LONDON (AP) – When barkeeper Billy Fox applied for longer opening hours, nuns at a neighboring Catholic college protested, backed by the Anglican church.

The battle of Fox’s Golden Ball inn is one of many being waged since legislation eased the 11 p.m. closing time long in force in Britain. Some fear more mayhem in a country already beset by too much drunken violence.

Under laws dating to World War I, pubs must shut by 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday and by 10:30 p.m. on Sundays. Now pubs may apply to local authorities to open and close when they like, but can be stymied by lobbying from neighbors. Bars had until Aug. 6 to apply, and the new hours take effect Nov. 24.

But ever since The Licensing Act passed two years ago, headlines have predicted a Britain engulfed by tides of “drunken yobs” and “booze-fueled louts.”

“We seem to be stumbling back towards Gin Lane, William Hogarth’s depiction of a nation where drunkenness ruled the city streets,” the conservative Mail on Sunday editorialized last month.

The British Beer and Pub Association, which represents more than half of Britain’s 60,000 pubs, says the fears have proved exaggerated.

It says nine out of 10 bars applied for longer hours – usually a midnight or 1 a.m. last call. Spokesman Mark Hastings said he knew of only one pub seeking for a 24-hour license.

“Predictions that pubs will be open for 24 hours were wide of the mark,” said the association’s chief executive, Rob Hayward.

Roy Greenslade, media columnist of the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, said the press hysteria was driven more by dislike of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government than by the facts – a “wish at almost every level to crack down on what they see as a liberal government with liberal behavior.”

Fox didn’t expect to start a major dispute when he applied for longer hours for the Golden Ball, a 17th-century inn in the village of Littlemore near Oxford. But then the nuns at a neighboring Catholic college rose up in protest, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Williams wrote to Oxford City Council on Aug. 2 saying the Golden Ball’s application to stay open until 2:30 a.m. might lead to “increased crime and disorder, public nuisance and decreased public safety at a place which is dear to people from various Christian traditions.”

The government acknowledges that drink fuels illness, accidents, violence, lost productivity and crime that costs Britain some $35 billion a year.

It hopes relaxed licensing laws will bring an end to last-minute binge-drinking and the violence that often follows, and shift Britain’s pint-pounding culture to a more Continental, wine-sipping style.

The law’s many opponents have their doubts.

“The trouble is, continental-style drinking requires continental-style people, who sit quietly drinking away at cafe tables, not standing up shouting at each other in crowded bars trying to consume gallons of beer at a time,” said judge Charles Harris.

The Royal College of Physicians, a medical guild, said all-day drinking “flies in the face of commonsense,” – but all the same applied for the bar in its London headquarters and conference center to open until midnight. “Boozing doctors take the hypocritical oath,” the Hampstead and Highgate Express punned scornfully.

The upshot of the Golden Ball affair suggests British pragmatism and compromise may prevail. Oxford City Council rejected the archbishop’s complaint because he doesn’t live in the area, but turned down Fox’s application for a 2:30 a.m. closing time, saying he could stay open until midnight.

By now, Fox seems to have had enough. He says it was the brewery that owns the Golden Ball that had asked all its pubs to seek extra hours, and that as a father of two young children, he can do without the extension.

“We intend to carry on running the pub as before,” he told The Times newspaper. “Our doors will still close at 11 p.m.”

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