WITHAmong the more notable facets of the British party affair are the details that have emerged so far about the office night of April 16, 2021. In those hours – ironically it was the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral, i.e. a national day of mourning – the Downing Street staff celebrated the farewell of communications chief James Slack not only with a glass in hand and a few appetizers. A DJ is said to have hung up, there was dancing, and soon the alcohol supplies were empty, so that an employee was sent to the nearest co-op. In this particular case, no attempt was even made to retrospectively turn the party into a working meeting, perhaps also because the Prime Minister was absent. Rather, he was dismayed by what was going on in his house and apologized to the Queen.
Of course, there is also a wine cellar in the Berlin Chancellery, and probably in the offices on the Spree there have also been colleagues saying goodbye with a few glasses of sparkling wine after work – before the pandemic, of course. But something seems very different in Downing Street, and that means more than the temperament of the master of the house and his not purely classical philological approach to the Dionysian. Festivities and drinking – police are investigating at least eight cases – appear to be fairly common, if not institutionalised, in Whitehall. Newspapers reported of government employees dragging their own wine cooler into the office.
“Hardly an office without a wine fridge!”
When asked about this recently, a friend from London’s financial district replied: “What’s so unusual about that? In our company there is hardly an office without a wine refrigerator!” Is it possible that we are not dealing with a Johnson phenomenon at all, but with a broader topic that affects feverishly working careerists? Is drinking at work even a national phenomenon? Labor Party politicians were among the first to declare a culture problem in Downing Street. They fell silent after a photo emerged showing their chairman, Keir Starmer, with a beer at work – in lockdown, with colleagues.
First of all, the question arises as to whether, from a British point of view, one can actually speak of a problem. Partying and drinking, also and especially in the context of work, is deeply rooted in the culture of the island. “After-work drinks” are part of everyday life, not only in Westminster; often the first sip is taken in the office. At party conferences, which in the UK are dominated by small and medium-sized panel discussions, it is good manners to offer the audience a glass of wine at the entrance, even during the day.
Highly effective drunkards
The word “party” found its way into the world from the English language. Long before that, in Shakespeare, the islanders’ hard drinking was celebrated. “Cry, lads!” calls Jago in “Othello” and explains to Cassio that “the English are great at drinking cups”. Jago meant that quite competitively: “Your Dane, your German, your pot-bellied Dutchman – to drink, hey! – are all nothing against the English.”
In the historical dramas from the time of Queen Victoria, which are popular all over the world, people actually drink all the time. It’s the same with social novels from Jane Austen to Nancy Midford, and we’re only in the 1930s and 1940s. The national heroes ever since have been connoisseurs and highly effective drunkards. As Winston Churchill steered Britain through World War II, he would mix his first whiskey and soda around eleven in the morning and then down a bottle and a half of champagne throughout the day, followed by at least one brandy. The UK’s most famous fictional character, James Bond, is known for his shaken, unstirred martinis, which he enjoys consuming at work, albeit in a tuxedo.