The Campaign for Real Ale’s Great British Beer Festival took place at Olympia from 1st to the 5th August. It’s back to full strength after the pandemic period, showcasing hundreds of draught beers and welcoming thousands of visitors. Despite the name it’s not a flag-waving event. Its focus is on British real beer – cask and keykeg. However there are also bars with draught beers from the USA and Europe. The range of beers is vast from traditional bitters to IPAs, stouts and sours.
It usually gets media publicity which features large men with beards drinking pints of beer. I paid a visit this year as usual and was pleased to note that the attendance was considerably more diverse in terms of age, ethnicity and gender than it used to be. In part that is a tribute to the work of CAMRA in consciously promoting good beer across a much wider range of people.
There was controversy however when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pitched up at the trade session on Tuesday afternoon. This is open to brewers, publicans and those involved in the drink trade.
Traditionally brewers and the drink trade have been Tories. The Beerage reflected historically the political influence brewers had in the Tory Party, and these days the CEOs of big brewing names like Marstons and Greene King have donated money to the Tories. Moreover, while CAMRA has perhaps a socially liberal image dating back to its 1970s origins as a protest group, the Liberals were the party of temperance. Labour was and perhaps still is divided on the issue
The Tory Party in 2023 is not great in terms of the knowledge of its own history. So while Rishi Sunak may have thought the drinks trade is sympathetic, personally he is a teetotaller who reportedly doesn’t like the taste of alcohol-free beer either. His appearance at the GBBF was not however to promote beer but to talk about the new alcohol duty rates that came in on the 1st August. It is reportedly the biggest shake-up in duty since the nineteenth century.
In respect of beer there is a lower tax rate on draught beer sold in pubs. The idea is to encourage people to drink socially rather than at home with beer from the supermarket. Beer which has 3.4% alcohol or lower now has lower tax. The Government says that this is to encourage people to drink lower strength beers on health grounds. There are indeed some excellent beers at this strength, a table beer from Kernel the Bermondsey craft brewer for example. In addition beers above 8.5% will face a higher duty rate which will mean some imperial stouts and double IPAs will cost more.
Sunak claimed all this as a Brexit benefit. Technically this may be correct. Outside the EU Britain is freer to change duty on things like wine and whisky. The changes do this by putting the prices up. The benefit here is not to the drinker but to the Exchequer. So as with most things the Government does the changes to benefit its mates, the largest regional brewers who still support the Tories in some cases, while others lose out.
Sunak was jeered and heckled on Tuesday at the GBBF again – by brewers and publicans, not members of the public. The issue discussed on social media and in bars was whether CAMRA was right to invite Sunak at all. He is after all the leader of a deeply unpopular Government and his appearance at Olympia to claim that the duty prices would mean a cheaper pint was a lie.
It wasn’t really a good look for CAMRA. It’s a mature social movement and theory on the subject underlines that over time activists get diverted from protests and lobbies into the structures of Government where they can push for minor changes and policy tweaks.
It’s a move from protest to policy, but it should be underlined that the work of CAMRA has seen important safeguards and improvements for drinkers over the years. It’s a model consumer campaign, democratically run by drinkers, where policy is decided at annual members’ conference (there are around 180,000 members) not by producers. Particularly in the time of a cost of living crisis, it’s a model that could and should work elsewhere.
CAMRA social media promoted Sunak’s visit and it didn’t go down well. It’s true that away from the media glare CAMRA activists, some brewers and representatives from SIBA (the small independent brewers society) did lobby Sunak on key issues like energy prices and the cost of living and the need to take action to help pubs.
During the week CAMRA took to TwitterX to argue that more was needed from Sunak. Even so the decision to invite Sunak left a sour taste in the mouths of many drinkers and reminded that like many social movements revitalisation at the grassroots is essential to avoid the campaign becoming too entangled in the work of a Tory Government.
Why not join CAMRA, and help develop its politically progressive campaigns? See here - it costs from £30.50 a year. There are lots of benefits and discounts but the real value is being part of a collective consumer campaign for better beer.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.