The War On Pubs: A Brief History

The rise of the middle class in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the birth of a new type of Englishman. Whereas previously, English society was largely made up of a wealthy aristocratic elite at the top, and the masses below them, there was now a new and growing class of people who fitted into neither of these categories and were working hard to establish a new social position and a new cultural identity. Middle class culture saw hard work as the highest ideal, with aspiration and respectability at its heart. The public sphere was a place of commerce and structured civility. Etiquette manuals did a roaring trade and doing and saying ‘the right thing‘ began to be associated with what it means to be English:

Men who had risen from humble beginnings worried about fitting in. To help negotiate their new lifestyle they could choose from scores of manuals with titles like How to Behave and Hints from a Gentleman. Here you would find everything you needed to know: when to shake hands; how to bring a conversation politely to an end; how to sit and stand gracefully; what was meant by ‘RSVP’; how to deal with dirty nails or bad breath; how to style your beard; or how to conduct yourself at a dinner party, a picture gallery or church. Armed with one of these books, the newly-hatched middle-class gentleman could avoid making any social gaffes in polite society.

We still see this today. An article in Tatler claims we are ‘crippled by embarrassment’ and that embarrassment is ‘our national affliction’. In reality, it is only middle class people who feel this sense of embarrassment, an embarrassment rooted in the fear of making a social faux pas. It’s not a working class affliction – they are seen as ‘rude’; neither is it an upper class affliction – they are likewise seen as ‘rude’, although this tends to be tolerated more readily. The middle class concern with public image and public decency was rooted in their desire for social mobility and their need to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. Snobbery is in fact far more a middle class phenomenon than an upper class one. Snobbery arises where a person doesn’t feel secure in their social position: they need to reassure themselves that they are better than those people, especially when they have made a conscious effort to separate themselves from their more humble origins. Upper class people do not need to constantly concern themselves with the ‘correct’ behaviour because they are secure in their position in society. Likewise, working class people who do not aspire to become middle class also do not need to endlessly worry about social etiquette or how they might appear to others as they too have their ‘place’ in the social order.

In the middle class ideology, restraint and sobriety were virtues. Public behaviour should be ‘civilised’ and gentle. You wore the ‘right’ clothes, said the ‘right’ things, and adopted the ‘right’ public persona. What you most certainly did not want to do was to involve yourself in public spectacles of ‘bad behaviour”. As a result, the working class love of drinking in public settings was looked upon with disgust by the new middle class. In their minds, drinking was something you did in private, and if you ever did drink a few too many, that was something that only happened on special occasions:

The class dimension of drunkenness was produced by a fundamental distinction between public and private. Drunkenness was only visible when it took place in public; and only certain classes of people drank in pubs or went about drunk…

Since the middle class tended to drink privately, it developed the idea that drunkenness was visible only in social celebration – hence the poor seemed to be having too much fun. The temperance campaigns against drunkenness were a symptom of larger middle class ideals, such as a distaste for mobs and their entertainments, the taking of recreation with one’s family, participation in religion, and the ideology of thrift with its stress on individual self-respect, personal moral and physical effort, and prudence.

To a people obsessed with work and the accumulation of wealth, and with social status, ‘proper’ behaviour, and ‘respectability’, the common man enjoying going out and drinking was something to be frowned upon:

In the eighteenth century, the English middle and upper classes religiously served and drank wine at their dinners, and the working class frequently consumed beer and cider. During the nineteenth century, however, the consumption of alcohol among working-class men began to be viewed as a wasteful and illicit form of entertainment which served no purpose, caused many problems, and was scorned and fought against by the temperance movement.

The middle class assault on our national drink – beer – and our pub culture, began in this period. This alien new breed of Englishman, who strongly disliked the boozing, swearing, irreligiosity, and boorishness of traditional English culture (both upper and lower) sought to make society anew in its image. The 1860 Treaty of Commerce was part of this effort:

William Gladstone, the treaty’s chief architect, spoke openly of what he hoped would be a change in British drinking habits – away from an obsession with beer – so that wine would no longer be a “rich man’s luxury”.

At the same time he was sensitive to the fears of Victorian temperance campaigners that cheaper wine would encourage drunkenness. More wine drinking was meant to civilise British drinkers, claimed Gladstone. His measures were intended for the “promotion of temperance and sobriety as opposed to drunken and demoralised habits”. Other changes – forerunners of the modern ‘off licence’ system – allowed grocers and restaurateurs, rather than just pubs, to sell alcohol. They were intended to weaken the “unnatural divorce between eating and drinking”.

This promotion of wine as a ‘civilising’ force is still evident today, and is part of the middle class disparagement of English culture and the idolisation of Europe. ‘Brits who are care about things like culture, food and quality of life’ like to move to France, writes a Telegraph columnist, gushing about a wonderful land in which wine is ‘everywhere’, ‘the people are more stylish’, and there is ‘a regard for public intellectuals’. In a moment of honest reflection, one Europhile writer at the New Statesman admits: ‘There’s a particular kind of snobbery associated with a love of “old” European culture’. And no-one does snobbery better than the middle class.

Despite the attempt to push wine on a beer-drinking public, and to encourage home consumption through a prototypical off-license system, the love of pubs continued throughout the twentieth century. In recent decades, however, the ideals of Gladstone have been given new life.

Under ‘New Labour’, the middle-class-friendly reorganisation of a left-wing party into a liberal centrist movement, attempts were made once more to bring the centuries-old English drinking culture under control.

The Licensing Act 2003, which came into force in 2005, permitted licenses for ’24-hour drinking’ and was derided by critics as being wholly inappropriate for a nation of heavy drinkers. Labour MP Frank Dobson had it right when he argued:

I think the English – maybe the British – have been binge-drinkers since time immemorial. I don’t think we’re going to turn into Tuscany just because the hours have changed.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s aim with the relaxed licensing laws was to create a ‘continental cafe culture’. ‘Bologna in Birmingham, Madrid in Manchester, why not?’ said a parliamentary committee report in 2003. Naturally, what actually happened was mass drunkenness on the streets at night. However, that is not the end of the story. Where the attempt to create a wine-drinking ‘continental’ environment on the streets of England failed, taxation has succeeded, this time under the Conservatives.

In 1860, Gladstone reduced the tax on wine and encouraged home consumption. We see a similar situation today. Buy a bottle of wine in the supermarket or off-license and you will see no tax difference based on the ABV of the wine. Buy beer and the tax goes up as the ABV increases. If you want to save money, then, you’re better off drinking wine. You’re also better off drinking at home:

One pound in every three spent at pubs goes to the Exchequer. Up to half of Britain’s brewers’ turnover is excise duty. In 2017, beer tax increased by 42%. The epidemic of pub closures is getting worse.

Ultimately, the middle class assault on English pub culture has been a success. Drinking is increasingly being forced into the private sphere and wine consumption is on the rise. In fact, it’s so much on the rise in middle class circles that ‘the middle class’ is reportedly ‘more likely to drink than manual workers’ and ‘harmful drinking’ is now said to be ‘a middle class phenomenon’. But it’s not beer and it’s not in public. And that’s what matters.

Gladstone would be proud.

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