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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
July 20, 2010



Pubs and the Big Society

Margaret Thatcher thought there was no such thing. David Cameron wants a really big one. Of course, these apparently opposed views of Ďsocietyí are both about the rolling back of the state, itís just the strategies that are different. Thatcherís privatisation was cloaked in a rhetoric of individualism and free enterprise. Cameron is pushing through massive cuts to the welfare state and trying to make it sound all rather super.

His Big Society has a long history, as Jonathan Raban explains in a recent issue of the London Review of Books. The idea goes back to G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and is experiencing a revival thanks to a book thatís obviously influenced Cameron, Phillip Blondís Red Tory, the subject of Rabanís review.

Blond harks back to idyllic rural pre-industrial communities that never really existed and couldnít possibly exist today. It is a regressive right-utopian vision that we shouldnít take seriously.

And the pub is somehow mixed up in it. Cameron wants people to take over threatened pubs, though itís not yet clear how the government intends to help make this happen.

We have quite a few happy stories now about locals banding together to run their pub, but itís not easy. Itís not easy for experienced operators at the moment, so Iím not sure this is, on any great scale, a solution. Certainly not without substantial funding at any rate. And that doesnít seem likely.

But why is the pub so important to the Big Society? It was Belloc, famously, who coined the quote seen on the walls of many bars: ďWhen you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of EnglandĒ. And Chesterton wrote a strange little dystopian novel called The Flying Inn set in an England run by as Islamic sect thatís closed all the pubs. (Iím writing about this for a future issue of the Brewery History journal, so keep a look out.)

A fuzzy utopian fantasy needs something to bring it into focus, and itís the pub thatís been recruited to do that job. People know pubs. They like pubs. They feel good in them, feel a part of something bigger.

In reality pubs and communities are going to suffer for Cameronís vision as jobs are lost and services slashed. But the Big Society has very little to do with reality.

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