Sunday, 18 August 2013

Turning the tide

In the comments, Matthew Lawrenson recently asked, perfectly reasonably, whether there was anything that could be done to increase the amount of customers in pubs. Realistically, at least in terms of government policy, the answer is no. The decline in the pub trade has been caused by a variety of long-term social trends that are beyond the control of government. Indeed, I would argue that it isn’t really the business of government to seek to protect declining industries. Such policies invariably end in tears.

All that can reasonably be expected from government is that they abstain from kicking a man when he’s down and knowingly making matters worse. So they shouldn’t have implemented the smoking ban or the beer duty escalator, and nor should they have followed a line in official health messages calculated to make people feel guilty about moderate and responsible levels of drinking. Fortunately they have not so far reduced the drink-driving limit, which would have heaped further misery on pubs.

But, on the other hand, no trend lasts forever and things can often turn around in unexpected ways. In the late 50s, much the same was being said. Beer volumes had been slowly but steadily declining for a decade, with the lure of staying at home in front of the new-fangled gogglebox being widely blamed. Brewers were struggling to invest in their tied estates and many were seeking the shelter of defensive mergers. Yet the following twenty years saw an amazing boom in the pub trade, with beer sales almost doubling and huge amounts of investment in upgrading pubs, albeit often insensitively. Few in 1959 would have foreseen that.


  1. How about tidying up grot holes with a few scatter cushions to make the places appealing to a wider clientele?

    That'll work.

  2. But Mudge, pubs are dangerous places. People meet and chat and squabble and exchange views in them. It’s in the pub – just as in the café in France – that people learn that they are not alone in loathing this or that policy of politicians; or they learn that they are alone and that everyone else thinks it’s great. There is (or was) an element of “social education” that takes place in a pub that simply doesn’t happen anywhere else. And when a Government – any Government – is hellbent on implementing (or continuing with) unpopular policies inflicted on unhappy members of society, the last thing they want is those unhappy people realising that they are not alone.

    As has been pointed out several times on here before, it was in pubs, inns and taverns of yore that many of the most significant social movements were spawned, through the simple expedient of people from all walks of life meeting, exchanging opinions, finding a common cause and – most dangerously of all – organising themselves to resist the edicts of the reigning powers-that-be. Politicians of all shades don’t want pubs as you and I know them for this very reason. Pubs which have turned into restaurants-with-a-bar are fine, because most people are there to eat and only visit the bar when they’re waiting for a table; big PubCo-owned bars are the same – when was the last time you went into one of those and struck up a long and meaningful conversation (“Excuse me, can I just get past you with these pints?” doesn’t count!) with a total stranger who you’d never met before? Never, I’ll bet.

    But real pubs – the kind that some people on here often condemn as “outdated” or “old-fashioned” or “not what people want” – are different from the new-breed establishments, and they’re still a threat although they’ve taken a battering – in my opinion a semi-deliberate one. No amount of rhetoric about “community assets” from politicians or All-Party Save the Pub groups will ever convince me that politicians aren’t basically all quietly allowing real pubs to vanish. Only deliberate action to reverse so many of the pub-killing regulations enacted over the last few years would do that. And I can’t help but think that that just ain’t gonna happen, not because I think there’s any secret conspiracy to actively close pubs, but because I think that for pubs (real pubs, that is, as I say) to remain open and busy is far, far too great a risk for our current batch of politicians who simply want to be able to do what they do, whether the public like it or not, without so much as a peep of dissent from the masses. I don’t think it’s any coincidence, for example, that the smoking ban (which primarily affected pubs and clubs) is enthusiastically supported by all of the major parties, whereas plain packaging (which is likely to primarily affect non-subversive places like shops) has been shelved. Ditto anti-booze legislation – minimum pricing (mainly affecting shops) is on the back burner at least in England, but lowering the drink-driving limit (mainly affecting pubs) is still an active proposition and has growing support amongst MPs.

  3. Smoking rooms in workplaces were also a source of free-thinking and sedition, so I'm sure government and employers were pleased to be able to get rid of them.

  4. I get the conspiracy so far, but how does it tie in with Princess Diana's murder?

  5. " It’s in the pub – just as in the café in France – that people learn that they are not alone in loathing this or that policy of politicians; or they learn that they are alone and that everyone else thinks it’s great"

    Actually I think the internet pretty much has this covered nowadays. No-one talks about politics in the pub. You go to the pub to take your mind of serious stuff like that.

  6. Pyo,

    You’re right of course, in many cases (mine being one), the Internet has taken over as the main source of discussion and discourse about politics, the State of the World Today and other assorted topics. But it still isn’t as widely used in that respect as pubs are, and non-Internet users such as my own OH, who still goes to the pub for a “swifty” after work do still talk “politics” of one sort or another in there. Not every night, of course, but certainly quite often. And because there are still people like him having conversations like that, pubs remain a threat to the powers-that-be.

    Oh, and CL – it was the PubCos wot dunnit! I thought everyone knew that …!

  7. Ha Ha, Love the conspiracy Anon. Have you thought maybe "the powers that be" would love it if people had more interest in politics, then they might bother to go out an vote. That apathy is a greater winner than nutcase "i wish it was still 1950" fringe loon bongo bongo parties and if more people bothered to take an interest such nutcases would be nowhere.

  8. Possibly there might be more interest in politics if the three "main" parties didn't all offer just slight variations on the same theme.


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