British MPs: Drunk on power or just drunk?

British drinking culture is famous worldwide, being successfully exported abroad with countless pubs in seemingly every city. Mixing alcohol with political tradition, though, is something Britain mercifully reserves for internal use.

­British MPs are elected to solve the UK's pressing problems, but some of them are in true need for some help to counter a certain vicious habit.

Quite possibly there is an elegant explanation to why there is so much shouting and jeering in houses of British Parliament.

Some Parliamentarians are said to be drinking their way through life at bars in Westminster.

“You have heard stories of MPs being physically carried through the voting lobbies, and the mind boggles,” laughs political blogger Harry Cole. “Find me any other job in the UK where one could get that drunk at work and not be sacked,” he wonders.

The recent arrest of Labour MP Eric Joyce, 51, after a late-night brawl in the House of Commons bar is just the latest in a string of alcohol-fuelled scandals. Joyce was arrested for assaulting three Conservative MPs. One of them, Stuart Andrew, left the Strangers' Bar in Westminster with a bloody nose. Eric Joyce has been charged with assault as a result.

Raucous behavior by members of Parliament is not an uncommon sight on British TVs, ever since the late 1980s, when cameras were allowed inside.

Thirteen-year parliamentary veteran Lembit Opik has seen the seedier underbelly of life in the House of Commons, where MPs have been known to vote on matters of national and international importance while being under the influence of booze.

“A member of parliament might go into the bar and have a few drinks instead of having dinner, and by one or two in the morning, they thought it was a good idea to go into the House of Commons and take part in the debate,” recalls the former MP. “I’ve seen that at least once – it was very funny, but I’m not sure how professional it was,” Opik says.

There are nine separate bars on the parliamentary estate for the use of the people who work at Westminster and their guests. Being an official part of the Royal Palace, they are unlicensed. Last year takings in those nine bars totaled to 1.33 million pounds.

The most notorious is the Strangers’ Bar, where MPs from rival parties often clash (206,100 pounds in takings, 2011). So much drunken revelry goes on there, that it is said there used to be a little arrow nailed about 10 cm off the ground, to indicate the exit to those who were crawling out on their hands and knees.

Vladimir Kremlev, RT
Vladimir Kremlev, RT

Outside the rarified atmosphere of Westminster, in towns and cities around the UK, binge drinking is a huge problem. Inside, it seems, is no different.

Last year, Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP and MD, said some MPs are too drunk to stand up in debates, and have no idea what they are voting for. She said some MPs are “drinking really quite heavily.”

Tory MP Mark Reckless admits he was too drunk to vote on the 2010 budget, and insists he “doesn’t remember” falling over. He said that usually he knows when to stop, but on that notorious instance he “didn’t know what happened” to him.

And MP Paul Farrelly admitted wrestling a newspaper seller near a Parliament bar, although he maintains he was not drunk.

And all that boozing is subsidized by the taxpayer.

The Commons catering service’s subsidizing is gaining momentum despite promises to cut costs of nourishing MPs. Last year it reached 5.8 million pounds.

“The subsidy works out around 9,000 pounds per MP and it is 15 pounds for a steak and chips if you’re a member of the public, or 7 pounds if you’re an MP,” blogger Harry Cole explains. “Why should the public be subsidizing their late-night drinking culture?” he questions.

Commons authorities are stockpiling wine cellars with thousands of bottles (44,000 bottles of 69 different wines over the last two years).

MPs defend the culture as part of the job: high pressure, with long stretches away from family.

“The hours are long, people spend a lot of time together, and the building is old-fashioned. That doesn’t mean you have to drink a lot, but I guess that was part of the club atmosphere, and it probably still is,” former MP Lembit Opik explains.

All of which leaves the taxpayer wondering whether this is an appeal for calm, or a drinks order.