Thursday, 20 February 2014

A future of compromise and the long shadow of temperance

I’ve been thinking about compromise in alcohol policy a lot recently.  There’s two main reasons for this.

First, I’ve been reading Robert Duncan’s Pubs and Patriots, in which he paints a picture of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century debates as characterised by ‘antagonistic squabbling’ between the trade and the temperance movement.

This adversarial approach has something in common with the second reason I’ve been thinking about compromise.  As I’ve discussed before on this blog, I think the current policy debate is unhelpfully adversarial between health and industry.

One of the remarkable things about most of the twentieth century (merely coincidentally the period before I started drinking), is that alcohol wasn’t a huge or controversial public policy issue in the way it is today.  Indeed, although there was concern about lager louts and something of ‘binge’ drinking, James Nicholls’ work suggests that the panic (not necessarily a moral panic) really sprang up in light of the Labour government’s proposals to expand licensing hours with the 2003 Licensing Act.

There’s all sorts of reasons behind this change – and public health campaigners would point out that the increased panic fits reasonably neatly with consumption and harm figures going up, and these have largely followed affordability indices.  There are serious questions to be asked about the reliability and validity of the figures used, but it’s reasonable to think that alcohol is more affordable for most people than it used to be, and affordability affects consumption.

However, there isn’t an inevitable direct linear relationship here.  Over history people have tended to consume more alcohol during boom times, but this doesn’t always hold and consumption doesn’t always keep heading up.

The key thing I was reminded of when finishing Pubs and Patriots was the comparison that can be made with the Second World War, when alcohol was not such a prominent political issue.  Robert Duncan would probably argue that policymakers had come to their senses and freed themselves from temperance prejudices.  However, you could also point out that actual consumption per head was much lower in 1939 than 1914.  That is, objectively the ‘problem’ had been dealt with.

I’ll stick my neck out and take the classic sensible historian’s approach of suggesting that in reality it was a bit of both.

It’s not simply that affordability and availability changed; more than that the WW1 reforms helped shape the culture around alcohol – and the industry arguably played a crucial role in that, or at least in how this was taken forward in the inter-war period.

David Gutzke has written about ‘Progressives’ reforming the pub in the inter-war years to make it more respectable and reduce the blight of drunkenness.  I don’t want to get into the debate of whether this was done out of moral conviction or rather sensible positioning for both economic and reputational reasons; I just want to suggest that similar ideas are circulating today, with the idea that the retail trade at least could be encouraged to develop a food offer and the sort of ‘upmarket’ environment that fosters what would a hundred years ago have been called ‘respectable’ drinking.

In some work, attention has been drawn to the ways in which ‘traditional’ pubs might have a role to play in toning down young people’s drinking by offering a more supervised environment than either drinking at home or in ‘vertical drinking’ style establishments.  Similar ideas about the value of the pub to local community have been promoted by the BBPA, linked to the idea of ‘the pub is the hub’.  In fact fostering cohesive communities can be seen as something that could promote public health.

That is, pubs could have a role in promoting public health.

I’ve written before about the idea of engaging the industry (especially at a local level), and I get the feeling that the same ideas of collaboration and dilution of principles are being played out today as 100 years ago when state purchase of the industry was mooted.  This was seen as something like a partnership with the devil by some temperance campaigners, much as legalization of drugs today might be viewed.

All policy is of course compromise, as there are many competing objectives, and so for my money this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea – especially as it’s not clear that the adversarial approach has led to better policymaking

Looking at the local area I’ve researched, however, the opportunity for this sort of compromise vision is somewhat limited.  You could argue that Bournemouth’s very reputation as somewhere that has moved from ‘blue rinse to hedonism’ illustrates the problem.

Part of the town’s construction and appeal as a ‘respectable’ nineteenth-century resort was that it didn’t have pubs and licences generally in the town centre.  The train station was even deliberately placed far from the beach in the hope that this would deter day trippers and those who couldn’t afford the cost of a carriage ride into town.

This made it, in a sense, an ideal location for the growth of the night-time economy – it wasn’t a question of remodelling pubs; this was almost a tabula rasa.  As a tourist resort, this worked, and the prevalence of (arguably bland) chain pubs, bars and clubs makes sense when you realise that a key part of the customer base is people who are just coming for the one night: people feel more comfortable going into a venue where they know what they’re going to get, rather than a gamble on a local variant.

My research has drawn attention to how this apparently bland, homogenised high street is in fact anything but in the eyes of the customers themselves: they have very clear ideas about the differences between venues, drinking practices and people.  However, there’s no denying that in academic and policy circles there’s an interest in moving away from what is seen as a concentration of binge-oriented venues.  Academics, consultants, local authority officials and elected council members all talk about ‘diversity’ and ‘food-led’ venues – and even the value of the traditional pub.

But Bournemouth town centre doesn’t really have any ‘traditional’ pubs – and certainly none with a real heritage feel.  And that’s where there’s a potential sharedinterest between tourism, leisure and public health – selling a resort as aplace of wellness.

So Bournemouth’s selling point of the nineteenth century – of a place of moderation, wellbeing and health – might actually limit its ability to move away from the ‘binge’ economy of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Now there’s an interesting legacy of temperance and apparent moderation.  Perhaps moderation in all things should have included a few pubs too – and in the spirit of moderation, maybe working together in the future wouldn’t be such a bad idea?

Disclaimer (20/02/2014):
Just to clarify, I'm not suggesting here that I support the idea of wellbeing in tourism, or that I think Bournemouth should go down this route as a way of 'selling' itself as a resort.  In fact, I've written an academic paper somewhat criticising the aspiration of 'civilising' the town that local members seem to have.

I'm more interested in the ways that pubs could be mobilised to support what is sometimes seen as a neo-temperance approach to pleasure and tourism - and how nineteenth century temperance and respectability has perhaps made that idea more difficult in Bournemouth.


  1. Like the blog Will. I agree that greater engagement between industry and public health would probably be constructive. Just to expand on your points about the second world war, it's notable that pubs became the basis of some efforts to raise money for the war effort - such as War Weapons Week. Ensuring a good supply of beer to troops and civilians also became seen as an important government priority. So the differences between the two worlds wars are quite stark where drink is concerned.

  2. Thanks Henry.

    Talking about the shadow of temperance in contemporary politics I should probably nod to you:

    On the WW2 point, it's the attitude of government I find most interesting - the industry and pubs did try to portray themselves as supporting the war effort during WW1; it's just that the public (or policymaking) mood wasn't with them. I'm not sure Robert Duncan quite gets at why that was.

    And there's definitely a sense that beer was almost one of the thins Britain was fighting for in WW2.

    I think Duncan could have made more of the differences between the two wars - something I've pointed out in a forthcoming review.