Keith Flett celebrates the key social role of the pub
As we enter the New Year the Dry January campaign is once again active. It is a registered charity and it aims to persuade people to abstain from alcohol for a month, after a supposed festive season of excess.
While no doubt Boris Johnson and Co. did manage some seasonal excess, that was far from the reality of Christmas 2020 for many.
Dry January, although it never says so, has a particular place historically in wider campaigns to cut down on drinking. In calling for people not to drink at all, albeit only for a month, it is at the extreme end of what used to be called the temperance movement. That is those who were teetotalers. Others were happy enough for people to drink beer and focused their concern on consumption of spirits. Hence the slogan ‘strong drink is raging’.
In the Carlisle State Pub Scheme from 1916, which was partly inspired by temperance motivations, while the strength of the beers sold in Carlisle pubs was reduced – and the quality improved – consumption of spirits required special treatment. Large glasses were used and water to dilute the spirit accompanied the drink.
Dry January is however about promoting alternatives to all alcoholic drinks and it is correct in saying that there is an increasing demand for this.
Writing in The Guardian, veteran beer expert Roger Protz noted correctly that while low or no alcohol beer used to be hardly drinkable, it has improved a lot. He cited Adnams Ghost Ship which is a 4.5% pale ale but also has a low alcohol version that sells well. There are also specialist low/no alcohol brewers such as Big Drop. Meanwhile Kernel Brewery in South London has done much to promote very hoppy Table Beers, usually at around 3% alcohol.
That wouldn’t satisfy Dry January, but it is very popular with those who like a beer but don’t want to become intoxicated.
One of the key motivators of temperance supporters (accepting that it can have a positive side, which I’ve written on before) is that people only drink to get drunk and behave in a socially irresponsible way.
That seems to be very much in the mind of all four UK Governments as they have closed hospitality without any significant evidence that (for example) pubs, which have had strict controls in 2020, are a particular source of COVID infections.
There is an alternative campaign, run entirely on a voluntary basis and loosely linked with the Campaign for Real Ale amongst others.
Try January (@tryanuary on Twitter) is about continuing to try new beers and new styles. It’s mostly done virtually at the moment, by ordering beer for delivery – many craft brewers now have significant online shops – or from off licences.
Consumption of the beer is then often discussed and 'shared' on social media and sometimes via zoom meetings.
It still offers some sense of the social benefits that the pub provides, and indeed CAMRA branches have run online ‘pub’ meetings.
It also means keeping breweries going by buying beer they can’t sell in pubs, keeping people in work and where pubs are doing takeaway, keeping them going too. Rather different from the idea of Dry January!
It also suggests a wider agenda about the pub, community and social relations that both myself and Phil Mellows have previously touched on.
During one of the brief non-lockdown periods in 2020 I looked through some issues of the weekly socialist paper The Clarion, published in the early 1900s. The paper has been fully digitised and is available online, although paywalled except in academic locations such as the British Library, where access is free.
The Clarion promoted socialist fellowship and culture, perhaps notably with cycling. It straddled an audience that used pubs and those who didn’t, and carried some reports of temperance hotels and pubs. These were attempts to emulate the social atmosphere of the pub, but with non-alcoholic drinks such as ginger beer, dandelion and burdock and Vimto. The view was, even from those who were well disposed towards temperance, that these were that these were austere and unfriendly places.
This reminds us that the role of the pub is very far from just being about drink. This was the point of Labour’s 2019 ‘pub is the hub’ policy.
The reality that pubs and bars were shut more often than they were allowed to be open in 2020 rests on an official assumption of what happens in pubs. One can find numerous statements on the matter, written fairly obviously by people that rarely visit a pub.
The caricature is that pubs are places where people gather to drink as much as possible, shout loudly at one other, crowd together and generally engage in behaviour that encourages the spread of infection.
No doubt examples can be found – just as very occasionally a Tory MP can say something sensible.
In general, however, pubs are socially controlled environments and that is one of the key reasons for the legal and licensing framework in which they sit. Pubs are licenced by law, and the landlord or manager must also hold a personal licence. For people to be drunk (or for that matter asleep) on licensed premises is an offence.
In addition pubs, when open in 2020, were COVID-19 safe environments in a way that very few other places were.
On occasion this was recognised. The Welsh Labour Government did keep pubs open a little while longer than some, because it was recognised that it was safer for people to mix there than in unregulated private homes. They were also places where people, especially those who lived on their own, could meet and enjoy the company of others in a social way.
Fundamentally it is as much the social context of the pub and drinking that temperance promoters dislike as the drink itself. Here we can make a useful distinction from those, primarily in the medical profession, who voice concerns about drink because they have to deal with those who over -ndulge and the impact on their health.
This takes us back to the Carlisle State Pub scheme which ran until a Tory Government privatised the operation in 1971.
The pubs offered a decent quality of beer, food and quite often leisure facilities such as games. This combination welcomed all sections of the community, and proved to be both very popular and very profitable. So much so that before long, temperance campaigners who had pressed for the move during World War One were demanding its end.
In times like these the social role of the pub, safely managed, should be valued and promoted.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.