Drink and British Politics since 1830: a Study in Policy-Making
Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2003, ISBN: 333917820X; 283pp.; Price: £50.00
University of Birmingham
Date accessed: 31 May, 2023
Alcohol is one aspect of twentieth-century British popular culture that has received comparatively little attention. While other specific items of consumption - cars, music halls, the cinema, seaside holidays, and so on - have received sustained scholarly treatment in one or more monographs each, the central role of the public house in everyday life has not been reflected in the historical literature. Undoubtedly, aspects of twentieth-century drinking have received some attention. Gourvish and Wilson have provided a comprehensive study of the brewing industry.(1) Burnett has placed beers, wines and spirits alongside a range of other liquid refreshments over a much longer time-scale.(2) Barr, too, has covered the century within a much longer historical framework in his social history of drink.(3) And specific aspects of alcohol, such as the relationship between addiction and social policy, have more recently been explored in great depth.(4) But twentieth-century drink in all its historical manifestations - its regulation, distribution, social role, cultural significance, medical effects - has not been the subject of a specific work.
The reasons for such an omission might be explained by two shadows which loom over the subject and the period (notwithstanding the long-awaited study of drink by David Gutzke in Manchester University Press' 'Studies in Popular Culture' series). Firstly, there is the scholarship on the period prior to the First World War, led by the magisterial account of 'the temperance question' by Harrison, but backed up by other studies of the prohibition movement and the politics of drink, as well as more cultural accounts of, for instance, the image of the bar maid.(5) It is as though the quality of this research has put off scholars from attempting similar comprehensive analyses of the twentieth century. Secondly, though, there is the presence of a quite exceptional primary resource. Mass-Observation's The Pub and the People is so thorough in its examination of drinking habits in Bolton in 1937 that it might be better to re-print the volume rather than to commission any new history.(6) Mass-Observation's anthropological investigations recorded what was drunk, who drank, who got drunk, who served it, how long it took to drink, what was said during drinking, who spat, who smoked, who sang, who came at weekends, who came at lunch, who came at last orders and who did not drink.
So impressive a record is the Mass-Observation material of drinking habits that scholars who have used it as a source in studies of alcohol have tended simply to summarise it, rather than incorporate it within their own analytical framework.(7) Perhaps, therefore, it is a sensible decision on John Greenaway's part to take a very different approach in his study of Drink and British Politics since 1830. For Greenaway's approach is explicitly 'high' political. His concerns are with how politicians - in Parliament, in Cabinet, in official committees, in Whitehall and in contact with pressure groups - have dealt with, and understood, the 'problem' of drink. His concerns are those of the political scientist, rather than those explored by the historians of the 'minor vices' and he explains at the start that, although interesting topics, he will not deal with the culture of drinking, the inner workings of pressure groups, questions of social control or the impact of moral panics. Instead, his questions relate to why issues come on and off the agenda, what determines the discourses surrounding a subject, the relationship with more general political ideologies, the influence of bureaucratic structures and the role of individual politicians. There is, then, something of a missed opportunity to relate the high politics of regulating the drink problem with the social historian's interest in broader cultural attitudes and practices: although the sheer volume of material Greenaway draws upon is one explanation for the limits he places on his narrative scope. But as the aim of his book is to link high politics to 'the role of ideas or general intellectual paradigms in policy-making' (p. 6), his focus is at least suggestive of the benefits of relating the questions of the political scientist to established historical concerns.
His method is to adopt a chronological structure, narrating some familiar issues of licensing reform, temperance politics, government regulation and the influence of the drink trade, before using his case study in a final chapter to assess a number of theories of the policy-making process. His focus is skewed towards the period leading up to the establishment of Britain's long-standing, well-known and (to visitors from abroad) eccentric licensing regulations of 1921 and his account almost comes to a complete halt in 1970, determined as it is by the availability of sources at the Public Record Office. But one could ask for little more on the asserted focus of his book - the high politics of drink reform - and Greenaway is to be congratulated first of all for his authoritative account of the intricacies of policy formation over a reasonably substantial historical period.
He begins by setting out what he identifies as six groups which shaped approaches to the drink problem in early Victorian Britain: the moral suasionists; those who believed intemperance was a product of a faulty social order; those advocates of the 'traditional' system of regulation which stretched back to 1552; the proponents of laissez-faire and the freeing of licensing from the magistrates; the prohibitionists of the United Kingdom Alliance; and the progressive temperance reformers who explored a variety of means to restrict drinking. MPs shied away from taking up the issue in Parliament before 1870 but, thereafter, Greenaway argues, drink became a party political issue and he details the background to legislative measures such as the 1872 Licensing Act and the 1878 Habitual Drunkards Act.
The onset of the twentieth century was marked by a turn to seeing drink as much as a social issue for society to deal with as a whole than as a moral issue for the individual conscience. Tackling drink in the national interest became a matter of some urgency, though reformers remained divided over the solution, as witnessed in an 1896 Royal Commission and in the work of Joseph Rowntree and Arthur Sherwell, who promoted the idea of 'disinterested management': that is, the removal of profit from the drinks trade through some degree of state control of distribution, a policy which to prohibitionists seemed a devilish compromise. The drink problem became most prominent in 1908 when the Licensing Bill attempted to reduce the number of licences by one third, a measure which resulted in riots in Hyde Park and the brewing trade organising 130 special trains to London on 27 September to carry their protestors.
The First World War helped reposition drink as an aspect of national efficiency instead of temperance, though politicians such as Lloyd George were not averse to drawing on an older rhetoric to whip up support for his plans to create a more sober and productive workforce. The wartime measures, which severely limited the opening hours of pubs and which were administered by the Central Control Board, set the precedent for the post-war settlement of 1921 that put in place the licensing regulations with which we are still largely familiar.
Thereafter, the temperance movement was no longer a powerful pressure group and the drink 'problem' was eased through the rise of alternative leisure pursuits. Drink was therefore pushed to the political margins in the interwar period, a Royal Commission on licensing report of 1931 being almost entirely ignored, while brewers favoured the expansion of improved pubs more suitable to a leisured suburban population. No political attention was given to drink in the Second World War and subsequently it has become attached to a range of other issues. Here, Greenaway provides three case studies: on plans for licensing reforms in New Towns;, on the rise of medical knowledge about alcoholism; and on the drink-driving campaigns of the 1960s, culminating in Barbara Castle's introduction of the breathalyser in 1966. A brief chapter on developments since 1970 attempts to mention everything (for example, drink and public health, safer drinking promoters such as Alcohol Concern, the appearance of alcopops in the 1990s) but ends up being a list of areas which Greenaway would presumably liked to have explored, had the official records been available to him.
Greenaway does not seek to offer an overarching thesis on the nature of the drink problem over the last two centuries. Instead his focus is always on 'complexity'. 'Drink' was 'redefined again and again' and policy formed a 'complex story'.(p. 6) While some might think this ought to be the starting point for a research agenda rather than a conclusion, Greenaway is persistent in his belief that drink policy does not fit any existing models. In a final chapter, he skilfully outlines an impressive range of theories of the changing nature of the political system, carefully crossing off each and every one of them, since all fail to capture all aspects of the history of drink. Ultimately, he argues, 'any model is a simplification into which the complexity of the real world of policy making rarely fits'.(p. 211) For example, drink does not fit a model of the rise of party politics since there were many divisions within all three parties over the nature of the problem (or, indeed, if drink was a problem at all). Likewise, he points to the inapplicability of models emphasising the self-generating growth of government through the bureaucratic machine, the development of a corporatist state after the First World War, the transition from a community to a class-based politics or the notion that high politics was autonomous from wider developments.
On the one hand, Greenaway's focus on the specific and the complex promotes a healthy scepticism but on the other, it is difficult to understand what one is left with. If one rejects overarching interpretations, then it is difficult to discriminate between the importance of various explanatory factors. Certainly, this is the case in all of the book's narrative chapters. All potential explanations are given and all relevant details are mentioned. This leads to a rather dense writing style on Greenaway's part and a certain lack of clarity as to his structure and argument. In his defence, this only points to the complexity of the position which Greenaway has himself emphasised; but it is infuriating to be constantly informed that the means to understand drink are so specific that one cannot make broader generalisations about political attitudes to psychoactive substances, consumption, working-class culture, and so on. And if change over time is only ever to be understood through a multitude of factors, the historical account can become a mere narrative of events (regardless of whether the case study fits existing models familiar to the political scientist).
To be sure, Greenaway does commit himself to a methodology which stresses the interplay between institutional politics and the ideological frameworks within which they operate, although even here it is the specificity of the case which interests him: 'the result was that Drink tended to generate its own ideological schools'.(p. 5) But even then, one can differ on just how broadly this ideological school has to be understood. Politicians do not operate in a vacuum, as Greenaway would agree, but just how wide should we understand the social, political, cultural, economic and intellectual space within which they operate to be? Greenaway admits the influence of war, Europe, science and social and cultural changes such as the decline of nonconformity and the greater participation of women in the leisure industry, but these are treated as externalities rather than intrinsic means to understanding changing high political beliefs and reform agendas.
No-one can fault the depth of research conducted by Greenaway and the near-definitive account he has provided of the discussion of drink within the official institutions of the state, but there is a wider methodological point to be made here. The ideological context has to be understood as more than just the explicit references to belief made by high political actors. Where, for instance, do such ideas come from? There is a social history of ideas to be written which clearly impacts upon political reform. And should causal factors only be identified in the immediate debates prior to the implementation of a regulation or creation of a bureaucratic measure? There are other longer-term issues to explore, such as the changing relationship between the state and the individual, and how the former can intervene in the consumption decisions of the latter. How have notions of liberal governance influenced, or been adapted by, the 'problem' of drink? And how have moral frameworks (or ideological paradigms) at their broadest influenced policy? Greenaway points to the decline of nonconformity, but does this necessarily imply a more secular attitude to drink? Or are there other dominant frameworks to point to in the story, such as how it is that the public health professional has replaced the temperance reformer as the foremost spokesperson on the drink problem within the institutions of government? These battles are part of a more diverse debate within civil society, admittedly an arena often overlooked or ignored by high politics, but equally often the origin for new 'discourses of drink' (as Greenaway puts it), which in turn shape the speech and reform patterns of politicians.
Even more broadly, to understand the politics of drink is to understand the social role it has played in everyday life. In the Mass-Observation study cited earlier, the anthropologists went on to describe how central an institution the pub was in working-class life. In the interwar period, the pub had adapted to take account of the competition from other sources of entertainment, such that pianos were played regularly, while the pub itself became the centre for many sporting clubs from fishing to bowling, bookies, pigeon fanciers and dog breeders. It served a variety of functions and remained an essential feature of popular culture despite the decrease in alcohol consumption and drunkenness that marked the national trend in the first half of the twentieth century. But to know this is not simply to be able to chart better the resistance to any regulations or reforms instituted from on 'high'. It is to know a culture that influenced not only the drinkers themselves, but the politicians who, despite social difference, were never entirely divorced from the 'ideology' of drinking practices. In future works (which will no doubt appear on twentieth-century drink) there is no reason why high politics cannot be made to relate to the wider social world which it serves.
- T. R. Gourvish & R. G. Wilson, The British Brewing Industry, 1830-1980, research by Fiona Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).Back to (1)
- J. Burnett, Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain (London: Routledge, 1999).Back to (2)
- A. Barr, Drink: A Social History (London: Bantam, 1998).Back to (3)
- B. Thom, Dealing with Drink: Alcohol and Social Policy from Treatment to Prevention (London: Free Association Books, 1999).Back to (4)
- B. Harrison, Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815-1872 (2nd edn, Keele: Keele University Press, 1994); N. Longmate, The Waterdrinkers: A History of Temperance (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1968); A. E. Dingle, The Campaign for Prohibition in Victorian England (London: Croom Helm, 1980); L. L. Shiman, Crusade Against Drink in Victorian England (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988); P. Bailey, Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Chapter 7.Back to (5)
- Mass-Observation, The Pub and the People: A Worktown Study (London, 1938). Later editions have indeed been published, in 1970 and 1988. [Editor's note: for electronic details of the Worktown Mass-Observation study, please see the University of Sussex Library Archives, where the Mass-Observation Archives are deposited: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/library/massobs/worktown_1937-40.html.Back to (6)
- V. Hey, Patriarchy and Pub Culture (London: Tavistock, 1986).Back to (7)
Normally it is political scientists who attempt to produce grand models, only for historians to counsel caution by pointing out that the empirical reality is more complex. So it is a something of a turn-about to find Dr Hilton, in his interesting review of my book, complaining that I do not sufficiently generalise about the political attitudes to social and cultural changes. I think he is correct in saying that I should have given a rather fuller concluding analysis of the interaction of broader cultural or political ideas with the story of the politics of drink. However, the final section of my book (pp. 204-12), upon which he does not comment, addresses some recent models that political scientists have put forward intended to make sense of the relationship between changes in ideas and changes in policy in the context of the drink issue.
However, Dr Hilton, a cultural historian, and I, a political scientist, hold rather different perceptions of the relationship of ideas, 'moral frameworks' and cultural attitudes to the policy process. I agree with him that these are important factors, but I hesitate to ascribe to them the role that he seems to suggest. Implicit in his review is the assumption that they impact clearly upon political reforms and policy-making and influence the beliefs of decision makers. In my study I aim to show how such factors are indeed significant, but also that they were continually mediated, in complicated ways, by political elites, both bureaucratic and party political. A theme of my study is that these elites often had a remarkable degree of autonomy in framing policy, both for political advantage and for bureaucratic self-interest. Moreover, they were able from time to time to manipulate the terms of discourse by which the politics of drink was carried out. The classic case of this was Lloyd George in the First World War, but there are many other examples to be found. Moreover, as the 'new institutionalist' school of writers has suggested, bureaucratic institutions themselves can internalise intellectual paradigms; hence they can shape ideas and determine the capacity of groups both to influence policy and to respond to society pressures. Examples of this in my study were the Home Office's passive and negative attitude to the licensing question, the Central Control Board's interest in social engineering after 1915, and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning's perception of the role of the state in influencing leisure pursuits. When such bureaucratic bodies clash, there may be a conflict not merely of self-interest but of policy ideas and assumptions. If we ignore these factors, we will end up with a rather unidirectional conception of the political and governmental process, whereby political and governmental elites respond to what Dr Hilton terms the 'social history of ideas'. This would be somewhat reminiscent of the way in which old-fashioned 'Whig' historians could portray the political developments of the nineteenth century as almost entirely the response to liberal, democratic pressures 'from below'.
A further advantage of adopting a 'high politics' or policy-making approach to the question of social policy is that it illustrates the interactions of a range of ideas and belief systems. Attitudes towards alcohol itself, mainstream political ideologies, beliefs about the political process, economic doctrines and a range of attitudes relating to other policy areas - town planning, law and order, public health, education, and so on, are all to be found both shaping the course of events and being used by interested parties. A political approach, by stressing the range of competing pressures, calculations and considerations can help the historian appreciate the complexity of the clash of ideas, no less than of political forces. Just members of the political elite are influenced by changes in the popular climate of opinion or by shifts in political ideologies, so they in turn can successfully and proactively shape the discourse of a problem or an issue. A classic case of this is provided by the success of the alcohol control lobby after 1960 in deliberately shifting debate about alcohol consumption to one in terms of health (a shift facilitated by the fact that the locus of their influence had shifted from the Home Office to the Department of Health). One only has to glance at the plethora of articles in Sunday newspaper supplements and the like to see how this has influenced popular culture and attitudes towards drinking.
Political history, compared to social and cultural history, seems to be deeply unfashionable these days. This is a pity. Certainly, in the past it tended to be an unduly narrow sub-discipline. However, there is now the opportunity for historians to benefit from some exciting approaches by political scientists who are interested in examining more carefully the complicated interactions between social and economic change and intellectual developments on the one hand, and bureaucratic and political actors on the other hand. In particular I would instance the concepts of 'policy learning' put forward by Heclo and Majone, 'advocacy coalitions' by Sabatier, 'policy paradigms' by Hall, 'policy windows' by Kingdon, 'policy agendas and instability' by Baumgartner and Jones, and 'policy evolution' by John.(1) Just as political and administrative history cannot afford to ignore intellectual and social history, so the latter will be the poorer if it neglects insights from the study of 'high politics'.
1. H. Heclo, Modern Social Politics in Britain and Sweden: from Relief to Income Maintenance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974); G. Majone, Evidence, Argument and Persuasion in the Policy Process, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989); P. Sabatier, 'An advocacy coalition framework of policy change and the role of policy-oriented learning therein', Policy Sciences, 21 (1988), 129-69; P. A. Hall, 'Policy paradigms, social Learning, and the state', Comparative Politics, 25 (1993), 275-96; J. W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, 2nd edn (New York: Harper Collins College, 1995); F. R. Baumgartner & B. D. Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); P. John, Analysing Public Policy (London: Pinter, 1998). For my discussion and criticism of some of these models see: J.Greenaway, 'Policy learning and the drink question in Britain, 1850-1950', Political Studies, 46 (1998), 903-18.