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Phil Mellows is a freelance
 journalist living in Brighton 

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         The politics of drinking

December 3rd, 2020



10 million years of drinking
Alcohol and humans

Beyond the dry month
Interview with Richard Piper, the new head of Alcool Concern

The Carlisle Experiment
100 years since they nationalised

The science of temperance
The story of the Institute of Alcohol Studies

More grey areas than a late Rothko
Off licence bans on superstrength beers

A figure that doesn't add up
The story behind the £21bn
cost of alcohol harm

The Beer Orders
... not just history

Learning from a dry society
Interview with Redemption Bar's Catherine Salway

Bye-Bye Booze Britain?
Young people seem to have gone off the drink...

Strength in Numbers 
Voluntary off-licence bans on strong beers and ciders

More Published Work

Covid temperance: between the Wars

Recent months have introduced many new words and phrases to our vocabularies, so how about another one: ‘Covid temperance’?

As pubs in England leapt from the frying pan of Lockdown #2 into the fire of Tiers 2 and 3, and those in the rest of the UK continue to grapple with shifting restrictions to their trade, voices in the industry have grown louder and angrier. They want to know why the government has got it in for pubs.

You can sympathise. While non-essential retailers are allowed to open their doors to droves of Christmas shoppers and fitness adherents will be able to gasp and pant over their fellows down the gym, pubs have to stay closed or serve a ‘substantial meal’ in order to sell someone an alcoholic drink.

Government strategy appears to be relying on the hospitality industry to save the world from the pandemic. Though many suffered, some of us are feeling nostalgic for the spring lockdown when there was at least a sense of solidarity, a feeling that every section of society was doing its bit (Dominic Cummings excluded).

Today, as Kate Nicholls of the British Hospitality Association has pointed out, “It’s quite clear that Boris Johnson has singled out hospitality to keep other sectors open.”

Unwilling to close schools, and now retail, hospitality is the only tool left in the box. And it’s drinking in hospitality venues that is especially being targeted.

Take the new lockdown in Wales. Mimicking one of the Scottish tiers
(I forget which) it’s saying pubs can open - but can’t serve alcohol.

What has this got to do with the transmission of Covid-19? It goes beyond the reasonable argument that the virus spreads most readily when numbers of people gather for an extended time in enclosed spaces.

It rather seems that a determination to stop the spread of the virus has somehow gotten tangled up in some deeply embedded attitudes towards drink. The result is Covid temperance.

The ITV News website has made a sketchy stab at the issue, pointing to the World Health Organisation’s view that, if it had its way, we wouldn’t be drinking at all, pandemic or not. (())

But while there are certainly those who see this health crisis as an opportunity to crack down on alcohol that can’t be the position of the UK governments since their measures are strictly targeted at the on-trade, which accounts for less than half the market, even when it’s open.

The perceived problem here is not with drinking as such but certain drinking behaviours. In Tier 2 pubs are told they must be restaurants, which in this case, as Pete Brown makes clear, is nothing to do with the consumption of solids.

Being a restaurant means customers sitting down and keeping still. Having a meal in front of them is just a way of anchoring them to a table.

There is also an implication that restaurants, to put it bluntly, are better than pubs. More ‘civilised’, though nobody is going to say that.

Pubs are, in contrast, fundamentally unruly. With a drink inside them there is no stopping pub-goers running around and snogging all and sundry. Which might surprise those of us who go to the local for a quiet pint and a chat.

But these rules are devised by people who have no experience of pubs beyond the occasional photo-call where they’re told to hold a dimpled jug of brown liquid in one hand while, with the other, fondling a strange truncheon-like implement sticking out of the counter.

A further worry for this class is that people drinking in pubs might be inappropriately enjoying themselves in a time of crisis.

“Going to the pub is seen as a luxury, or even a sin, especially by people who never go to pubs and have no idea what they’re like,” as Brown puts it.

It is, however, a secularised sin that originates with the temperance movement in the industrial revolution. Drinking disrupted the order and diligence necessary for consistent profitability, and in addition pubs, as Keith Flett notes, were home to the wrong kind of community, the subversive Luddites and Chartists.

This political-economic concern, that drink saps the productivity of the working class, is rendered as a moral cause that workers themselves were, by the end of the century, taking up in their own interest.

Temperance came to a head, of course, in the First World War when its underlying ethos surged rudely to the surface with David Lloyd George declaring drink a greater enemy that the Germans. Why? Because it threatened productivity, especially munitions productivity. In Carlisle, the centre of arms manufacture, most pubs were closed, the rest nationalised.

The full story can’t be told here, but by the Second World War this had turned around. Pubs were enlisted in the war effort, charged with boosting morale as the bombs rained down.

It is arguable that our modern, perhaps rather sentimental, love of the community local developed in these years, along with the modern pub with its diverse offerings and growing consciousness of its role in social cohesion.

In an online seminar in September hosted by the British Sociological Association Alcohol Study Group, philosopher John O’Brien described how the pub in Ireland had emerged as a positive symbol in the months of lockdown, “performing solidarity” at the centre of a “moral drama” about how people are meant to behave as society comes under threat.

At the very moment that pubs have struggled for commercial survival there has been a focus on their work in supporting communities, delivering food to those isolating, for instance, and providing a social hub even while closed.

This reprise of its Second World War role is perversely yoked to its victimisation by default. In the middle of a pandemic that future historians will look back on as a world-historic event, the British pub is simultaneously hero and villain, caught between the wars. The battle is on for its future.


Covid temperance: between the Wars

The ‘new sobriety’ and its antinomies

Risking the credibility of safe drinking messages

Avatars of Aloysius: the Tiny Rebel bear affair

Drink and the meaning of cancer

While public health fiddles, alcohol harm inequality widens

Prizes and cabbages: the pub industry and the MRO

Diary Archive 

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