Keith Flett says pubs could be a radically different experience after lockdown ends, and taking the Wetherspooons chain into public ownership would be a good start and a great example of cultural democracy. Image: Wetherspoons' Lord High Constable pub, Gloucester, Photo: Philafrenzy/Wikipedia
All pubs in Britain are currently shut for trade on the premises and it’s not known when they will re-open. But after the Covid-19 crisis has receded, how could they be different? How could the spirit of self-help and community organisation, discussed by Jack Newsinger in his recent article in this series from Culture Matters and the Morning Star, be applied to pubs?
There is already a model model of pub ownership and operation that stemmed from a national crisis — the Carlisle state management scheme, which started in 1916. Pub opening hours were restricted and those in areas where munitions were manufactured were nationalised, with five breweries consolidated into one state-owned one.
The architect Harry Redfern designed 14 new “model” pubs around the Carlisle area in the style of the arts and craft movement influenced by William Morris. They could operate to wider criteria than making profits and take into account principles of enjoyable and healthy alcohol consumption, all under the democratic control of an elected government rather than owned and run to make returns to private shareholders.
The Carlisle scheme was a great success. By 1933 the pub contributed £60,000 annually to the Exchequer in profits, around £4.3 million in 2020 prices.
While the language and attitudes of 1916 are not those of 2020, the aim was clear — to shift the pub from being a place where men went to drink and get drunk to a more social environment where the whole community could go to talk, read, play games and generally enjoy some time away from work or home.
In a post-Covid-19 world, a national network of publicly owned pubs owned and run by local communities or municipal bodies, promoting a socially conscious model of drink and leisure, would surely be an improvement on the current situation. Fortunately, there already exists such a network of more than 800 pubs across the UK and, based on pre-lockdown statements and actions by its owner, it could well be ripe for bringing into public hands.
Tim Martin started his Wetherspoons pub empire within a few months of Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in May 1979. Some of the free-market changes that Thatcher’s governments brought in helped Martin’s business. They boosted pub companies over traditional brewery-tied houses and promoted a philosophy of individual freedoms — for some — which meant loosening restrictions on pubs. No doubt these changes were welcomed by many but they came at a price, such as long hours, low pay and zero-hours contracts for pub workers.
Forty years ago many pubs sold only poor-quality keg beer, the result of a trend to monopoly in the brewing industry from the 1960s that had left Britain with just a few mega breweries. They didn’t often do much in the way of food and many tended to be dominated by middle-aged men with rather right-wing views. In short, they were welcoming to the few, not the many.
The Wetherspoons business model, like the Carlisle scheme, was different. Reasonable quality real ale, tea, coffee and meals were sold all day at reasonable prices. The pubs didn’t have loud music blaring out, TVs or fruit machines. They were places where you could go and chat, or read a book. The result was that at that time in Wetherspoons pubs one could find a socially mixed clientele, including far more women and ethnic minorities than might be usual in other pubs.
But nowadays Wetherspoons has become notorious as a poor employer, even in an industry not known for a high standard of employment practices.
So why not roll out a 2020 version of the Carlisle state management model by nationalising Wetherspoons? The state would have a network of pubs which could be relatively easily modified to fit a concept of a new model pub, a community hub run for local people, not for profit. In time, they could be handed over to local authorities and communities to run.
As with the Carlisle scheme, there could be rules and requirements covering managers and staff, so that a decent working environment with good wages could be provided and precarious employment abolished. Nationalising Wetherspoons and turning the pubs into a network of socially owned new model pubs would be an example of cultural democracy which communities could build on in other areas of their cultural life, such as sport.
It is of course only one of a range of responses that will be required in beer, brewing and pubs as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. State intervention could also be used to protect pubs threatened with closure and shape them into more socially aware community hubs, where breweries or pub companies are still demanding rent against their non-existent income.
But it would be a good start and relatively easy to do.
This is the latest in the series of articles on culture after Covid-19, jointly published by the Morning Star and Culture Matters.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.
Keith Flett says pubs could be a radically different experience after lockdown ends, and taking the Wetherspooons chain into public ownership would be a good start and a great example of cultural democracy. Image: Wetherspoons' Lord High Constable pub, Gloucester, Photo: Philafrenzy/Wikipedia
Keith Flett writes about Dry January, and outlines the history of temperance & the left
It’s Dry January – an annual campaign that suggests people should abstain from alcohol during the month, to recover from possible festive excesses and generally to cut down on drinking. It's important to understand that what we see in 2020 around campaigns like Dry January is historically the extreme end of the anti-drink movement.
There was a division between temperance campaigners, who thought the issue (with some justification) was heavy consumption of spirits and saw beer drinking as a moderate alternative, and those who promoted total abstinence, no consumption of alcohol at all. The relationship between radical and labour movements and drink was complex from the start. Pubs were radical meeting places. One need only look at how protesters gathered at Peterloo on 16th August 1819 from all over the north-west, some stopping at alehouses on the way for refreshment (water was not generally safe to drink).
The 1830 Beer Houses Act allowed for the opening of a new layer of pubs that sold beer only (no spirits) and had a mainly working-class clientele. The Chartist Movement certainly met in pubs but also contained those who rightly regarded drunkenness as the enemy of radical organisation. The Chartists had a principle of ‘exclusive dealing’ – buying things only from those who backed the Six Points of the Charter for the vote. The August 1839 Grand National Holiday called for abstention from all excisable goods, underlining the development of a trend towards temperance.
Temperance remained an important part of working-class and labour politics in the first decades of the twentieth century. Keir Hardie was a temperance supporter from the early days of the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s. He argued ‘that a man who can take a glass or let it alone is under a moral obligation for the sake of the weaker brother who cannot do so, to let it alone.’
By 1905 a Trade Union & Labour Official Temperance Fellowship had been formed, and a majority of the Labour MPs elected in 1906 were abstainers. Philip Snowden, a leading figure in the first Labour Government in 1924 published Socialism and the Drink Question in 1908. There was a problem though. The Tories were the party associated with brewing, beer and pubs; and working mens’ and socialist clubs sold drink, not only because it was what their customers wanted but also because it provided the profit to allow them to continue.
Temperance has remained, in part, an honourable tradition rooted in dislike of giving money to (Tory) drinks manufacturers and a realisation that unsober people rarely get to change the world for the better. Jeremy Corbyn for example, is a noted non-drinker.
In October 1908 the Labour MP Victor Grayson tried to adjourn a Licensing Debate in the Commons so the question of unemployment could be considered. The next day he underlined the point: ‘there are thousands of people dying in the streets while you are trifling with this Bill’.
Many of those who survive on Universal Credit may well think Grayson had a point. Whether they like a drink or not their focus is on keeping a roof over their heads and making sure they have enough money to buy food.
Even so Dry January gets plenty of publicity and support. In 2020 it has been notable for brewers coming on board. The range of low and no alcohol beers has developed in recent times to a situation where they can be a decent alternative to beer with alcoholic content. These beers, as was traditional with temperance drinks in Victorian times, are fermented. Brewers like Big Drop are known for producing such beers. For those who are driving, unable to drink for health reasons, or simply not wanting to drink alcohol on occasion, they allow a visit to the pub and socialising without having to drink overpriced and highly sweetened soft drinks.
Craft brewer Brewdog’s decision to open an alcohol-free beer bar in Old St on the northern edge of the City of London is an interesting and welcome development. The bar is on two levels with ample, comfortable seating, working wi-fi and a relatively small-ish bar area with 16 taps of low or no alcohol beer. There are also a couple of hammocks. Take care out there.
I stopped by at 6pm one day in opening week and it was fairly busy, though not rammed. I ordered a pint of Hazy AF (0.5% £5.90). The AF may stand for alcohol free or, being Brewdog, just as likely ‘As F*ck’. I sat down to drink my alcohol-free beer and pondered soberly how to smash capitalism, as you do. The beer was not particularly hazy, coldish and carbonated and tasted ok. It tasted less great as I got down the glass and it got less cold. It was still perfectly drinkable but not something that made me think, hmm, perhaps another.
Fortunately one of the original London craft beer pubs, the Old Fountain, is immediately over the road. It was busy, as it more or less always is. I had a glass of a Burnt Mill pale that was decent. Perhaps that makes me a beer flexitarian?
The demand for low to no alcohol beer is rising and it’s not necessarily associated with temperance. Big business was not a factor in the nineteenth century abstinence market either. Yet in 2020 global brewer Heineken have had a big marketing push on their 0.0% beer in the United States. If not drinking alcohol can be seen as a rebellion, at least by some, then the Clash’s words, ‘turning rebellion into money’ still ring true as well.
Keith Flett sets out some proposals for progressive policies, and discusses how the Labour Manifesto begins the task of addressing a radical overhaul of brewing, pubs and beer
Labour has produced a radical Manifesto and it contains some important passages that will positively impact those who drink beer, those who use pubs, and people that work in the industry.
Jeremy Corbyn is not a drinker but he is well aware of some of the concerns around pub ownership and beer. I well remember being in a pub with him not long before he was elected leader. He was there because the pub was in his constituency and it was threatened with closure. We had a chat about the kind of craft beers I was drinking and what they were like. A lifelong hallmark of Corbyn has been a curiosity about what ordinary people do and what they get up to.
The process of writing the Labour 2019 Election Manifesto and what it contains of course went far wider than what Jeremy Corbyn thinks. It involved the whole Labour Party and anyone else interested in contributing ideas, too.
Perhaps the first point to make is that it does matter. In the last 30 years Parliament has passed legislation that has had a significant impact on beer and pubs. In 1989 the Beer Orders were passed. They addressed the dominance in the beer and pub industry of what were there then the ‘Big Six’ brewers, Whitbread, Courage etc. None of the Six still exist.
They were ordered to sell pubs so that their maximum holding was 2,000. That led to the rise of pub companies such as Punch. There was also a requirement for brewery tied houses to be able to sell a ‘guest’ real ale from another brewer. The Beer Orders were repealed in 2003.
In the meantime, Gordon Brown in 2002 when he was Chancellor introduced the Small Brewers Progressive Duty Relief. In summary it allowed smaller brewers to pay less tax and therefore stand a better chance of competing and surviving. It sparked the huge growth of breweries we’ve seen in recent years.
So what should we look for in the Labour Manifesto?
This goes wider than brewing but in the year we have seen Fullers sell to Asahi and Greene King to a Hong Kong Property Company there must be a requirement to refer such sales to Government to review their implications for jobs and pubs. Both brewers were part of the Beerage, that section of the industry that traditionally helps fund the Tory Party. Don’t expect Johnson to act though.
Pub Companies not breweries are now the major presence in pub ownership. Sometimes they employ managers but quite often they lease pubs to landlords as tenants. It is an uneven match and while the pub landlord isn’t always a natural ally of the left Labour needs to be on their side.
It goes much further than that reflecting the stranglehold such companies at least attempt to secure. Heineken, a global operation, runs a UK pub chain Star which has several thousand pubs. But it is also involved in providing and servicing cellar equipment in a lot more and without that no beer gets served.
A new version of the 1989 Beer Orders is now needed to address PubCos, while making sure that what is done doesn’t lead to fewer pubs.
Sales of Pubs
Most readers of this will be familiar with the reality of perfectly viable pubs being sold off for even more profitable housing. In England Asset of Community Value legislation allows a stay on sales while community bids to buy the pub are organised. Even so planning law needs to be strengthened so that when a change of use application for a pub is made it is automatically rejected unless it can be demonstrated that it is the only viable way forward. The Manifesto makes it clear that the Pub is the Hub and that all pubs will listed as ACVs to allow the community the first chance to buy them if they come up for sale.
Workplace Organisation in Breweries
Beer drinkers and perhaps particularly craft beer drinkers are often unpleasantly surprised when they learn of working conditions in the brewing and pub trades.
Big breweries are on the whole unionised by Unite and that extends in many cases to the larger regionals. Craft breweries are not unionised, although some do pay the living wage as does at least one pub chain- Brewdog. Another well-known pub chain, Wetherspoons, certainly does not and the Bakers Union (BAFWU) has been campaigning here.
Until quite recently craft breweries rarely employed enough people to make workplace organisation a priority. Now some do and unionisation campaigns are underway.
These of course meet exactly the same obstacles, around employment law, that exist elsewhere in industry. Legislation to strengthen workplace rights is a central part of the Manifesto.
Climate Emergency and the Green New Deal
Big Beer is global and beer drunk in the UK is not always brewed in the UK. That doesn’t mean that the occasional appearance of, for example, US craft beers that are not generally available here needs to be stopped. However shipping or air freighting large amounts of beer around the world is not environmentally friendly. There should be tax incentives to promote locally produced beer which is sold locally as a practical way of starting to address that. The Manifesto is very much on this page promising to use public procurement to strengthen local jobs and supply changes.
Attempting to control the global movement of capital can come later.
The Pub Environment
This is primarily about what those who like beer and pubs would want to see in a Labour Manifesto. But the labour movement, take the Labour leader himself, has not been and is not all about those who like a drink. Some don’t drink for cultural, religious, personal or medical reasons. Pubs should be welcoming to all as community hubs. That means that low/no alcohol beers (which thankfully in 2019 can be very drinkable)and non-alcoholic drinks should be readily available in pubs and this should be a licensing requirement.
This already exists in Scotland and will shortly be implemented in Wales. It is not primarily aimed at beer drinkers but rather those who imbibe high strength ‘white’ ciders and cheap spirits. Even so it should be UK wide not just to promote sensible drinking to prevent price undercutters too. And once all that is done we’ll be able to raise a glass to the many who will benefit as opposed to the few who won’t.
In the meantime the 2019 Manifesto shows that there is a willingness from Labour to listen to and act on the voices of those who want a beer industry and pubs that are not dominated by the interests of big business.
Keith Flett discusses the challenge of Big Beer and Big Capital in 2019/20. What is to be done to resist and oppose them?
Beer writer Roger Protz has noted the strategy of Big Beer:
First Big Beer buys up a swathe of independent breweries. Now it’s attempting to control the natural ingredients used to make beer. The power of these global behemoths is frightening and has to be vigorously resisted….
Big Beer is on the march, and we risk losing our wealth of choice to merely the illusion of it. Not only are consumers being misled, but these global brewers are changing the very character of the beers they buy and driving genuine independents out of business….
The question of what the strategy of Big Beer and Big Capital is for the 2020s has come into sharp focus in recent months. Firstly, by Japanese brewer Kirin’s takeover of the Huddersfield craft brewer Magic Rock. Secondly, by the sell out of Fuller’s brewery (and with it Dark Star) to Asahi and finally (so far) by Greene King’s sale of its brewery and pub to a Hong Kong-based property company.
I agree with Protz that one of the aims of Big Beer is to control the market, and produce mass market beers which will claim to be ‘craft’ but will be of lower quality and more bland than ‘genuine’ products. That process will usually take time. It is the outcome of a series of decisions that capitalist businesses make about cost savings and efficiencies in order to retain or boost profit levels.
It would be a mistake, however, simply to expect a re-run of the 1960s. In that period regional and smaller brewers, often those which had failed to invest or keep pace with changing markets for various reasons (but not always) were swallowed up and closed. Their beers, or at least their best-selling beers, were produced elsewhere in much larger breweries. At the same time the Big Six, Watneys, Whitbreads and the like sought to monopolise not just beer production but beer sales. They did that by growing pub estates and making sure only their products could be obtained in wide geographic areas – Watneys in East Anglia for example.
Richard Boston, who wrote on beer for the Guardian during this period, noted the case of a drinker who had left an East Anglian pub, fed up with the quality of Watneys beers, only to find that every other pub in the area also sold Watneys – and only Watneys.
I don’t think the 2020s will look quite like that. For a start Big Beer is now definitively global. It still has some interest in shutting down a brewery it buys and brewing the beer elsewhere. Where would that be? To an extent it can be contract-brewed and at the moment that can be in the rest of Europe as much as the UK – it’s unclear what impact Brexit will have on that.
It may not have a big interest in owning pubs, unless of course as with the Greene King sale the new owner is actually a property company. What it does have an interest in is making it financially attractive for pubs to carry its products, and not those of genuine independents.
Moreover, unlike the 1960s it’s not really about reducing beer ranges and promoting a few big brands. These already exist. The problem is that the profit to be made out of them by Big Beer is not as high as it was, while the profit out of the (much smaller) craft beer market is higher.
The Big Beer combination could therefore be to reduce the cost of making craft beers they acquire (and in doing so make an inferior product) and to seek to make them as widely available as they can.
That means of course not just pubs but supermarkets, restaurants, cafes. The shape of the beer market looks a bit different in that respect to the 1960s.
A preliminary summary might be that the broad trends that Big Beer pursued in the 1960s remain, but that the context of the 2020s is somewhat different.
What is missing in the above is the input of an independent campaigning voice for beer drinkers. CAMRA arose out of the impact of Big Beer in the 1960s. It is still around – but can it, or others grapple with Big Beer 2020s style?
Roger Protz has suggested on social media a summit of CAMRA, SIBA and others to determine proposals to be put to Government – once there is one that is actually concerned with day-to-day Government.
But what should be proposed? As ever it is much easier to oppose than argue for a positive and realistic way forward.
One idea might be to return to the model of the State-owned brewery in Carlisle that was started during World War One and lasted until the 1970s. Its aim was to set a benchmark for good beer, family-friendly pubs and of course moderate drinking habits amongst munitions workers and others.
I have no issue with reasserting that idea but in a world where global beer and capital operate it can’t be the entire answer.
Another is to strengthen legislation (which currently operates in England) to allow community bids a first crack at buying a pub under threat of closure. That would make property-focused takeovers like that for Greene King less attractive.
More is still required. Perhaps it’s time to designate a range of regional brewers as producing something unique to the UK and put strict regulations around anyone trying to interfere with it. Much for example as the EU has done (remember them) with Stilton cheese.
Finally, if not State or municipal ownership, perhaps local or national authorities could take a golden share in some leading breweries, meaning they could not be sold without a reviewing process.
Some possible ideas for the manifestos which are no doubt being hastily drafted at the moment? Because it all depends, of course, on who gains power in any forthcoming general election.
Keith Flett surveys the beery landscape of 2019, and considers what a Labour Government could do about Big Beer
You don’t need a crystal ball to know that beer in 2019 will follow trends already evident in 2018. In craft beer there is a perpetual search for new styles or takes on old styles that will prove popular. For example in 2018 we saw a proliferation of Brut IPAs. 2019 will certainly see something different.
But beer and beer drinking are much more than style wars amongst craft brewers.
We might identify a couple of areas which may influence the broader area of pubs, beer and drinking in 2019. The first is Big Beer and the potential impact of Brexit (or not) and a possible recession. The second is a potential Labour Government and what it might do, or at least plan to do, in this area in its first 100 days in office.
Following ABInBev’s acquisition of Camden Town brewery in 2015, the news that Heineken was to take a significant stake in Beavertown in Tottenham was probably the most controversial brewing news of 2018. The funding is designed to get the long talked-about new brewery ‘Beaverworld’ built. Its location is in Enfield, not far from where ABI built a new brewery for Camden. The concern of course was – and is – that over a period Heineken will simply take total control as they did at the US brewer Lagunitas.
To any Marxist it is hardly news that capitalism is about consolidation in a quest for profit and ultimately, if left unregulated, monopoly. Also in 2018 Japanese brewer KIrin bought Fourpure in South London, while Carlsberg continued to develop its reshaping of London Fields Brewery
For those who like their beer local, community-based and small-scale Big Beer is anathema. I might broadly be in that category, but it is not one that is easy to sustain within the framework of market capitalism. Alternative structures of ownership, around co-operative production might work better.
The drinker might in any case query whether this actually makes any significant difference to the beer they end up drinking at the bar, or acquire from a supermarket or craft beer bottle shop.
The answer I think is problematic for the left. Some beer pundits claim that beer produced by Camden’s new ABI brewery or indeed by Beavertown’s outsourced operation in the Low Countries (the current brewery being at capacity) is as good as anything they’ve done before. With Big Beer comes quality control (hence a more consistent product) but also cost control (hence sometimes a weaker beer). Big Beer can and does compete on price to force competitors out of the market. Again however this can mean that decent beers such as Camden Pale Ale or Beavertown Neck Oil start to appear in bars where previously the choice was much less inspiring. And the aim of most craft brewers is to get better quality beers into the hands of the public.
Whether Big Beer plans further UK activity in the craft beer area in 2019 we shall see, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the companies in question operate on a world scale and may feel they have made sufficient headway in the UK for now.
More likely perhaps is the acquisition of small-ish craft brewers by larger or regional brewers. Again it is a familiar process of industrial concentration of ownership. The end of 2018 saw York Brewery rescued from administration by Black Sheep brewery for example, itself some years ago a spin-out from Theakstons Brewery, which it stands next door to it in Masham, North Yorkshire.
A new Labour Government
Should an incoming Labour Government aim to do anything about all of this?
In the first period of a new Labour Government there will be other priorities and in any case state intervention in a situation which has seen a huge expansion of breweries and beers in the last 10 years needs to be thought through carefully.
It was tax changes introduced by Labour that promoted the boom in the first place, and perhaps a first step would be an Inquiry, a device beloved of Labour Governments in the 1960s and 1970s, to assess what issues prevent it from developing further. How much for example the activities of Big Beer on pricing and supply are anti-competitive, balanced against the reality that the price of a pint of beer is already expensive for many people on low incomes.
Combined with that might be a look at the whole structure of the industry and whether alternative methods of ownership might work both in terms of breweries and of pubs. Here we could expect to hear a considerable amount of moaning and groaning from the Beerage – breweries who support and donate money to the Tory Party
There has been a long-running lobby, primarily by the larger regional breweries, who are now the core of the Beerage, to change tax rules on the amount of beer produced. Their argument is that the tax breaks given to smaller breweries impact unfavourably on them and that the cut-off point where standard tax is paid should be raised so that they also can benefit from it.
It is a complex issue not least because while socialists are unsympathetic to the politics of the Beerage, the regional brewers support a considerable number of unionised jobs, and a pub infrastructure in the areas they operate in.
This takes us into the wider area of pubs and how beer gets into the hands of the drinker. A future Labour Government might well look at cut-price beer in supermarkets (minimum alcohol pricing may impact this but is designed to address different issues) and controlling the market. One senses that taking on Tesco and Sainsbury’s might be an even tougher battle than the Beerage.
Beer for the many not the few will require not just inquiries and legislation but popular campaigning too.
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.
To illuminate the current struggle between different segments of brewing capital, Keith Flett looks back at the success of the campaign against Grotny's Red Barrel.
Roger Protz could be forgiven for saying, ‘I told you so’ after he had warned about the threat of Big Beer to lovers of good beer cask or keg in the introduction to the 2018 Good Beer Guide, when the news that Heineken had acquired a substantial share in one of the highest profile UK craft breweries, Beavertown, was announced in June.
The ferocity of the reaction amongst a small layer of drinkers and craft brewers suggested, in part, not so much a concern for decent beer but a class war between different bits of small and large capital over the future of brewing. Is it a war that sides should be taken in? Probably, but in any war tactics and strategies are key, as is an understanding of who the enemy is, and what its profile is.
Protz and I are old enough to remember that we have been here before, and the results were mixed. On the one hand we got the undrinkable Watney’s Red Barrel keg beer. On the other had we also got the appearance of the Campaign for Real Ale which almost certainly saved decent beer in the UK for a generation or two. Now the battle is on again.
In the 1950s and 1960s Big Beer tended to mean just that – large brewing companies taking over and shutting down smaller ones. Two of the big players in the UK market in 2018, Heineken and ABInBev, are worldwide beer companies but capital investment and takeovers can come from outside the strict brewing sector nowadays, sometimes from food or leisure companies seeking to diverse their businesses for example. For these capitalists, beer is just a potentially profitable commodity like any other.
Most people who enjoy drinking ‘craft’ beer in 2018 have little knowledge of the brewing battles of 50 and more years ago when they were, in most cases, not even born. So I want here to review the rise of Big Beer after 1945 in the UK.
In 1903-4, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the UK had 11,752 brewers. The impact of two World Wars and the depression of the 1930s saw that figure reduce to 567 in 1949-50. Then began the period of consolidation that led to the first wave of Big Beer. By 1963 there were 304 breweries and in 1993 there were just 93 surviving breweries. We might call that Peak Big Beer.
The concentration of brewing by means of larger brewers taking over and closing smaller ones began in the early 1950s, when the Big Brewers had 25% of the market – and by 1976 they had 56%. The names of the Big Beer outfits of the 1970s may be familiar to some: Allied, Bass-Charrington, Courage, Scottish and Newcastle, Watney/Truman, Whitbread and Guinness. Such is the dynamic nature of capital that while some of the beers brewed by these companies are still available – Draught Bass for example – only Guinness remains with the same ownership and structure it had 40 years ago. That is something worth keeping firmly in mind when it comes to the future of craft beer.
Beneath this were the trends in the brewing and drinking of beer that facilitated the rise of Big Beer. The entry on a significant scale of old style keg beer took place between 1965 and 1975. This beer replaced cask or real ale in many cases. The cellar skills of many post-1945 pub owners were not great, and cask was often served in indifferent condition. Hence a popular drink of the 1960s and 1970s was a light and bitter. A half of cask ale topped up with a bottle of brewery conditioned bottled light ale which helped to mask the less than palatable taste of the cask ale.
The old-style keg was pasteurised in the brewery and had to be served under pressure in the pub to add back in the carbon dioxide which cask beer produces naturally through secondary fermentation in the barrel. Without the gas, keg beer would be as flat as a cup of tea.
Over time the beer also came to be served chilled or cold, certainly cooler than the 12C which was at the time thought to be the optimum temperature for cask beer (modern taste is more like 10C). This was particularly so as British brewed lager came to dominate the keg market. The thinking was that fizzy, cold keg tasted of little hence it was ideally suited to those who didn’t particularly like the taste of beer, and particularly the bitterness of some styles of traditional beer. For those that wanted some kind of taste (but not a bitter one) lager with a dash of lime cordial became a popular drink.
The real motor of the keg boom was the Red Revolution launched by Watneys in 1971. Unfortunately, even if the advertising material suggested differently, the revolution the company had in mind was not a socialist one, but rather in the scale of their profits. Watneys Red had actually been a perfectly drinkable cask beer in the 1960s but what was involved here was the creation of a beer brand.
It is perhaps a salutary warning for the new wave of Big Beer in 2018 that it did not work. The activity of the early Campaign for Real Ale successfully marked what it called Grotny’s fizzy beer as something that no discerning beer drinker would go anywhere near. Watneys had created a brand with Red Barrel certainly but it was a brand with a negative image.
Hence by the later 1970s Watneys started to introduce in its pubs what it called Fined Bitter (that is cask beer). Obviously the defeat of its Red Revolution hurt, and initially the beer came in converted kegs and was sold by hand pumps using air pressure.
The point for today is however clear - if organised in a campaign, drinkers can push back the plans of Big Beer.
Keith Flett considers the various references to the role beer played in the lives of Marx and Engels.
There have been many and varied attempts over the years to paint Karl Marx in particular as a disreputable character whose ideas on capitalism should therefore not be taken seriously.
In that context the story that he was more or less permanently drunk has a fairly minor place. One would not need a great deal of knowledge of Marx’s life to grasp that, certainly once he came to London, he rarely had sufficient money to fund a lifestyle of drinking.
Jenny Marx noted of Engels that when he retired to London in the 1870s that he was keen on beer, particularly the Viennese variety. How easy it was to obtain such a style in London at the time is less clear, but the authoritative beer writers Boak and Bailey suggest that Vienna lager was available in the Capital in the 1860s and 1870s and indeed was regarded as a premium ‘craft’ drink.
The episode which feeds the Marx as a drunk caricature is the well-known pub crawl up Tottenham Court Rd in central London that ended with them being pursued by police. There are not that many pubs on the road today but there were considerably more 150 years ago.
It is to be found in a memoir of Marx written by the German socialist Liebknecht in 1896 around 40 years after the event itself.
His account begins
One evening, Edgar Bauer, acquainted with Marx from their Berlin time and then not yet his personal enemy […], had come to town from his hermitage in Highgate for the purpose of “making a beer trip.” The problem was to “take something” in every saloon between Oxford Street and Hampstead Road – making the something a very difficult task, even by confining yourself to a minimum, considering the enormous number of saloons in that part of the city. But we went to work undaunted and managed to reach the end of Tottenham Court Road without accident.
In due course the drinking party Marx included got involved in a political discussion in the back room of a pub. Liebknecht recalls
The brows of our hosts began to cloud […]; and when Edgar Bauer brought up still heavier guns and began to allude to the English cant, then a low “damned foreigners!” issued from the company, soon followed by louder repetitions. Threatening words were spoken, the brains began to be heated, fists were brandished in the air and – we were sensible enough to choose the better part of valour and managed to effect, not wholly without difficulty, a passably dignified retreat.
Now we had enough of our “beer trip” for the time being, and in order to cool our heated blood, we started on a double quick march, until Edgar Bauer stumbled over some paving stones. “Hurrah, an idea!” And in memory of mad student pranks he picked up a stone, and Clash! Clatter! a gas lantern went flying into splinters. Nonsense is contagious – Marx and I did not stay behind, and we broke four or five street lamps – it was, perhaps, 2 o'clock in the morning and the streets were deserted in consequence. But the noise nevertheless attracted the attention of a policeman who with quick resolution gave the signal to his colleagues on the same beat. And immediately countersignals were given. The position became critical.
Happily we took in the situation at a glance; and happily we knew the locality. We raced ahead, three or four policemen some distance behind us. Marx showed an activity that I should not have attributed to him. And after the wild chase had lasted some minutes, we succeeded in turning into a side street and there running through an alley – a back yard between two streets – whence we came behind the policemen who lost the trail. Now we were safe. They did not have our description and we arrived at our homes without further adventures.
It is an entertaining story but not one can find repeated, meaning it was almost certainly an exceptional occasion.
Engels in his younger days was hardly exempt either from occasional beer influenced activities. He wrote on 1st September 1838:
Excuse me for writing so badly, I have three bottles of beer under my belt, hurrah, and I cannot write much more because this must go to the post at once. It is already striking half-past three and letters must be there by four o'clock. Good gracious, thunder and lightning’ you can see that I've got some beer inside me. [... ]
However there is a more serious and political side to Marx’s views on beer both in terms of practical political campaigning and in respect of theory.
Marx wrote in support of an 1855 demonstration organised by the Chartists in Hyde Park in what had become known as the ‘Beer Bill’:
The first measure of Religious coercion was the Beer Bill, which shut down all places of public entertainment on Sundays, except between 6 and 10 p. m. This bill was smuggled through the House at the end of a sparsely attended sitting, after the pietists had bought the support of the big public-house owners of London by guaranteeing them that the license system would continue, that is, that big capital would retain its monopoly.
Marx was here defending the right of working people to enjoy a beer on the one official day of the week they didn’t work, against what he terms ‘religious coercion’. Marx associated a Chartist leaflet for the protest which made the point that the aristocracy who of course enjoyed their drinks elsewhere than pubs could continue as normal.
Marx also defended the right of working people to enjoy beer in a more theoretical context, In Capital Volume One, chapter 24 he noted the tendency of capitalists to force down the wages of workers. He quotes an eighteenth-century author who complained that workers indulged in such things as drink:
“But if our poor” (technical term for labourers) “will live luxuriously ... then labour must, of course, be dear ... When it is considered what luxuries the manufacturing populace consume, such as brandy, gin, tea, sugar, foreign fruit, strong beer, printed linens, snuff, tobacco, &C.”
In terms of 2018 it is perhaps interesting to speculate whether Marx would have been a member of the Campaign for Real Ale. He was clearly interested in defending the right of ordinary people to drink beer and was keen on drinking beer himself, at least on occasion. He would certainly have been much less keen, and more critical than CAMRA sometimes is, of the activities of brewers and he would have the theory to back the point up.
One can see Marx, a lifelong activist, being in CAMRA, enjoying his beer, but organising to keep its focus firmly on pubs and beer while maintaining criticism of what is known as ‘big beer’, the worldwide beer companies such as ABInBev.
Keith Flett calls for a 'cultural campaign' to defend good beer against Big Beer.
In the introduction to the 2018 Good Beer Guide, veteran editor Roger Protz sent out an important message about the threat of Big Beer (aka monopoly capitalism) to cask and craft beer alike.
Protz’s concern was that we are at a point similar to that in the 1960s, when a few multinational brewing concerns were able to change the face of UK beer and not for the better.
As he noted it’s not just the question of buying up brewers, or promoting ‘craft’ brands as if they were genuinely independent. There is also the question of Big Beer buying up the raw materials that go to make your pint, half pint or third in the first place.
The Financial Times has noted that 2018 has already seen a marked rise in mergers and acquisitions in the ‘beverage’ sector which certainly includes beer. The comment was in relation to coffee investment vehicle JAB buying Dr Pepper (Schweppes and 7 Up), but the trend towards consolidation and monopoly is clear.
In the UK Coors in early 2018 announced the takeover of Aspylls Cider again to broaden the product offering they have.
Craft beer has been the subject of considerable attention from global brewers in recent times. It started with the acquisition of Camden Town Brewery by ABInBev. ABI is a worldwide brewing operation including brands such as South African breweries and Budweiser which has around 30% of world beer production. Carlsberg then bought London Fields Brewery, which was one of the first of the new London craft breweries but had had a chequered recent history. After that Heineken announced it was taking a stake in Brixton Brewery.
Capital tends towards monopoly, as Lenin reminded us, but there is also a more specific cause for the interest that global leisure industry giants are beginning to have in UK brewing.
We have been here before, and it is also here that Protz’s warning about revisiting the 1960s rings true. In the late 1950s, large brewing concerns saw sales stagnating and concluded that the only way to guard against this was to buy up the competition, and increase their market share that way.
Capitalism is of course an irrational system and in fact beer sales boomed anyway (probably helped by young people having more disposable income as wartime austerity was left behind). This period however created the big brewing giants of the era Watney Mann, Bass Charrington, Ind Coope and so on. Only Trumans remained a large scale independent but by the early 1970s that was swept up with Watneys into Grand Metropolitan.
With rationalisation of ownership came rationalisation of beer as cask was abandoned in favour of easy to produce high margin industrial keg beer (nothing like the craft keg of 2018). As Protz has commented ‘CAMRA was first founded (in 1971) to challenge the handful of national brewers that had phased out good cask beer in order to promote fizzy keg beer, the quality of which would be laughed to scorn today’
The trend towards monopoly continued with well-known regional brewers from Davenports in Birmingham, to Boddingtons in Manchester and Morrells in Oxford disappearing.
Now a very similar crisis to that of the late 1950s has appeared.
The likes of ABI, Heineken and Carlsberg amongst others have seen a decline in interest in their core mass market products. At the same time they have noticed a rise in sales of ‘craft’ beer products. They have developed two strategies to deal with this. The first is to create their own ‘craft’ brands which are not obviously associated with them. Blue Moon anyone? In the UK the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) launched an initiative in 2017 to mark clearly beer that genuinely was brewed by an independent brewer.
As Protz underlined, the ability of big beer to buy up the production of particular hop varieties for a particular year (for example) restricts the brewing ability of those who do not have the funds to do that (which is most breweries). It goes wider than that. ABI have a stake in the App Ratebeer that is widely used to rank the popularity of craft beers and breweries worldwide. There is no evidence that ABI seek to influence that - at least not at the moment - though it seems unlikely that they have invested in it for altruistic reasons.
Protz has argued that:
First Big Beer buys up a swathe of independent breweries. Now it’s attempting to control the natural ingredients used to make beer. The power of these global behemoths is frightening and has to be vigorously resisted..
Big Beer is on the march, and we risk losing our wealth of choice to merely the illusion of it. Not only are consumers being misled, but these global brewers are changing the very character of the beers they buy and driving genuine independents out of business….
Protz of course is a veteran of the Campaign for Real Ale, which is aiming to reach a conclusion to its re-vitalisation debate this Spring. The world of beer is often marked by an apparent division by old time CAMRA activists obsessed with cask beer (even if not great quality) and opposed to all ‘evil keg’. By contrast younger craft drinkers are often portrayed as not bothering about the cask-keg division but simply seeking out good tasty beer.
As Protz makes clear, if Big Beer triumphs again then both groups lose out. It follows that there should be a common interest in campaigning against the activities and influence of Big Beer. Is this kind of cultural campaign something which the big unions, like Unite, could perhaps take up? After all, it is one of the most popular cultural activities for working people. And perhaps such a campaign could also include food, because the same processes of monopoly capitalism are occurring in the production, distribution and retail of food, and again the impact is felt most keenly by the working class, especially the poor.
Perhaps there is an alternative rallying cry in 2018 than cask v. keg or revitalised CAMRA v. old CAMRA? Namely, united we stand, those who enjoy drinking good quality tasty beer in any format, against a Big Beer that aims to create a modern version of the Watney’s Red Revolution of the late 1960s?
Keith Flett offers a brief survey of Bolshevik policy and practice towards alcohol consumption.
Drink and the left has been an issue since the labour movement was born or made in the 1820s and 1830s. The left, trade unions and political groups often met in pubs for want of other venues, and Marx and Engels themselves were famous imbibers. Yet inebriated workers and the culture of the pub and beer was something promoted rather by the Tories, who after all represented brewery owners, the Beerage. People who had a drink or two were not the easiest to organise or to get out on demonstrations.
Temperance was a feature of the labour movement again more or less from the beginning although we need to be careful about usage. Abstinence from drink did not usually mean beer and wine but spirits. It's in this context that we can consider what the attitude of the Bolsheviks was to drink, and what impact the 1917 revolution had on the question in Russia. The Bolsheviks were after all part of a European labour movement familiar with the politics of drink. Before 1917 Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party was a confirmed non-drinker while the revolutionary Labour MP Victory Grayson, by contrast, certainly was not.
This makes the question of what the Bolsheviks did on drink after they took State power in Russia in late 1917 of particular interest, as they were the only left party of any hue that had the opportunity to put into practice policies on alcohol during this period.
There was certainly from the early 1920s a distinctive Bolshevik practice on drink that differed by degree from the United States, but perhaps rather less so than the policy of the First World War Government in Britain.
While Prohibition in the US was driven by temperance groups, and by local ballots in both Russia and Britain after 1914, restrictions on drink were determined by concerns for a healthy workforce and that if drinking did occur, then what was drunk should be of good quality and in an appropriate, controlled environment.
In Russia the Tsarist regime banned alcohol at the start of World War One in 1914. In Britain drinking was not banned, but pub opening hours significantly curtailed and the alcoholic strength of beer lowered. In both cases these measures did have a real impact.
When the Bolsheviks took power in late 1917, the issue of drink was not central. Even so in December 1917 the Petrograd Soviet appointed G. Blagonravov Special Commissar to combat drunkenness.
The concern of the Bolshevik Government was widespread, small scale and home distilling of spirits. This meant the unregulated development of capitalist enterprise as well as large scale drunkenness. It led to the denunciation of ‘home brew fascism’ and police efforts particularly in rural areas to uncover, prosecute and jail at least those who were brewing commercially and on occasion anyone at all, even those brewing just for home consumption.
By 1923 well over half of the prison population of Moscow were home brewers. This was hardly a sustainable position particularly because at the same time the Bolsheviks were reducing police numbers, mainly for financial reasons.
Once the Civil War was won, the Bolsheviks could turn their thoughts to reconstruction and building a socialist society and it was at this point that the issue in particular of vodka production came under serious scrutiny. There was a division between those who argued that drinking and drunkenness led to an unhealthy and inefficient workforce, precisely what the infant USSR did not need, and those who saw the importance of State control of the drink trade and the money this could make for an infant socialist State with little source of finance.
Interestingly, the British Government towards the end of the First World War pursued a similar policy. In areas where munitions factories were sited, in particular Carlisle, it took over and shut breweries and used instead a State-owned brewery that sold beer to State-run pubs. The quality of the beer almost certainly improved as a result and the State ownership scheme in particular was keen to keep a very close eye on spirit consumption and to encourage eating with drinking.
This general attitude was also to be found in Communist Parties other than the Russian. The US CP published a magazine, Health and Hygiene, which while not supporting Prohibition, which it saw as simply promoting gangster control of the drink trade, certainly did not feel alcohol was something to be encouraged in the proletarian lifestyle.
The magazine also pronounced on diet:
(it) recommended a recognisably healthy diet of vegetables, fruits, cereals, dairy products, soups, meat and fish, but also recommended ‘miscellaneous’ foods, such as ‘ice cream, cake, pie, mayonnaise, olive oil, gelatin [sic], custards, puddings, jam, marmalade, nuts, candy in moderation and so forth.' Alongside these dietary suggestions, the same article recommended ‘a certain amount of exercise’ and a ‘sufficient amount of sleep. (Hatful of History blog)
By the mid-1920s the drink issue in Russia had reached a point where action had to be taken beyond simply attempting to punish home brewers.
Stalin argued in 1925 that socialism could not be built with white gloves on, and on this occasion, he was referring to support for State production of vodka. One result was that between 1924 and 1927, the number of annual arrests for drunkenness in Leningrad rose from 11,000 to 113,000. Full-strength vodka sales had resumed in 1925.
Distribution of State produced vodka appears to have been patchy in a country as vast as Russia recovering from a Civil War but the political point was clear. It could begin to undercut home brewers, particularly those who brewed for profit beyond personal consumption. It could also address the vital issue of grain supplies and direct them to the production of basic food rather than drink. The link between a healthy workforce, a basic diet and alcohol could not have been clearer.
For much more detail see Neil Weissman Prohibition and Alcohol Control in the USSR, the 1920s campaign against illegal spirits, Soviet Studies Vol 38/3 (1986)