Thursday, November 17, 2005

The More Things Change...

"When it's three o'clock in New York, it's still 1938 in London."--Bette Midler

Truer words were never spoken, Bette, especially when it comes to English legislation. (Well, when it comes to a lot of things here, actually, but nowhere perhaps more poignantly than with British politics.) In England, there's no faster way to ensure that things will remain exactly the same than by enacting a new law to effect change.

This hit home after hearing this week that the conservative Torie party have attempted to derail the start of the new pub licensing hours--due to come to fruition next week--by asking the government to delay their implementation by another seven months. (Mind you, this is a debate whose cobwebs have begat cobwebs it's been dragging on so long, way before the law was even passed in early 2003.) Thankfully, the Tories' last-minute bid failed, but nonetheless, I've come to realize that the new law is going to be a virtual non-event and that the multi-year debate leading up to it is grossly out of proportion to its actual impact.

This is because each individual pub owner must apply to their local borough (neighborhood) council for extended hours, and it's a foregone conclusion that all of the councils in residential areas (read: 99% of London) will reject any bids for later closing times. Witness this week's justifiable fracass over the fact that Tony Blair's local pub has been denied a licensing extension. The Red Lion on Whitehall, yards away from Downing Street, applied for permission to open until 1am on Thursdays to Saturdays (those wild and crazy Brits--they really push the envelope). But the pub was denied on the grounds of "public nuisance" and "public safety". You can bet this precedent is going to pave the way for all local councils to reject the notion of later opening hours, leaving us--and every other Londoner living outside of Soho--(the tourist-clogged, Times Square of London), right back where we started.

No doubt this does not bode well for the contentious new Smoking Ban legislation, which we were so thrilled had FINALLY passed here as of two weeks ago. But our shortlived excitement was quickly extinguished when we learned that naturally, it does not take effect until Spring of 2007, which means 2010 B.S.T. (British Standard Time), by which point we will have either died from secondhand smoke-induced lung cancer or moved back to the States. Similar to the new pub licensing hours, the new smoking ban is riddled with more loopholes than a piece of Swiss cheese. The official term they are using for it is a 'partial ban', which essentially means that smoking will not be allowed anywhere that serves food.

In and of itself, this is at least a giant step in the right direction. Many restaurants here still do not have non-smoking sections (though thankfully more do than when we lived here five years ago) and there are few things more frustrating than eating an exorbitantly priced meal with someone at a neighboring table (who may as well be sitting on your lap given the close proximity of seating arrangements), blowing smoke directly onto your uplifted forkful of filet mignon as they puff away without a care in the world.

So with the ban on smoking in restaurants, at least diners may actually be able to start discerning other flavors besides those of Marlboro and Merit Ultra Light. The eye of the debate, naturally, is centering on the pubs. Most, if not all, serve food, and hence will be forced to either stop doing so or enforce the smoking ban, which owners believe will dramatically reduce business. Many, including the R.A., view this 'partial ban' legislation as yet another example of the government's wishy-washy, easy way out stance on virtually every topic, which is why the laws here serve to do nothing but reinforce the current status quo.

In any case, it's pub staff who will likely be the ones to suffer the most when their owners are allowed to choose smoke over food. This will especially be the case with pubs in poorer neighborhoods who will most definitely choose that option. And with the rampant alcoholism here, do we really want to encourage people to drink without food on their stomach? We all know that no one is going to set aside their beer long enough to make a run for the corner kebab stand, especially when they've only got precious few hours to drink up until 11:00 (unless of course they happen to be in that 10-block radius positively affected by the new licensing laws.)

While NYC has successfully weathered the smoking ban, which everyone was sure would bring the demise of many bars and clubs, one could argue that with England's pub culture, a full ban here would be more difficult to implement. Which is why it's interesting to note that both Ireland and Scotland have imposed full bans (Scotland's takes effect in March), so that argument doesn't hold much water. But I suppose there's no point in getting all worked up about it, since in the end, full or partial, we all know that 2007 will come and go and the new law's 'impact' will be as temporal as, well, a puff of smoke.