Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Which side are you on?

The great American science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once observed that “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.” Sadly, in the past couple of decades, the first tendency very much seems to have got the upper hand, especially in the area of seeking to influence what people put in their bodies, in terms of tobacco, alcohol and food. The concept of self-ownership which was fundamental to the values of the Enlightenment has been forced to take a back seat.

It’s not easy to fathom the motivation for all of this. The idea that we need a healthy, efficient population to fulfil some kind of national destiny has disturbingly totalitarian overtones. And the argument that unhealthy lifestyles place a greater burden on state-funded health services does not stand up to analysis – while it is possible to point to individual horror stories, on average it is the healthy people who survive into extreme old age who eventually end up costing more. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that ultimately it stems from a simple desire to tell others how to run their lives and impose your values on them.

The controlling tendency have also been able to forge an unholy alliance with those promoting quality in food and drink. The root of the two ideas is different, but it is all too easy for advocacy of good food to slip into support for measures to deter people eating what you perceive as poor food. Thus we have supporters of “good food” hanging on Jamie Oliver’s every word, tut-tutting at the idea that McDonalds and Burger King might be valuable additions to the High Street, and seeking to lock children in school at lunchtime to stop them going to the chippy. It also has to be said that there is a strong element of patronising snobbery in all of this, the belief that the thick plebs can’t be trusted to look after themselves and therefore have to be told what to do by their betters.

Much the same happens in the field of drink, where those who celebrate fine wines, malt whiskies and craft ales find it all too easy to look down their noses at the hoi polloi lugging slabs of Carling home from ASDA and happily swilling cheap Spanish white and Glen’s vodka. We are discerning connoisseurs, they are irresponsible binge-drinkers. And the health argument, which may have some limited validity in the area of food (although less than often supposed), does not apply here – a pint of Carling will be no worse for you than the equivalent amount of alcohol in Weasel Piss Imperial Triple IPA.

This may help explain why many beer enthusiasts seem strangely reluctant to acknowledge the threat from the anti-drink lobby, and indeed in some cases may imagine that some kind of accommodation can be made with them to promote quality and responsibility. All credit to beer writer Pete Brown for recently pointing out the lies of the anti-drink lobby, and in the past he has done a series on debunking myths about alcohol. But, despite more than one Conference motion, you will still see nothing of this kind in the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing. Many activists, in their hearts, identify more with those pointing out the evils of (other people’s) drink than with Diageo and Molson Coors.

Of course, at the end of the day, this is a dangerous delusion. When push comes to shove, the anti-drink lobby have no interest in separating out the good and bad drinkers. It’s all just booze to them. And it has to be recognised that, in recent years, the increasing denormalisation of moderate drinking and the negative image attached to alcohol have been amongst the main factors contributing to the decline of the pub trade. It’s no good standing up for pubs if at the same time you’re happy to stigmatise most of their customers.


  1. As I see it, the root of the problem you highlight comes down to 'Victorian Values'. Back 150 years or so ago when our modern day parliament was being shaped, the general population was uneducated and needed protection from the excesses of drink, gambling, etc.

    Fast forward to the present day - everyone now receives an education and so has a much greater awareness of the downsides associated with drinking, smoking, bad diet, not enough exercise, etc. However, our system of government is still rooted in the Victorian era and so there is still the view that the people must be protected from themselves.

    The idea of universal education was, or so I believed, to give everyone the tools and information to make informed decisions for themselves and thus reduce the need for government interference.

    However, the idea that grown adults are capable of making decisions about what they do to their own bodies seems to be an anathema to the neo-puritanicals who now seem to be in control. Like you, I don't quite understand why there has been a rise in this 'nannying', but it is very difficult to counter. Whoever they are, they do appear to have found a way of subverting our system of democracy into a subtle form of totalitarianism.

  2. Much the same happens in the field of drink, where those who celebrate fine wines, malt whiskies and craft ales find it all too easy to look down their noses at the hoi polloi lugging slabs of Carling home from ASDA and happily swilling cheap Spanish white and Glen’s vodka. We are discerning connoisseurs, they are irresponsible binge-drinkers.

    Not all, and actually most snobbery doesn't come from experts in the subjects, but what are often referred to as commentators. They're the sort of people who write in the Guardian about how marvellous the British film industry is and how it's better than all that American rubbish.

    But when you read the film critics, there's none of this. The people who can really write about film will gladly celebrate films like Mary Poppins, The Exorcist, or Pacific Rim.

    The thing with snobs is that they generally don't actually care about the thing they comment on. The idiots who praise English Wine are jingoistic twerps, not people who care much about wine. The folks who criticise McDonalds are anti-prole and anti-American. Greggs pasties get none of the stick that Big Macs get, despite being far less healthy. No-one really likes world music, it's just a way to show how culturally with-it you are.

  3. The beardies even had a conference motion a few years back to set up a committee to investigate and prove that wholesome naturally conditioned ale was healthier than artificially carbonated keg beers. You’ve got to laugh, really.

  4. Interesting post, but eventually the only people able to afford to drink out of home will be the more affluent and better educated. The "others" are gradually being marginalised into drinking cheap supermarket booze at home. Whether the new Puritans will recognise this - and lay off pubs and their customers in future - I seriously doubt however. As you say, they have no interest in moving on from sweeping generalisations.

  5. At the CAMRA AGM this year, the campaign's previous support for minimum pricing was overturned with many of the reasons above cited in the debate. Colin Valentine, CAMRA's national chair, reiterated what has always been the campaign's position: we're for real ale, not against anything else. Pro-choice, in other words, even if some CAMRA zealots don't see it that way: they are (to use the jargon) off-message.

  6. Nev, I recognise that the minimum pricing vote was a major setback for the appeasers of Prohibition in CAMRA.

    However, we are still not seeing regular pieces in What's Brewing along the lines of Pete Brown's blogpost, which I would have though should be a no-brainer in the current climate.

    And some CAMRA publications such as Nottingham Drinker are still happy to regurgitate messages from the anti-drink lobby.

  7. Ah, the nanny state marches on. At least they are not trying to regulate the size of your Coca-Cola.


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