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The politics of alcohol

The politics of alcohol: A history of the drink question in England

James Nicholls
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The politics of alcohol
    Book Description:

    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. In The politics of alcohol, Nicholls 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, he 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. He 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. The politics of alcohol presents a wide-ranging, accessible and critically illuminating 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, it will provide essential reading for anyone interested in either the history of alcohol consumption, alcohol policy or the complex social questions posed by drinking today.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-332-4
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    In 1925, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that he saw ‘only two planks of the historic Liberal platform [as] still seaworthy – the Drink Question and Free Trade’.¹ This observation was partly a comment on the parlous state of the Liberal Party at the time, outflanked by the organised labour movement and left with little to distinguish it as a political force. It was also, however, a measure of the extent to which the ‘drink question’ had come to occupy the political centre ground in the preceding decades. The half century between 1870 and 1920 had seen elections fought...

  4. 1 A monstrous plant: alcohol and the Reformation
    (pp. 5-20)

    In 1628, a writer called Richard Rawlidge published a pamphlet with the eye-catching titleA Monster Late Found Out and Discovered. That monster was drunkenness. According to Rawlidge, England was suffering from an explosion of social disorder caused by a dramatic rise in the number of alehouses springing up across the country. This, he insisted, had caused a disastrous breakdown in public morality. ‘Whereas,’ he observed, ‘there are within the City’s liberties but an hundred twenty two churches for the service and worship of God: there are I dare say above thirty hundred ale-houses, tippling-houses, tobacco-shops &c. in London and...

  5. 2 Healths, toasts and pledges: political drinking in the seventeenth century
    (pp. 21-33)

    In the seventeenth century, the stream of alehouse legislation was accompanied by a rising tide of religious anti-drink literature. That alehouses posed a secular threat to the ideological power of religion had long been recognised. Following the publication of the Bible in English, Thomas Cranmer had sent a declaration to be read to congregations, forbidding any ‘open reasoning’ on scripture ‘in your open taverns or alehouses … and other places, unmet for such conference’.¹ ‘Open reasoning’ was a threat to ecclesiastical power, and alehouses – democratic by nature – were no place to fathom the mysteries of organised religion.


  6. 3 A new kind of drunkenness: the gin craze
    (pp. 34-50)

    So far, we have seen that the changing dynamics of public debates over alcohol have been driven by social, political and economic factors. While hopped beer and port both represented technological developments, their impact was mediated by the wider social contexts which gave those material changes political significance. So far culture, not drink per se, has moulded the drink question. The ‘gin craze’ represents a change of emphasis in this regard. As we shall see, the feverish public debate on gin was shot through with anxieties over class, the economy, national identity and the protection of moral norms; similarly, the...

  7. 4 The politics of sobriety: coffee and society in Georgian England
    (pp. 51-58)

    The prohibitory Gin Act of 1736 had a number of political consequences: it revealed the extent to which public concerns over drunkenness provided a way of reinforcing social hierarchies; it exposed the limitations of State control in the area of private consumption; it showed the extent to which the right to get drunk could be hitched to the idea of personal liberty; and it showed, for the first time, that the prohibition of intoxicants can increase their attraction through imbuing them with an aura of political transgression. It also made explicit some of the inherent contradictions which beset any attempt...

  8. 5 A fascinating poison: early medical writing on drink
    (pp. 59-72)

    The social, medical and philosophical changes which took place in the eighteenth century are a crucial stage in the history of attitudes to alcohol for a number of reasons. As we have seen, the introduction of gin politicised alcohol use such that debates over how to control consumption became embroiled in fundamental questions about the role of the State in managing both markets and private behaviours. Furthermore, questions about intoxication and sobriety that had previously been couched in purely religious terms started to become enmeshed in secular questions about the relationship between reason, civility and social progress. This second issue...

  9. 6 Ungovernable passions: intoxication and Romanticism
    (pp. 73-79)

    The question above all others that nagged at philosophers, political thinkers and doctors throughout the eighteenth century was: ‘What is it to be human?’ Was humanity by nature solitary and aggressive, as Hobbes had claimed, or was it, as Shaftesbury insisted, communal and reasonable? Were our identities impermeable things with which we were born, or were they, as Locke claimed, merely the outgrowth of our self-consciousness? Was morality based in the contingencies of experience and emotion, as Hume thought, or was it, as Kant was determined to prove, the product of a transcendent rationality? Were our thoughts the domain of...

  10. 7 Odious monopolies: power, control and the 1830 Beer Act
    (pp. 80-95)

    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 the alehouse. In 1753, just two years after the last of the great Gin Acts, a Licensing Act was passed which required all new licence applications to be accompanied by a certificate, signed by a local clergyman and ‘three or four reputable and influential householders’ verifying that the applicant was ‘of good fame and sober life and conversation’. This...

  11. 8 The last tyrant: the rise of temperance
    (pp. 96-108)

    As Brian Harrison has pointed out, 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.¹ That is, local, and later national, associations whose defining feature was their goal of reducing or eradicating alcohol consumption across society. The Society for the Reformation of Manners had been active in the late seventeenth century and a raft of ‘loyal associations’ emerged towards the end of the eighteenth century.² The Proclamation Society existed alongside other groups such as The Society for the Reformation of Principles, not to mention...

  12. 9 A monstrous theory: the politics of prohibition
    (pp. 109-129)

    The 1830 Beer Act triggered the most intense period of public debate on alcohol since the 1750s. By radicalising the temperance movement it gave an entirely new complexion to the long-standing campaigns to regulate public drunkenness. At the parliamentary level, the effects of the Beer Act moved one MP, James Silk-Buckingham, to establish a Select Committee of Inquiry into Drunkenness which reported in August 1834. Silk-Buckingham’s committee (dubbed the ‘Drunken Committee’ by sceptical observers) insisted that the State had a central role to play in the control of drinking, and it proposed some novel interventions. These included firmer regulatory powers...

  13. 10 The State and the trade: the drink question at the turn of the century
    (pp. 130-149)

    When, in 1903, Sidney and Beatrice Webb described the late eighteenth century as ‘the most remarkable episode in the whole history of publichouse licensing in England’ they were wrong. What they had no way of realising was that they, in fact, were right in the middle of that most remarkable episode. The period between 1880 and 1918 saw the political furore over alcohol reach a level of intensity not seen before or since. It was a period that would see prohibitory legislation put on the statute books for the first time, the passing of legislation formalising arrangements for the reduction...

  14. 11 Central control: war and nationalisation
    (pp. 150-160)

    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. Speaking to the Birmingham Liberal Association the new Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced that he had staked his own political fortunes on the Licensing Bill, and that, furthermore, he had ‘staked the fortunes of the Government and...

  15. 12 The study of inebriety: medicine and the law
    (pp. 161-179)

    The period between 1870 and 1918 saw extensive debate on licensing, management of the drinks trade and the social effects of public drinking. However, it also witnessed intense intellectual and political activity around a parallel, but closely related, concern: the nature and treatment of what we might now call alcohol addiction. As we have seen, the drink question has always hinged on both the social effects of drunkenness and the habit-forming tendencies of alcohol. Puritans warned against the ‘bewitching sin’ and the political temperance movement demanded legislative action partly because alcohol produced ‘habitual drunkards’ whose condition amounted to a form...

  16. 13 The pub and the people: drinking places and popular culture
    (pp. 180-198)

    By 1918, the drink question in England had been transformed. The establishment of the CCB had shown that it was possible to impose central planning on the drinks trade. The restriction of opening hours had normalised the idea that special times should be set aside in which pubs were open, whereas previously the assumption had been that special times were set aside in which they were forced to close. The CCB had also encouraged leading brewers to work with the government in setting alcohol policy, rather than viewing legislation as a perennial threat.¹ Furthermore, the idea of improving the conditions...

  17. 14 Prevention and health: alcohol and public health
    (pp. 199-215)

    The revival of the alcohol market in the 1960s was not attended by the re-emergence of political temperance. However, this is not to say that there was no action to control excessive drinking at government level. In 1962 fines for drunkenness, which were still set at the levels laid down by Acts of 1839, 1860, 1872 and 1902, were increased to reflect equivalent penalties in modern money. Under the 1964 Licensing Act a £10 fine was imposed for licensees who permitted drunkenness on their premises and the courts were given powers to imprison anyone procuring drinks for a drunken person...

  18. 15 Beer orders: the changing landscape in the 1990s
    (pp. 216-232)

    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. Legislation designed to tackle the problem of drunken anti-social behaviour through the use of exclusion orders was introduced in 1980, as were special regulations to tackle football hooliganism by restricting the sale of...

  19. 16 Drinking responsibly: media, government and binge drinking
    (pp. 233-248)

    During the passage of the Licensing Bill there was some concern over 24-hour licensing but the issue in no way dominated public debate. It was not until the start of the following year that the tone changed. Over the course of 2004, what had been ripples of concern over the liberalising elements of the Act began to swell into something approaching a tidal wave of public disquiet.

    On 11 January 2004, theSunday Timesran a story under the headline ‘Street violence jumps in binge Britain’.¹ It was the first time this provocatively alliterative phrase had appeared in the press,...

  20. Conclusion: the drink question today
    (pp. 249-262)

    The aim of this book is not to suggest that the story of the drink question is simply a cyclical history of repeating themes and moments. It is clearly anything but that, and this conclusion will seek to outline what some of the key shifts within the public debate on drink have been. However, three constant issues have tended to underpin the drink question in all its various forms. These are:social order,health, andeconomic responsibility. Of course, these are inflected by broader social frameworks, not least changing ideas about class, gender and national identity. Questions about drink have...

  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-277)
  22. Index
    (pp. 278-282)