London The British have always liked their beer.
Medieval English yeoman drank ale rather than water. Englishmen, Daniel Defoe noted in the 18th century, "seldom are good-natur'd, but in drink."
"An Englishman," he wrote, "will fairly Drink as much/As will maintain two families of Dutch."
Unimpressed, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has vowed to crack down on the dark side of drinking, memorably summed up in the T-shirt slogan "A pint and a fight -- a great British night."
Launching a five-year plan to curb anti-social behavior and crime in Britain, the government said this week that 44 percent of violent crime is fueled by booze, while alcohol-related mishaps account for 70 percent of hospital emergency-room cases at busy times. Booze fuels an epidemic of illness, accidents, violence, lost productivity and crime that costs the British economy $37 billion a year, officials say.
Paradoxically, this means last call will be later than has traditionally been in the case.
Restrictive licensing laws require most pubs in England and Wales to close at 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 10:30 on Sundays, shocking many visitors looking for a night out on the town and often flushing a tide of unruly drunks onto streets, buses and subways before midnight.
Under new laws due to take effect next year, pubs and bars may apply to local authorities for permission to open any hours they like. That will reduce the number of people guzzling pints in the last minutes before closing time and encourage a more relaxed -- more European -- attitude to alcohol consumption, so the theory goes.
"I think it will make things better," said Jane Harman, 32, enjoying a lunchtime pint of cider in a London pub on Friday. "I used to live in Madrid, where bars are open until 2 or 3 in the morning, and I never saw any alcohol-related violence."
"One of the worst things in the world is when you have got 2-3,000 young people all thrown out of the clubs at the same time, in the streets, pushing and shoving and looking for a taxi," Home Office Minister Hazel Blears told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Thursday. "That's when you get the violence."
Restrictions on pub hours were introduced in the 1870s and were tightened during World War I to keep factory workers sober.