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