Keith Flett starts a new series on drink, pubs and politics.
My title comes from a song in the play Close the Coalhouse Door, written by Alex Glasgow and Henry Livings and perhaps sums up the awkward relationship between drink, pubs, the left and the wider labour movement.
The singer of the song, in the pub, talks about all the things he plans to change in the world, but as the drinking goes on, the song concludes with the line ‘I think I’m going to be sick’.
Hopefully not too many readers of this piece drink in such quantities to provoke that. The idea here is to touch on a range of issues related to drink, pubs, culture and the left over a series of articles. The subject is so vast that one couldn’t possibly hope to cover all of it, yet at the same time one is struck by how little specific literature there actually is on it.
There are classic texts about the history of drink and British society such as Brian Harrison’s Drink and the Victorians which certainly touches on both the working class and drink and the labour movement. There are works on temperance (which Harrison also focuses on) and more broadly there is what was termed the ‘tavern drinking school of history’. This is usually social history focused on radical working men (rarely if ever women) meeting in pubs, discussing ideas and strategies and then putting them into practice. It is quite a romantic picture, at least for some, but probably for that reason, not necessarily all that accurate either.
So it’s probably best to start a piece on drink and the left by acknowledging that while it will certainly cover key parts of the labour movement and the men who were active in it, not all men went into pubs or drank, and rather fewer women did. I will go into more detail on this later in the series but let’s start by noting that the Working Men’s Club was called that for a reason. It was largely frequented by men, with women (or as Jim Callaghan noted ‘trade unionists and their wives’ coming in at weekends).
I’m almost 60 and men only bars in pubs existed within my memory. That didn’t appeal to all men by any means. The Tolpuddle Martyrs for example were active Methodists and they most certainly did not take the oaths of trade union membership that led to their transportation in a pub.
As Britain has become a more diverse society the numbers of those that don’t drink and don’t go into pubs is probably on the increase. But just as it’s lazy to think that all men drink, so it is equally mistaken to imagine that all those who, for example, see themselves as Muslims, never drink alcohol. They may not be propping up a corner of the saloon bar with Nigel Farage, but they may enjoy the social atmosphere of a pub as much as anyone else.
It is worth reflecting too that if the drink in question is beer, historically speaking this was not what temperance campaigners were on about anyway.
Their campaign slogan (and complaint) was that ‘strong drink is raging’. They meant cheap spirits and they had a point. Hogarth’s depiction of ‘Gin Lane’ is well known but alcohol could well be a way of distracting oneself from what Engels called 'the dull compulsion of economic reality.'
Obviously I do enjoy a drink (I joined the Campaign for Real Ale in 1975 and remain a slightly active member) but in a lifetime of labour movement activism and organising I do frown upon meetings where drinking has taken place beforehand or indeed is going on while one is in progress. The result is often less than happy. Drinking afterwards is fine and often essential.
Beer was not the focus of temperance (and it was usually a good deal stronger pre-World War One than it is, in general now). Indeed drinking beer when water was not always as safe to consume as it is now, was a matter of common sense. Lower strength ‘table beer’ often took the same place that water would do today on the dining table.
So teetotallers could and sometimes did drink beer but the total abstinence movement was about not drinking any alcohol at all. Prohibition in the United States was arguably its greatest success in a market capitalist society.
We can’t leave the pub as it were, without considering those who brew the beer.
The division between Tories as the party of the brewers and the Liberals as the party of temperance, with Labour preferring to focus on the social factors that lead people to drink in the first place, is not clear cut historically.
Indeed it was Gladstone’s 1872 Licensing Act which introduced the offence of being drunk in public, and restricted evening opening hours to midnight in town and 11pm in rural areas, that really caused the lines on politics and drink to be drawn.
The brewers resented Government interference with their activities and many decamped to the Tories. So much so that by the early twentieth century the Tory back benches were known as the ‘Beerage’ because they contained so many brewers who had become Tory MPs and who were destined for the House of Lords.
The 1872 Act led to some riots over the enforcement of the new closing times and without doubt there was a link forged between the now Tory brewers and working men and women who liked a drink.
Churchill when a Liberal MP in the early years of the Twentieth Century is reported to have accused the Tory Party of ‘drawing a brewers’ dray across the road of progress’.
His point may well have been that after the 1872 Act the Tories had constructed something of a popular political tradition based on Beer and Britannia. That is the defence of beer as a traditional drink together with the right to enjoy a glass of it without Government interference as something the ‘freeborn Englishman’ should have as part of their heritage.
As I hope I have indicated above, there is much to discuss on drink, and I hope to cover more ground in future pieces.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.