Copyright © 2004 the Brewery History Society
Political interest in drink and the drinks trade has a long history. This concern has become particularly acute over the last two hundreds and coincides with the establishment of the modern party political system. Peter Greenaway’s book focuses on how the upper echelons of this structure – elite politicians and decision-makers - acted and reacted to various drink related matters. His primary reason for doing so is to develop a better understanding of how social policy is formulated. However, this should not be viewed as a disincentive to those interested in the brewing industry as, by necessity, the author’s investigations require a good understanding of the larger beer producers.
The book begins in 1830, the year of the first major piece of drinks legislation, Wellington’s Beer Act. In the early part of the nineteenth century excessive alcohol consumption came to be perceived as a problem and Greenaway describes how the emerging temperance and teetotal movements gradually began to influence successive governments. This was a slow process and it was not until the last quarter of the 1800s that Drink became a party political issue – the Trade aligning itself with the Conservatives and the temperance reformers with the Liberals. Greenaway is careful to highlight the fact that this picture is a gross simplification of a complex situation; the two great parties were well-aware of the dangers of being too closely associated with external, occasionally volatile, elements which were beyond their control. Furthermore, all four factions were never united, despite appearances – the Trade was riven by splits, especially between the major brewers of London and Burton and the country brewers; the temperance movement contained both advocates of moderation as well as those campaigning for total prohibition; and the Tories and Liberals had MPs who went completely against the party line. The late nineteenth century was a period when the emphasis was upon licensing, the control and regulation of the public house was perceived to be the primary method of reducing consumption thus saving the individual from all the moral dangers associated with over indulgence.
By the turn of the century other influential bodies of opinion had begun to influence high politics. The rise of socialist ideologies, sociological methods of investigation and social Darwinism channelled the drinks issue into one to be viewed as a threat to the national interest and a cause for social reform. The Drink Question now reached its peak, a source of major conflict between the two main political parties. Simultaneously the brewers were at their most influential; in 1908 they were able to draw upon hundreds of thousands of supporters to demonstrate against a proposed licensing bill.
The outbreak of the First World War saw another change in how drink was perceived; it was now seen in terms of a threat to national efficiency, summed up in Lloyd George’s famous pronouncement that ‘Drink is doing us more damage in the War than all the German submarines put together’. Solutions to the problem included the nationalisation of the industry, an option which, surprisingly, the Trade was not totally averse. To a limited extent this did happen in three areas of Britain, the most notable being centred on Carlisle. This period also marked a radical shift in the relationship between high politics and the drinks industry as
for the first time the pressure groups and vested interests of the Trade were brought directly into the policy-making sphere. In contrast to the period before 1914, when the Trade was concerned only to minimise government interference and largely to fight either unwelcome legislative proposals or taxation schemes, now the government and the Trade depended upon each other for the detailed administration and working out of policy in the area. (pages 112-3)
The remainder of Drink and British Politics since 1830 details how this new relationship worked in practice. For the era between 1945 and 1970 this is achieved by looking at three case studies: the New Towns and state control, the policy towards alcoholism and drink and driving. Greenaway’s survey ends in 1970, the last year of official records to which he could gain access.
For what could have easily been a very dull book Greenaway must be commending for producing a highly readable analysis. Somewhat oddly, bearing in mind the author’s remit, it is when he relates his investigation to various theories of the policy-making process that he is at his least interesting and perceptive. However, for those more interested in the brewing industry and its impact upon British society this is of little consequence. This is a well researched book offering new insights into an important area which has been overlooked for too long.