Covid temperance: between the Wars
months have introduced many new words and phrases to our vocabularies,
so how about another one: ‘Covid temperance’?
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.
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
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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