Keith Flett offers some ideas on how a socialist Labour government could improve our drinking culture.
In the stimulating essay on Culture for the Many, not the Few: Notes towards a Socialist Culture Policy, the authors state this:
In our social cultures of eating and drinking, we face the terrible effects of profit-seeking capitalist corporations, loading our food and drink with sugar, salt and fats, causing immense and increasing mental and physical health problems.
It is certainly true that the power exerted by 'Big Food' and the problems caused by the monopolistic behaviour of the big supermarket chains are a real cause for concern. The ‘food deserts’ that exist in many towns and cities are one of the key reasons why many lower income, working class people have such poor diets today.
These poor diets are often made worse by pressures from corporate capital, supermarkets and discount chains on people to consume too much alcohol. This leads to problems of physical and mental health, homelessness and crime, including violence in and out of the home, and money worries.
Corporate capital thus has a double-sided influence on our eating and drinking cultures – it is a massively powerful engine of production, enabling and enhancing the development of our social natures through the culture of eating and drinking, but it also insidiously tends to privatise, corrupt and destroy some of the pleasures and benefits of that culture, because of the drive to make profits for the few rather than meet the needs of the many.
This article aims to begin to explore these issues specifically in relation to beer-drinking and pubs, and to suggest ways that a socialist Labour government could improve this particular cultural activity.
The pub as the hub
The pub is a central part of British cultural life, certainly for the many, but not necessarily fully inclusive even in 2018. Not everyone drinks alcohol, for a range of reasons from personal preference, to cultural and religious belief. In addition pubs have been seen and actually were male centred environments – think of the Working Men’s Club – and people under 18 were not always particularly welcome.
On the other side there is what is known as the ‘tavern drinking’ school of social history. This is a subset of scholarship relating to the work of EP Thompson – who himself was certainly not adverse to visiting the pub. It sees the pub as a cultural institution of the left, very much in opposition to dominant and mainstream cultural formations.
One need only look at radical working-class history in the first half of the nineteenth century to see that from the Luddites to the Chartists, the pub was a central meeting place. This was perhaps particularly so after the 1830 Beerhouse Act, which led to a considerable increase in pubs, perhaps a little like the micro-pubs of today.
The idea of the ‘pub as the hub’ of local community activity has long been one promoted by the Campaign for Real Ale. CAMRA was founded in 1971 to combat moves by the big corporate brewers to replace traditional cask ales with bland, artificially carbonated keg beer. To its credit, it has been one of the most successful consumer campaigns of recent decades, and has also been active in trying to stop pub closures. Recent legislation in England, supported by CAMRA, allowing pubs under threat to be classified as Assets of Community Value (ACV) has helped. This would surely be one area which a Labour Government could look to strengthen through legislation.
The wider and biggest issues that such a Government would have to grapple with however are arguably twofold:
1] How to make pubs genuine centres of community activity rather than places where people down as much alcohol as possible to their own detriment, but to the profit of the drinks industry
2] How to make sure that the drink provided, beer particularly, is of a good quality and sensible price.
These two aims are surely complementary. Traditionally, pubs have supported a variety of social activities ranging from pub games through support for local music, theatre and other performing arts, to support for local football clubs and beer festivals. A pub which recognises its important role in the local community and offers well-kept beer at a fair price is far more likely to have a bright future and avoid becoming a casualty of the current wave of pub closures.
We also need to acknowledge that temperance has had and still does have a place in the labour movement. After all Jeremy Corbyn himself is certainly not a drinker. Indeed from Keir Hardie onwards, Labour leaders have generally not been enthusiasts for alcohol, the exception being Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson who drank brandy – and the tonic wine Wincarnis, according to Private Eye!
There is a need to find a way between the hardliners of Alcohol Concern, who would probably ban all drink if they could, and the drinks industry that simply wants to make greater profits out of selling as much of it as possible, regardless of the health, wealth and happiness of consumers.
Possibly the best available model is the Carlisle State Management scheme. It was introduced in 1916 both in Carlisle and in an area of Enfield with a view to controlling the drink consumption of munitions workers. It coincided with other measures to reduce pub opening hours generally and to cut the strength of beer. It took a good while to move away from the impact of both of these.
However there was a positive side to the Carlisle scheme. Good quality beer was produced at reasonable prices and before the 1970-74 Tory Government sold the brewery and pubs to Theakstons, as part of their ideological drive for privatisation, Carlisle beer was revered by drinkers. The pubs themselves were also models of community use. Food was always available, while a close eye was kept on the consumption of spirits. Initially ‘treating’, the buying of rounds of drinks, was also forbidden.
How would this translate into the modern day? A Labour Government could acquire a brewery and its associated pubs and use both to try and set a standard in terms of quality and price. Alternatively a State brewery could be set up, again with the idea of providing a template of best practice like Carlisle.
Of course the impact on the wider drinks and pub trade would be limited, so a Corbyn Government would also need to look at other measures. Controlling multinational drinks companies like ABInBev and Heineken is beyond any UK Government, and would demand international action, just as regulating and controlling media companies like Google and Facebook demands international action by democratic socialist governments. However, it should still be possible to put a national regulatory framework in place that would shift matters a bit towards drinkers and brewery workers.
A modern version of the Assize of Ale could be linked in to local licensing committees. They might also be charged with checking and regulating both prices and quality of beer sold, perhaps in association with activist groups like CAMRA.
Alcohol duty could be constructed in such a way as to both regulate the profits made by brewers, and to make sure that fair prices were charged. Regulating the market in this way would not be easy, and again the Government could set the tone and benchmark with its own version of the Carlisle scheme.
A safe and comfortable environment for all
The key remains the promotion of the pub as safe and enjoyable environment for all, whether drinkers or not. This might usefully include consideration of how to reflect their traditional role in providing space for multi-generational engagement, avoiding the social problems associated with the ‘vertical drinking establishments’ introduced in the 1980s, which are a cynical move to boost takings and ensure pubs are exclusively attractive to younger people. There are tensions here which are well known. The common good, not profit, was the motivation of the Carlisle State Management scheme, but in the modern market-dominated environment pubs that don’t make a profit close, even when they’re clearly serving the common good.
Again a Labour Government can address this and effectively downgrade the centrality of profit, by reducing business rates for pubs, and where pubs are leased from breweries or pub companies, cap the amount of rent charged. They can also act to prevent ties which mean that wholesale drinks have to be bought at higher than market prices, which then reflected in higher prices to drinkers – which also exploit the publican.
Finally, in all of this, Labour would need to be prepared to push back the complaints of the ‘Beerage’, that unholy collusion between brewers and right-wing politicians which emerged in the 19th century, as many of the larger regional brewers and brewing groups are supporters of the Tory Party. Don’t expect any of the above to get a good reception in the Daily Mail! Which is surely all the more reason to seize the opportunity to explore the counter-hegemonic cultural possibilities offered by social institutions such as pubs.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.