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. The 11 o'clock closing time dates to 1964.
Most British have their own horror stories of post-closing encounters with beer-soaked mobs, or of late-night journeys home involving beery subway trains, vomit-soaked buses or urine-stained sidewalks.
Some fear longer drinking hours will simply mean more drunks and violence -- a link the prime minister dismisses.
"It should be perfectly possible to have more flexible opening hours without people going on the rampage and beating people up," Blair told reporters at a press conference Thursday.
"The way of dealing with this, I think, is not to restrict opening hours but to make sure we come down really hard on this," he said.
Researchers say it is not how much Britons drink, but how they drink, that is the problem.
Britons drink more, on average, than Americans -- the equivalent of 2.2 gallons of pure alcohol a year per person, compared to 1.8 gallons in the United States -- but less than people in Ireland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, France and Portugal, according to the 2002 World Drink Trends survey.
But Britons are more likely than most other Europeans to drink in concentrated bursts.
"Getting drunk, that's the main problem in the U.K.," said Rebecca Smith of Edinburgh University, part of an international team that conducted a study of teen drinking in 35 countries for the World Health Organization in 2002. "In some other countries, they drink quite a lot but they don't get drunk."
And teenagers in Britain, where the legal drinking age is 18, appear to drink more regularly than most.
In the WHO study, more 15-year-olds in Wales and England reported drinking at least once a week than in any other country. When the same age group was asked whether they'd been drunk at least twice, British teens also came near the top.
The Home Office said a recent police sting operation targeting nearly 141 premises that sell alcohol found half were supplying booze to people under 18. As part of the summer crackdown, 686 had alcohol confiscated from them.
Some blame Britain's alcohol industry for aggressively marketing booze at the young. They point to the spread of cavernous, standing-room-only bars, the proliferation of vodka-based "alcopops" and ad campaigns promoting lager over the more traditional -- and weaker -- ale and bitter.
"The pub industry is creating more one-roomed big dens, especially in city centers," said Tony Jerome, spokesman for the Campaign for Real Ale, which seeks to preserve Britain's traditional beer culture. "There's always a lot of drinks promotions, a lot of people standing up, rather than sitting down in small rooms, which is the tradition in many pubs."
The government has pushed the industry to limit happy hours and two-for-one drink promotions, and is considering tightening rules for television advertising of booze.
"The industry have got to start taking a more responsible attitude," said Blears, the government minister. "They have got to get rid of these promotions which say 'All you can drink for 10 pounds,' or 'Girls drink free.' That's a recipe for disaster."