Friday, 22 January 2010

At the sign of the Ostrich


I recently received an e-mail inviting me to make a donation to fund CAMRA’s challenge to the decision by the Office of Fair Trading not to investigate the beer tie. I have to say I’m not hugely bothered about the pub company beer tie anyway, and the giant pub companies are visibly unravelling before our eyes, so I declined to contribute. But, in view of the wave of neo-Prohibitionist sentiment sweeping the land, I can’t help thinking that this is on a par with rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. You might have thought that CAMRA, as an organisation supposedly championing the interests of pubs and beer drinkers, would be fighting this tooth and nail, but instead they have been puzzlingly silent, and indeed on some issues have even sought to make common cause with the anti-drink lobby. You have to wonder why this should be.

CAMRA was formed in the early 1970s and took its inspiration from many of the left-wing campaigns of that era. Its name seems to echo that of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. For many of its members, a key motivation was taking a tilt against the corporate behemoths of the Big Six breweries and their bland, commoditised keg beer. At the time, Roger Protz even advocated the nationalisation of the brewing industry along the lines of the Carlisle State Management Scheme. Much of that mindset persists today, with the major supermarkets joining the international brewers in the cast of villains, and CAMRA still too often looks to government for solutions. It is difficult to adapt that frame of mind to one in which the chief enemy is the anti-drink lobby, with government and organisations such as the BMA in the vanguard, not the evil capitalists.

Many of CAMRA’s public pronouncements are based on a pair of underlying shibboleths, that “real ale” is a morally superior product not only to other beers, but to all other alcoholic drinks, and that drinking in a pub is “better” than drinking at home. Both of these ideas are very questionable – am I really a bad person for drinking a bottle of BrewDog Punk IPA in my living room? – and probably not really believed by most of the membership, but they lead CAMRA to take a particularist view and fail to see a common cause with the guy buying a slab of Carling from Tesco. Indeed, to many activists, he is far more of an enemy than Don Shenker and Sir Liam Donaldson.

When the vast majority of alcohol-related disorder is related to consumption on licensed premises, to portray the pub as an environment of responsible, controlled drinking seems very much like special pleading. And I would lay money that the average member of CAMRA – as someone with a general interest in alcoholic drinks – actually drinks more at home than the average British adult.

While CAMRA is in theory a democratic organisation, in practice policymaking does not happen in a particularly democratic way. Indeed, the way it is organised is very reminiscent of a 1970s trade union, which is probably what it was based on. It is run by an unpaid, elected National Executive, although most of the work in practice is done by paid staff. National Executive elections are often uncontested and candidates rarely make explicit policy statements. It gives the impression of being a cosy club of mutual backscratchers. Policy is decided at the Annual General Meeting, and only those actually attending, who are only about 1% of the the total membership, can vote.

This is probably no worse than any other comparable campaigning organisation, but the problem is that it is far from clear exactly what CAMRA is campaigning for, and thus at a national level it ends up promoting policies that do not necessarily reflect the views and interests of the wider membership. The classic example of this was championing the Beer Orders in the late 1980s which ended up having a disastrous effect on the British brewing industry and pub trade. The letters column in the monthly newsletter What’s Brewing has been very much reduced in size and dumbed down in recent years and seems to be censored to avoid anything too critical of the official line being published – last year I sent them a perfectly reasonable letter about minimum pricing that, not surprisingly, never appeared.

During the lifetime of CAMRA, there has been an astonishing upsurge in small-scale craft brewing in the UK, something that its founders would probably have never envisaged. I’m not saying CAMRA is solely responsible for this, but it has certainly created a climate in which it can flourish. This has been accompanied by a growth in the number of specialist pubs showcasing the products of these breweries, and of course by CAMRA beer festivals. The upshot is that many beer enthusiasts in effect do most of their drinking in a bubble insulated from the wider world of youth bars and family dining, so it’s not entirely surprising that they take the view that general industry trends don’t affect them.

As I’ve said before, it doesn’t matter how you see things – what matters is what your opponents think. You may think the anti-smoking and anti-alcohol campaigns are entirely different issues, but if the Righteous regard them as two sides of the same coin there’s nothing you can do about it. And there’s no evidence that anti-alcohol campaigners draw any distinction between rowdy town-centre venues and traditional community pubs, nor between real ale and other forms of alcohol. To believe that they will, or can ever be persuaded to, is a delusion.

For a while, the leadership of CAMRA may continue to believe that what they hold dear and campaign for can somehow stand clear of the anti-drink tide. But one day, of course, the waters will suddenly and unexpectedly rise up and wash them away, and by then it will be too late.

If CAMRA is not prepared to confront the wider issues affecting drinkers and the drinks trade, then it needs to abandon the pretence that it does and draw in its horns to become basically just a non-political beer drinkers’ club. Which is the aspect of it that works anyway.

(There are actually a few pubs dotted around the country called the Ostrich – the one I remember is in Castle Acre, Norfolk. There’s also a well-known one at Colnbrook in Middlesex. Maybe CAMRA should make one of them its Pub of the Year)

You may also be interested in this assessment of CAMRA's successes and failures which I wrote five years ago: Only Here for the Beer

11 comments:

  1. Fascinating and informing. I cannot take the mick with a lager lout related comment. Run for the leadership!

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  2. Excellent post Curmudgeon, and I also enjoyed reading your "Only Here for the Beer" article as well.
    I too received the same e-mail from CAMRA, and like yourself declined to donate to something that stands little chance of success anyway. Besides, CAMRA receive enough money off of me in terms of membership subscriptions, GBG sales etc.
    I have been a member of the campaign since the mid-70's, and for most of that time have been a reasonably active member of my local branch. I enjoy the social side of things, and even get roped in to do the odd pub survey, but most of CAMRA's campaigns leave me cold. (I shudder to recall the money wasted on things like NaturALE and Ninkasi Goddess of Ale, to name but two disasters).
    I plan to attend the AGM this year, (for the first time since 1984), but mainly for the fact that I want to visit the IOM, rather than listen to a lot of hot air being expounded in the debating hall! I agree that CAMRA is far from democratic, in fact it has become a lot worse since it started vetting motions put forward for debate at the AGM. I also strongly agree that the campaign should be lining up to fight the anti-alcohol lobby, rather than sitting smuggly on the sidelines in the mistaken view that "real ale" is somehow safe from the threat posed by the neo-Prohibitionist movement.
    However, CAMRA does not seem very good at listening to what its grass roots members have to say; a situation that seems to be getting worse. Quite how we go about changing things though is open to question.
    Answers on a postcard please.

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  3. I voted for the "it should speak out" option in my poll, but actually I think there's a lot to be said for the option of "it should adopt a narrower, non-political stance".

    Given the fact that by definition CAMRA only speaks for a limited sub-section of drinkers and pub users, it can't really lay claim to represent all responsible consumers of alcohol. Also, in the current climate, defending drinkers' rights is easy to portray as taking a stance of "let's get everyone pissed" and may even detract from some of the other work CAMRA does.

    As someone with a strong interest in historic buildings, I think some of the best work CAMRA has done is in raising the awareness of pub interiors and creating the National Inventory, which is something entirely outside the political arena.

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  4. "When the vast majority of alcohol-related disorder is related to consumption on licensed premises, to portray the pub as an environment of responsible, controlled drinking seems very much like special pleading."

    How rare it is to hear simple truths like this told. This is a truly excellent post. The pub trade needs an effective body to speak out for it, now more than ever. Such a shame that CAMRA is so wedded to its petty prejudices and Trotskyite origins that it can't be that body. It's inability to see the bigger picture is, frankly, pathetic. They are turkeys voting for Christmas.

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  5. I was once told I didn't understand how CAMRA worked when I was perplexed why CAMRA didn't use t'internet to improve communication and discussion, esp. as the NE accept it's poor. So I went away and learnt how CAMRA worked and to be honest, I'm not much happier now.

    That said, there are rumblings around to try an improve discussion across the organisation. The CAMRA forums IMO wil be a great leveller once they gain wider acceptance.

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  6. "When the vast majority of alcohol-related disorder is related to consumption on licensed premises..."

    Is in fact nonsense and displays a lack of knowledge about the drinking patterns that lay behind the scenes of disorder in town and city centres. Many, if not most, of the younger drinkers responsible for all of this "pre-load" at home on cheaply bought spirits and RTDs, and are well on the way to being drunk before they set out.

    Most pubs are indeed examples of responsible and controlled drinking environments and to pretend otherwise is only giving more ammunition to the anti-pub neo-pro brigade.

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  7. CAMRA
    They have done for pubs what
    Thatcher did for pits.
    They congregate in sad circles
    spouting the fluffy aspirations
    of lower middle class dreamers,
    their banners proclaiming the
    realm of control and rule.
    Luke warm Liberal Marxists in salaried employment light years
    from reality,completely surplus to requirement. Buckles ,braces and
    elbow patches.


    The Grim Reaper

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  8. Ooh, I've rattled your cage there, John, haven't I? :-)

    While undoubtedly a certain amount of pre-loading does go on, I'm sure the vast majority of off-trade alcohol isn't consumed in pre-loading, so it's wrong to punish the majority for the sins of the minority. And even if we had a minimum price of 50 or 60p a unit, there would still be a financial benefit to pre-loading.

    And if the pre-loaders all stayed at home, there wouldn't be any town-centre disorder.

    Of course most pubs are well-run, but you can't avoid the fact that the vast majority of alcohol-related disorder is associated with people who have previously been on licensed premises.

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  9. Very interesting article, and one which helps me to understand why CAMRA are so very useless at tackling this most abhorrent of governments.

    "For a while, the leadership of CAMRA may continue to believe that what they hold dear and campaign for can somehow stand clear of the anti-drink tide. But one day, of course, the waters will suddenly and unexpectedly rise up and wash them away, and by then it will be too late."

    It's already too late. The die is cast and the steamroller has turned in the direction of alcohol. CAMRA assisted in dismantling the 'flood defence' between them and the righteous (you know what I am talking about).

    It was like a General inspecting his fingernails whilst an ally was being overwhelmed, then wondering why the enemy doubled their ranks and directed all efforts at his position.

    ... and then responding by raising a white flag and telling the oncoming troops to slaughter just one half of his army.

    That's a hell of a lot of trust, right there.

    How many CAMRA approved ales are deemed as 'strong' by the anti-alcohol lobby?

    If middle class favourite, wine, is being attacked for increasing potency, what chance a few very average guys who like a tasty (yet high ABV) beer?

    Still, I'll continue to back them as much as they refused to back anyone else. Can't say fairer than that, eh?

    What has happened to Mike Benner, by the way, been a bit quiet of late, hasn't he?

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  10. "Many, if not most, of the younger drinkers responsible for all of this "pre-load" at home on cheaply bought spirits and RTDs, and are well on the way to being drunk before they set out."

    Is this the best you can do?

    The pub industry has been targeting the 18-25 age group for as long as I can remember. They used to drink in pubs where they were controlled. Talk about pre-loading as much as you want, but supermarket prices have increased in real terms in the past 30 years according to ONS figures. Pub prices, however, have increased tenfold (I'll get the links if you really crave them).

    That says that supermarkets have been perfectly sensible but pubs haven't. The problem (if there is one which I don't subscribe to) is entirely because of pubs. To make supermarkets change their reasonable practices to cover failings by CAMRA's faves is stupid.

    Of course, if the 18-25 year olds, who are awash with cash (hence being milked for decades) wanted to, they would go straight to the pub and be less of a problem. How many are pre-loading because they feel more free at someone's house where they can all stay together instead of being split up by a daft law?

    CAMRA could have helped matters in that regard, but failed miserably. And simultaneously signalled the start of the war on beer.

    Good job, CAMRA.

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  11. How many are pre-loading because they feel more free at someone's house where they can all stay together instead of being split up by a daft law?

    A good point about the motivation for pre-loading which hadn't occurred to me before.

    ReplyDelete

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