Do You Remember an Inn
A smoking ban could be another nail in the coffin of
the English pub
New Statesman, 7th November 2005
Farewell, then, to the smoky old pub. As a ban on
smoking in most pubs looks set to become law, it seems
that the hazy, convivial, unpredictable atmosphere of
the traditional local is on the way out. The edgy, boozy,
glamorously grimy institutions that inspired Samuel
Johnson, G K Chesterton, George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton
are to be legislated into history, in the name of public
health. In their place, we can no doubt look forward
to an uninspiring, government-approved selection of
depressingly hip wine bars, all steel and smokeless
dining spaces, in which "consumers" (not "customers",
and certainly never "locals") partake of their
sensible daily allocation of alcohol units from glasses
marked with health warnings, and none of the bar staff
risks the certain death that would come about by straying
within ten metres of a smoker.
This vision may not turn out to be too much of an exaggeration,
for the traditional boozer is under attack from all
directions. The rising tide of officially sanctioned
puritanism currently sweeping the country is one problem:
go out for a quiet pint and a fag on a Friday night
and you stand a good chance of being accused of manslaughter,
or at the very least alcoholism. A sensible extension
of the licensing laws, bringing us into line with most
other European countries, is vilified as "24-hour
drinking" by hysterical journalists. Drinks companies,
under pressure from an increasingly confident it's-all-for-your-own-good
public health lobby, talk of putting stickers on glasses
to warn drinkers how many units they are consuming.
Staying at home is starting to look like fun by comparison.
All of this, of course, is supposed to prevent drink-related
violence, binge-drinking and illnesses caused by cigarettes.
But, ironically, an authoritarian alliance of this official
puritanism and corporate power is ensuring that the
very places where responsible, regulated drinking is
most likely to happen - traditional locals - are disappearing,
to make way for vast town-centre drinking sheds run
by corporations whose only real interest is shareholder
The decline of the traditional pub has been going on
for a while, but it appears to be accelerating. According
to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), a staggering 26
pubs close every month. In the countryside, the 7,000
rural pubs that remain are closing at a rate of six
a week. More than half of the villages in England are
now "dry" - publess - for the first time since
the Norman conquest.
There are various reasons for this decline. Puritanism
is one of them, health fads another. As society becomes
more and more self-obsessed and image-conscious, growing
numbers of us would apparently rather spend our spare
time watching Gillian McKeith force-feeding seeds to
fat people than pop out for a swift half. A smoking
ban, say worried landlords, would nudge many small pubs
over the edge.
But probably the biggest reason for the spiralling
decline of the traditional pub is the increasing power
of the corporations that now own more than half of them.
Until fairly recently, most pubs were owned by brewers.
In 1989, though, the Thatcher government introduced
legislation to tackle the six biggest big brewers, whose
dominance was approaching monopoly proportions. Brewers
with more than 2,000 pubs were ordered to sell off their
excess, and offer at least one "guest beer"
brewed by a rival. This was supposed to lead to more
choice for drinkers and more opportunity for smaller
brewers. But the canniest brewers spotted a loophole:
though they weren't now permitted to own more than 2,000
pubs, there was nothing to stop any number being owned
by a company that didn't make beer. So instead of selling
some of their pubs and keeping the rest, the big brewers
simply set up new pub companies, or "PubCos",
to which they sold all their pubs on the understanding
that those companies would buy only their beer. Result:
Today it is the PubCos, not the brewers, who call the
shots. The ten biggest PubCos own more than half of
the UK's pubs, and the two biggest own a quarter between
them. And unlike the big brewers, which did at least
exist to sell their product through pubs, PubCos are,
in essence, property companies, whose properties just
happen to sell drinks. If their shareholders can be
kept happier by flogging off pubs for housing, or closing
down locals with a small turnover and concentrating
instead on high-street binge-drinking sheds (known in
the trade as "high-volume vertical drinking establishments"),
then this is exactly what the PubCos will do - and are
But perhaps we shouldn't drown our sorrows yet, for
the pub has always been a robust institution, and there
are signs of hope. In the past year, new alliances of
landlords and drinkers have been set up to fight the
corner of small and traditional pubs. Above all, though,
there are heartening lessons to be drawn from history.
The first government campaign against binge-drinking,
for example, was in 975, when King Edgar issued a law
limiting the number of pubs in each village to one.
In a historical echo of those stickers we may soon see
on our pint glasses, Edgar also decreed that all drinking
vessels should be a standard size: four pints, divided
into eight parts by pegs set inside the tankard. No
one was allowed to drink down further than one peg at
any one sitting.
It sounds like a system of which new Labour could be
proud. Alas for Edgar, the result was not quite what
he intended. Every self-respecting pub-goer regarded
the new law as a challenge, and competed to drink as
much as possible at every sitting - literally taking
each other down a peg or two, sometimes five or six.
Ten centuries later Edgar's law is forgotten, and despite
the continuing disapproval of those who know what's
good for us, plenty of us are still, unashamedly, in
the pub. "When you have lost your inns," wrote
the poet Hilaire Belloc in the 1930s, "drown your
empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England."
I'll drink to that.