fieldwork sites pointed out that, as each ‘generation’ of lager louts settles down, gets married and ceases to trouble the police, there is another group poised to take over.
In some cases, these ‘understudies’ are easy to identify: the ‘Giddy Boys’ attached to the ‘Squad’ in Oxford were quite clearly undergoing a period of apprenticeship, and much of the disorder in Banbury was said to originate in ‘gang rivalry’ between schools. Other ‘embryonic lager louts’, although not apprenticed to any specific group, could be distinguished by their attitudes and ideology, which parroted those of their older role-models.
Some of our conversations with youngsters took place in pre-arranged discussion groups in schools and Intermediate Treatment Centres for young offenders, while others were more casual encounters in the pubs and streets of the various towns included in the study. The interviewees represented a wide cross-section in terms of their social class and background, and, on the whole, their attitudes and opinions were as varied as those of their seniors.
Drinking experience and habits
Almost all of those we spoke to had had experience of drinking, and all commented on the ease with which they could obtain alcohol:
Yes I drink alcohol…..lager
I drink in the pub or down town or at a friend’s or my house.
I drink with my friends. I go down town and meet some people at some friends’ or maybe a pub
I drink beer or cider. I usually drink at parties or at friends’ houses
I buy it from off -licences.
I drink with my friends
I’ll go in and say it’s for me mam and sometimes I’ll get a friend to write a note pretending she’s my mother.
The law’s there to protect you, but you can get it anywhere.
mixed group, 16-17-year olds
I went into town and the Barman asked me for I.D. I said I didn’t have any with me and told him I was nineteen and he believed me.
Drinking and aggression
Our young informants’ responses to questions on this subject illustrated the ‘cultural acceptance’ of a direct relationship between alcohol and aggression. When questioned in general terms about drinking and town-centre disorder, the vast majority saw a direct link. Even when arguing against a such a connection from personal experience, they clearly felt themselves to be opposing a commonly held view. Thus, with a few exceptions, they maintained that alcohol made other people aggressive, but not themselves:
Alcohol can make people aggressive……but it does not make me aggressive
I’ve seen a fight when I’ve been drunk. Ten blokes against one…..19-20 year olds in town….they were drunk
It would not have happened if they had not been drinking. People act differently when they have been drinking……..it makes them aggressive. It is usually because they have been drinking that they become violent. I am nicer to people when I am drunk….I don’t get violent
These contradictory statements are classic examples of what is known in psychology as ‘self-serving attribution bias’. Quite different causes are attributed to one’s own behaviour as opposed to the behaviour of others. Equally, different effects are attributed to the same causal factor – eg alcohol.
Many accounts of personal experience focused on the disinhibiting effect of alcohol, which was largely seen as positive:
It brings you more out of yourself, it just makes me happy and I don’t feel embarrassed or anything.
You’ll talk to anyone and everything’s funny.
It makes you feel better really…you’re mixing with different people, you’re chatting and you’re just happy and drink helps you to be happy.
Others boasted of their daring exploits while ‘under the influence’:
I’m just stupid like…like playing chicken across dual- carriageways. The first person who gets out of the way is the chicken.I was so drunk, I was standing in the middle of the road and all these cars were beeping at me. I couldn’t remember anything in the morning though…my friends were all having a laugh about it.
A small minority expressed views identical to those of the ‘senior lager louts’ we interviewed. In a discussion group at an Oxford school, two young 6th formers provided an almost comical contrast, although both would be classified as ‘underage drinkers’: Tim, at pains throughout to emphasise his sophisticated drinking habits ("I’d usually drink at the Theatre or the Opera…the Royal Opera’s good as it has two intervals") is Chairman of the local Conservative Youth Association, while Stu, who stresses the quantity of alcohol consumed, rather than the setting, is clearly viewed as an embryonic ‘lager lout’. Once Tim has explained the drinking patterns at the Royal Opera and similar venues to everyone’s satisfaction, Stu tends to dominate the conversation:
[Stu] I went out just to get drunk on Thursday. This bloke just kept looking at me and it started to annoy me. So I says, ‘what are you looking at? ‘ He started giving me some lip back and so I got into a bit of a ruck with him. Then his mate came to stop it and 2 of my mates done his mate over. Then I done him over and we got in the car and went home.
[Tim] …and they all lived happily ever after.
[Stu] Didn’t think nothing of it, I just got up the next morning with a bit of a hangover…when I drink, I usually get more braver and that, and I do stupid things.
[Stu] A lot of my mates are older than me and we’ll go to a club and on the way home might beat somebody up…you get a buzz out of it…it’s exciting. If a bloke’s gonna fight you, he don’t care about you, so you don’t care about him. I never feel guilty about anything I’ve done.
They wouldn’t hit you, unless you said something out of order…[Tim] Oh like, hello.
Even Stu, despite his more than enthusiastic support for a causal link between alcohol and aggression, recognises that group dynamics have a significant role to play:
If I went out just for a chat, I’d have 4 pints, but if I went out to get stoned, I’d have about 12; then I’m ready to take the world on. I’ll say, well I’m not going to do anything stupid tonight, so I’ll just have four pints and enjoy myself. But the mates that you’re with might get totally arseholed and they’ll usually end up fighting. But you’ll just join in, even though you’re totally sober…it’s just your mates, en it?
Perceptions of ‘lager louts’
When asked for their views on ‘lager louts’ (who are they, what do they do, why do they do it), both the Young Offenders among our informants, interviewed in Intermediate Treatment Centres, and the ‘ordinary’ underage drinkers, interviewed in school common rooms, tended to dissociate themselves from any such label. Many of their responses were clearly based on the media stereotype of such individuals:
Lager louts are people who drink a lot and purposely go out to cause a fight.
Lager louts are people who drink and go out and wreck other people’s property etc
They are usually in their late teens
They run over the tops of cars and knock down motor bikes
This sort of thing happens every week for some people
If they didn’t drink they wouldn’t do it
A discussion with 10 3rd-formers (13/14-year-olds) at a Newcastle school, none of whom had any direct personal experience of town-centre disorder, yielded the following detailed information about the activities of ‘lager louts’:
All of the group identified the age group of the lager lout as being between 16 and 21.
Nobody was able to identify where the lager louts came from.
It was considered that a lager lout could be either a male or a female although in the main they tended to be male.
There was no particular length of hair which could easily identify a lager lout.
The lout would go into town on a Friday or Saturday and would most likely be in a group.
He would go to a pub or wine bar or night club.
He goes with the purpose of having a few drinks with his friends.
He is not considered to be using drugs although he might.
The lout is considered to prefer to drink beer or lager.
At the night club he is likely to have another beer and he is having a good time.
He is likely to be feeling tired and may well be staggering a bit.
He may go to the dance floor and chat up a woman or he might start chatting up someone else’s woman or bump into someone and that could start trouble.
4th-formers (14/15-year-olds) at the same school had greater direct experience of town-centre problems:
There was one lad who was well drunk and he started hitting this lad, so I helped this lad to get away, then he started hitting me, so I kicked him one. You see gangs of lads about town, maybe 20 or 30 of them, all 18-20. You see them running down the street after somebody or a smaller group. I was in MacDonalds and these police vans were just going round and round on the look-out all the time.
These skinheads came round the shops where I live and they were flying down with these baseball bats. They smacked one kid and they were doing car windows in…they were most probably drinking, ‘cos they were carrying bottles and hurling them about.
A Lager Lout will just want to drink to get more violent than he is already, but an alcoholic just needs the drink for drinks sake.
This kid just went up and punched my mate in the mouth. There was ten of them and only a few of us. They were with these girls who were watching. No reason, he just hit him. One thing he was drunk and also his mates were right behind him.
These informants also tended to be more sceptical about the role of alcohol in the behaviour of lager louts:
Most of them will go out and cause trouble without alcohol. The alcohol
just makes them more aggressive.
They do it to impress their friends. There usually has to be a group to start it. They’re just egging each other on. There’s quite often girls in the group and the rest otiny minority exhibited the motivational and behaviourial characteristics of the so-called ‘lager lout’. It must be stressed, again, that we found these to be the only characteristics which distinguished such individuals from their more peaceful contemporaries.