Never let a good crisis go to waste. Covid-19 has been exploited by political leaders and the medical profession to pursue social objectives that would normally face stiff public opposition. Alcohol is a prime target. Who would have believed, earlier this year, that all pubs would be forced to close at 10pm, alongside other irksome regulations such as no standing at the bar, and mandatory masks to go to the toilet?
The night-time economy has been ravaged, with thousands of pubs and restaurants likely to perish, and possibly half a million of jobs lost. But some medical experts, senior civil servants and government ministers see an opportunity to impose a regime of healthier living. Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has put the Nanny State on steroids. Instead of merely taxing our guilty pleasures, killjoy authorities can prohibit them through emergency legislation – which may not be rescinded. Don’t be surprised if an early bell to drink up is here to stay.
Back in the nineteenth century, after the Industrial Revolution, the establishment tried to restrict alcohol consumption in the masses. The temperance movement was led by churchmen and other do-gooders, and its political influence grew with the active involvement of doctors. However, zealots went too far in catastrophising about the ‘demon drink’. While drunkenness was undoubtedly a problem, the vast majority of the working class were social drinkers rather than ruinous alcoholics.
As Robert Tressell remarked in his quasi-autobiographical The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, most labourers, on their meagre wages with families to support, did not drink much: –
‘There is no more cowardly, dastardly slander than is contained in the assertion that the majority or any considerable proportion of working men neglect their families through drink. It is a condemned lie. There are some who do, but they are not even a large minority. They are few and far between, and are regarded with contempt by their fellow workmen’.
The temperance movement withered after the First World War, when it would have been heartless to deprive the common people of their beer after the trauma of the trenches. The Prohibition in the USA was a futile and very costly experiment. But lessons from history are conveniently forgotten by politicians on a mission. Again, pubs, pumps and pints are being demonised as the source of society’s ills.
The 10pm curfew was not based on scientific evidence. Defending this draconian imposition, government minister Liz Truss explained that after ten o’clock customers are likely to be ‘inebriated’. She should get out more. The traditional tavern is not really a place where everyone gets pissed or paralytic. Instead, it serves a vital social function, typically the beating heart of the community.
Deputy chief scientific advisor Jonathan Van Tam wanted the curfew to be 6pm or preferably earlier. The regulars at the Rose & Crown would have been diverted to the off-licence on their way home from work. It’s worse in Scotland, where the SNP government is advised by Devi Sridhar, a social anthropologist who has written numerous academic papers on the principles and practices of alcohol control.
The Spinnaker pub near my parents’ home in the west of Scotland has recently reopened after Sturgeon’s so-called ‘circuit breaker’, but no alcohol can be served and doors are locked at 6pm. Absurdly, music is also verboten. This doesn’t only mean live music – the radio too. Locals are living in a remake of Footloose, the 1980s film depicting a puritanical Midwestern county that prohibited dancing as the work of the devil.
Yet research shows that over three quarters of infections occur at home. It would not be delving too deeply into conspiracy theory to wonder about the underlying motives for Covid-related drinking constraints. The pub is a forum for common-sense, candour and irreverence for politicians, bureaucrats and anyone who condescends to lesser mortals. Amid the coronavirus disruption, compounded by the chaotic reaction of the authorities, beer and banter may be regarded as dangerous facilitators of resistance.
To some extent the temperance movement arose through fear of working-class emancipation, as the burgeoning labour movement grew in the pubs and working men’s clubs. Pub curfews cannot stop a virus, but could be a useful weapon in the suppression of dissent.
Let’s be thankful for small mercies: from 3rd December Londoners will be allowed to finish our drinks after last orders at 10pm – wahey!