Martyn Cornell has done an excellent blogpost entitled Moral panics, Tim Martin and motorways about the hysterical overreaction to the news that Wetherspoon’s had opened a pub that was actually quite near a motorway. He also makes a wider point about whether the drinks industry should be so willing to pander to the agenda of the anti-drink lobby.
What is even more frustrating than the illogicality of these arguments, and the willingness of newspapers, TV and radio programmes to give people space to promote these ridiculous claims, instead of slapping them about the head and telling them not to react as if drivers are like toddlers at a supermarket check-out, who can’t resist grabbing for the bad-for-you goods on display, is the framing of the debate about the availability of drink once again as an argument solely about intoxication and its evils. It’s something the whole drinks industry, from producers to retailers, colludes in, and it’s why personally I believe setting up the Portman Group was an extremely bad idea, because its existence plays to the anti-alcohol lobby’s agenda-setting. By banging on about “responsible” drinking, the drinks industry’s own warrior in the “alcohol awareness” wars destroys the main argument for drinking: that it’s fun. No one is ever allowed to say that drinking is fun, because fun and responsibility don’t mix.It has to be said that the very term “responsible drinking” conjures up a joyless vision of sipping carefully at a half-pint of 2.8% pisswater while nibbling at an organic tofu salad. As he says, drinking should be about enjoying yourself, and there’s precious little enjoyment if you’re too responsible about it. This is also a case where the industry seems happy to go along with the definition put forward by the anti-drink lobby which basically means losing the argument before you’ve even started.
Basically, the drinks industry can never win, because however much ground they concede, the anti-drink lobby will always demand more. There is no defined end-point – it’s all about “direction of travel”. It sometimes seems disappointing that they are so reluctant to speak out in their own defence, but it has to be recognised that business is about making a profit, not conducting a moral crusade, and it may make sense to keep your head down, playing along with the official agenda while dragging your feet a bit, and hoping that in time the storm will pass.
Indeed, there is a good historical precedent for this, as the Temperance campaigns of the late Victorian and Edwardian period had largely blown themselves out by about 1930, and from 1960 to about 1995 the drinks industry enjoyed a remarkable period of steady growth with little public censure. Meanwhile, of course, the task of defending them is left to private individuals such as myself who then get unjustly accused of being paid industry shills. I did once get given some free beer by Wells & Youngs – does that count?
It is depressing, though, how willing the industry seems to be to allow itself to have its arm twisted by the government to in effect emasculate itself. It has signed up to the “Responsibility Deal” which has led to many of the best-selling beers and ciders having their strength reduced, with yet more certain to come. And recently the Drinkaware charity, which is funded by the drinks industry, was criticised for being too closely linked with them and not putting across a sufficiently independent anti-drink message.
It is impossible to engage in any kind of constructive dialogue when your opponents, at heart, believe that you represent an illegitimate and toxic trade. So maybe it would make sense for the industry to adopt a more robust line and take the stance that, while they will obviously comply with all legal requirements, they do not believe they have anything to be ashamed of and will not have a hand in undermining their own business. Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s, while he certainly isn’t right about everything, deserves much credit for being one of the few industry leaders actually prepared to speak out directly against the wave of miserablist anti-alcohol sentiment and to promote the positive benefits of pubs and drinking.