Keith Flett says pubs could be a radically different experience after lockdown ends, and taking the Wetherspooons chain into public ownership would be a good start and a great example of cultural democracy. Image: Wetherspoons' Lord High Constable pub, Gloucester, Photo: Philafrenzy/Wikipedia
All pubs in Britain are currently shut for trade on the premises and it’s not known when they will re-open. But after the Covid-19 crisis has receded, how could they be different? How could the spirit of self-help and community organisation, discussed by Jack Newsinger in his recent article in this series from Culture Matters and the Morning Star, be applied to pubs?
There is already a model model of pub ownership and operation that stemmed from a national crisis — the Carlisle state management scheme, which started in 1916. Pub opening hours were restricted and those in areas where munitions were manufactured were nationalised, with five breweries consolidated into one state-owned one.
The architect Harry Redfern designed 14 new “model” pubs around the Carlisle area in the style of the arts and craft movement influenced by William Morris. They could operate to wider criteria than making profits and take into account principles of enjoyable and healthy alcohol consumption, all under the democratic control of an elected government rather than owned and run to make returns to private shareholders.
The Carlisle scheme was a great success. By 1933 the pub contributed £60,000 annually to the Exchequer in profits, around £4.3 million in 2020 prices.
While the language and attitudes of 1916 are not those of 2020, the aim was clear — to shift the pub from being a place where men went to drink and get drunk to a more social environment where the whole community could go to talk, read, play games and generally enjoy some time away from work or home.
In a post-Covid-19 world, a national network of publicly owned pubs owned and run by local communities or municipal bodies, promoting a socially conscious model of drink and leisure, would surely be an improvement on the current situation. Fortunately, there already exists such a network of more than 800 pubs across the UK and, based on pre-lockdown statements and actions by its owner, it could well be ripe for bringing into public hands.
Tim Martin started his Wetherspoons pub empire within a few months of Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in May 1979. Some of the free-market changes that Thatcher’s governments brought in helped Martin’s business. They boosted pub companies over traditional brewery-tied houses and promoted a philosophy of individual freedoms — for some — which meant loosening restrictions on pubs. No doubt these changes were welcomed by many but they came at a price, such as long hours, low pay and zero-hours contracts for pub workers.
Forty years ago many pubs sold only poor-quality keg beer, the result of a trend to monopoly in the brewing industry from the 1960s that had left Britain with just a few mega breweries. They didn’t often do much in the way of food and many tended to be dominated by middle-aged men with rather right-wing views. In short, they were welcoming to the few, not the many.
The Wetherspoons business model, like the Carlisle scheme, was different. Reasonable quality real ale, tea, coffee and meals were sold all day at reasonable prices. The pubs didn’t have loud music blaring out, TVs or fruit machines. They were places where you could go and chat, or read a book. The result was that at that time in Wetherspoons pubs one could find a socially mixed clientele, including far more women and ethnic minorities than might be usual in other pubs.
But nowadays Wetherspoons has become notorious as a poor employer, even in an industry not known for a high standard of employment practices.
So why not roll out a 2020 version of the Carlisle state management model by nationalising Wetherspoons? The state would have a network of pubs which could be relatively easily modified to fit a concept of a new model pub, a community hub run for local people, not for profit. In time, they could be handed over to local authorities and communities to run.
As with the Carlisle scheme, there could be rules and requirements covering managers and staff, so that a decent working environment with good wages could be provided and precarious employment abolished. Nationalising Wetherspoons and turning the pubs into a network of socially owned new model pubs would be an example of cultural democracy which communities could build on in other areas of their cultural life, such as sport.
It is of course only one of a range of responses that will be required in beer, brewing and pubs as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. State intervention could also be used to protect pubs threatened with closure and shape them into more socially aware community hubs, where breweries or pub companies are still demanding rent against their non-existent income.
But it would be a good start and relatively easy to do.
This is the latest in the series of articles on culture after Covid-19, jointly published by the Morning Star and Culture Matters.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.