A history of the drink question in England

Questions about drink — how it is used, how it should be regulated, and the social risks it presents — have been a source of sustained and heated dispute in recent years. This book puts these concerns in historical context by providing a detailed and extensive survey of public debates on alcohol from the introduction of licensing in the mid-sixteenth century through to recent controversies over 24-hour licensing, binge drinking, and the cheap sale of alcohol in supermarkets. In doing so, it shows that concerns over drinking have always been tied to broader questions about national identity, individual freedom, and the relationship between government and the market. The book argues that in order to properly understand the cultural status of alcohol, we need to consider what attitudes to drinking tell us about the principles that underpin our modern, liberal society. It presents a wide-ranging guide to the social, political, and cultural history of alcohol in England, covering areas including law, public policy, medical thought, media representations, and political philosophy.

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Power, control and the 1830 Beer Act

While the second half of the eighteenth century saw the emergence of new philosophical and medical speculations on the nature of intoxication and addiction, it also saw the return of some much older concerns over licensing and the social role of alehouses. In 1830, the passing of a Beer Act would, in one dramatic move, undo almost three centuries of work towards placing beer retail under the control of magistrates. The Beer Act of 1830 represented a victory of free trade capitalism over the established power of local economic and political elites. The 1830 Beer Act transformed an anti-spirits movement which stretched back to the days of the gin craze into a radical and well-organised teetotal temperance campaign. A confluence of anxieties over gin drinking and alehouses, radicalised by the pressures of a drift towards laissez-faire capitalism, kick-started a temperance movement which would become one of the dominant political forces of Victorian England. In 1787, George III was cajoled by William Wilberforce into issuing a Royal Proclamation against vice, profaneness, and immorality.

in The politics of alcohol
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The rise of temperance

The single factor which distinguished the Victorian temperance movement from the raft of anti-drink activity that preceded it was the emergence of organised temperance societies. That is, local, and later national, associations whose defining feature was their goal of reducing or eradicating alcohol consumption across society. Evangelicalism was spreading the message of organised social and moral reform at the same time as increasing numbers of individuals who were publicly mooting the idea of partial or even total abstinence from alcoholic drinks. However, it was the ‘fusion of the idea of association with the idea of abstinence’ which was needed to kick-start the temperance campaign. In post-colonial America, as in Hanoverian England, alcohol consumption tapped into deep-set concerns about both freedom and national identity. Organised teetotalism was a revolutionary idea, especially among the working class. It was after the teetotallers conjured up their vision of a sober millennium that it became possible to think about entirely new levels of social and political freedom as being achieved through sobriety.

in The politics of alcohol
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The politics of prohibition

The 1830 Beer Act triggered the most intense period of public debate on alcohol since the 1750s and radicalised the temperance movement in Britain. The appearance of prohibitionism would split the temperance movement, but it would also bring to a head the questions of liberty and State regulation. For all its fiery rhetoric, British teetotalism made little impact on actual levels of alcohol consumption. Moderate drinking threatened to undermine the whole temperance project by showing that alcohol was not inherently destructive. The Maine Law of 1851 sidestepped the limitations of moral suasionism by identifying the source of the problem not in drinkers, but in the drinks trade itself. There was the optimistic notion that, freed from the undue influence of the State, individuals will automatically choose to indulge their ‘higher’ faculties — something which, in the context of the debates over prohibition, presupposed a reasonable level of sobriety. However, what was left out of the equation on all sides was the possibility that drunkenness might sometimes be — to put it simply — a good thing.

in The politics of alcohol
The drink question at the turn of the century

The period between 1880 and 1918 would see prohibitory legislation put on the statute books for the first time, the passing of legislation formalising arrangements for the reduction of licences, and the State itself taking direct control not only of licensing regulations, but the actual ownership of breweries and pubs. It would see the Liberal Party repeatedly stake its reputation on the drink question, and a parade of leading politicians publicly identify the drink question as the single most important social problem facing the country. Does the State, while retaining free trade principles, have a right to directly reduce the scale of alcohol trade? This chapter looks at the drink question in England at the turn of the century. It focuses on the Licensed Victuallers Defence League, the test case Sharp v. Wakefield and its implications for local magistrates, the National Liberal Federation's adoption of local option as official policy, and the approach taken by the influential Church of England Temperance Society.

in The politics of alcohol
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War and nationalisation

In 1906, the Liberals won a landslide General Election victory. Once again they found themselves in a position to make their mark on the future direction of the drink question. This time, there was no ambivalence from the leadership about the importance which they attached to new drink legislation, and two years after coming to power they introduced a radical new Licensing Bill. Conscious perhaps that it would play well with the public, but also acting in defence of their own previous legislation, the Tory-dominated Upper House refused to accept the licensing legislation. It was another blow for temperance-minded Liberals and one which confirmed the deep distrust felt by the Liberal Party towards the Lords as a whole. In England, the flagging fortunes of political temperance were revived by war. This chapter examines the nationalisation of the entire drinks industry in Britain during World War I, along with socialism and the drink question, the creation of a Central Control Board to oversee the liquor trade, and the promotion of sobriety through improvement of pubs.

in The politics of alcohol
Medicine and the law

The period between 1870 and 1918 witnessed intense intellectual and political activity around alcohol addiction. Many writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the drink question as a straight conflict between defining habitual drunkenness as vice or disease. In truth, however, it could never be fully accounted for as either. The late nineteenth century certainly witnessed a marked increase in the use, and influence, of disease-based models of alcohol addiction. The disease model of alcohol addiction first entered the public domain in Britain through the introduction of legislation which allowed for the creation of quasi-penal institutions to which ‘habitual drunkards’ could be committed for periods of restraint and rehabilitation. The Liberal MP for Bath, Donald Dalrymple, campaigned for the creation of asylums for the treatment of habitual drunkards, leading to the eventual passing of the Habitual Drunkards Act in 1879. This chapter discusses inebriety, medicine and law, retreat and rehabilitation of habitual drunkards, the inebriate asylum movement, differences between inebriety and dipsomania, drink and criminal liability, inebriety and degeneration, and the decline of medical temperance.

in The politics of alcohol
Drinking places and popular culture

By 1918, the drink question in England had been transformed. The establishment of the Central Control Board (CCB) had shown that it was possible to impose central planning on the drinks trade. The CCB had encouraged leading brewers to work with the government in setting alcohol policy, rather than viewing legislation as a perennial threat. Levels of overall beer consumption had plummeted, from an average annual consumption of 214 pints per person at the start of the century to just 80 by the time of World War I. Beer was more expensive, it was weaker, and pubs faced unprecedented levels of competition from new forms of entertainment such as the cinema and organised sports. The most significant response to the post-war malaise within the brewing industry was driven by two brewing companies who had been closely involved with the work of the CCB: Whitbread, and Mitchells and Butlers. This chapter explores drinking places and popular culture in Britain, beer and Britishness, temperance movement, market forces, the consolidation of the brewing industry, and the development of new drinks.

in The politics of alcohol
Alcohol and public health

The introduction of breath tests and statutory blood alcohol limits for drivers meant that, for the first time, the police had a quantifiable definition of drunkenness to work with and the powers to ascertain with precision, in legal terms at least, whether someone was guilty of posing a public risk through their insobriety. Drink-driving legislation was first introduced under the Road Traffic Act of 1930. The development of the psychiatric models of alcoholism contributed to the fragmentation of the drink question in that they tended to isolate problem drinking from wider political questions around the relationship between sobriety, intoxication, and social order. This tendency was not absolute, however, and those promoting public health approaches to alcoholism were well aware that while treatment may be driven by psychiatry, local conditions — family, work, built environment — were key contributory factors. Unit-based definitions of sensible drinking would, eventually, become established across the range of interest groups surrounding alcohol use.

in The politics of alcohol
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The changing landscape in the 1990s

While the public health lobby became more influential in the 1970s and 1980s, it struggled to have an impact on policy. The political mood, which had swung towards the liberalisation of the drinks trade in the early 1960s, did not change under Margaret Thatcher's Conservative administration. If anything, it became more firmly established. This is not to say that there were no concerns over drink and drunkenness. In 1989, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission published a report on the supply of beer which looked specifically at the question of tied houses. The report formed the basis of the Supply of Beer (Tied Estate) Order — otherwise known as the ‘Beer Orders’. The historic tie between brewers and retailers collapsed following the Beer Orders; the principle of ‘need’ collapsed under pressure from both central government and the magistrates' own advisory bodies. For the first time, the alcohol industry began to market drunkenness as a primary aim of drinking as they sought to compete with other psychoactive youth markets.

in The politics of alcohol