Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Lost in translation?

Over the past year, CAMRA has been carrying out a strategic review under the chairmanship of former MP John Grogan. The results of this have now been published on the CAMRA website here (members only, unfortunately). It has to be said that, while a lot of effort has clearly been put into the document, and it is sensible enough as far as it goes, it isn’t quite what many people were expecting. The hope was that it would involve a fundamental review of exactly what “campaigning for real ale” means in 2011, as opposed to 1971. However, what we have got is a much more narrowly-focused exercise of examining how CAMRA goes about its campaigning, not of what it should (and shouldn’t) stand for and champion.

Indeed, that kind of root-and-branch re-examination is specifically ruled out:

It was no part of the Strategic Review Group's remit given to it by last year's Conference to second guess that democracy and pronounce on minimum pricing, the debate over the distinction between craft beers and real ales and the role CAMRA should play in combating the anti-alcohol lobby. Rather, our role was to identify ways in which CAMRA could sharpen up its act and campaigning activity.
This is, however, somewhat disingenuous. In practice, the campaigning priorities of the organisation, and its general tone, are set by the actions and words of its National Executive and professional officers, not by AGM motions, which only act to give a nudge once in a while. Somehow, the mission statement seems to have become lost in translation, and what we have is a review of tactics, not strategy.

Since CAMRA was formed in 1971, the environment in which it operates has dramatically changed. In particular, there are three major developments of recent years to which it has not yet formulated any kind of coherent response:
  1. The rise of off-trade beer consumption and the decline of pubs. At some time during 2012 the off-trade is likely to overtake the on-trade. This is closely linked with the startling rate of pub closures in recent years.
  2. The growth in the appreciation of “craft beer” which has wide areas where it does not overlap with real ale – and equally, most “real ale” is never going to be “craft beer”.
  3. The increased influence of the anti-drink lobby which has led to a much less favourable fiscal and regulatory environment for the beer and pub trade and has made consumption of alcohol, especially outside the home, markedly less socially acceptable.
The world has moved on, and you can’t go on campaigning like it was still the mid-Seventies. I’m not touting for any specific response to these trends, but if CAMRA continues to stick its collective head in the sand and says “nothing to do with us, mate”, then it risks being rendered a declining, nostalgic irrelevance.


  1. It's all very well saying that CAMRA's not keeping up with the hip young 'crafterai' but since the figures in the report show that CAMRA's membership is growing faster than it ever has and average age is getting less I'm not sure where the idea that CAMRA is in decline come from.

  2. I didn't say CAMRA was in decline, just that that was something it risked in the future if it did not address the changed realities of the pub and beer market. And I'm hardly the greatest evangelist for the crafterati.

  3. Pathetic isn't it? I've always been proud of my CAMRA membership. Soon it will be like belonging to the Flat Earth Society.

  4. Well funnily enough as one of the proposers of the motion that led to the review and who was part of the review panel, I don't agree.

    This was never going to be a way out for those who wished CAMRA was something it isn't. We campaign for real ale and how we do it will always be up to the members. Change is up to the members too, but you know, I don't see a groundswell to widen our remit. If there is, it will become irresistible because members will want it.

    I would draw your attention though to this:

    "The Chief Executive should be given specific responsibility for maintaining good relations with the IFBB and SIBA between such meetings with regular updates provided to the National Executive and members."

    These are my words and will go a long way to giving SIBA a dialogue over wider beer issues with CAMRA.


    Which bit of campaigning for real ale don't you understand?

  5. As a review of CAMRA's organisation and methodologies, the document is fine, and the recommendation for regular face-to-face meetings with SIBA and IFBB is a good one. However, it is not the kind of existential look at CAMRA's place in the world that many were led to expect. I'm not necessarily saying that CAMRA should take a different or higher-profile stance on certain issues – indeed there is a good case to be made that, given the difficulties they cause, the organisation should adopt a more narrowly-focused, "stick to the knitting" approach and row back on wider "political" campaigning.

    However, there's no doubt that the issues I refer to have been fudged or ignored. If, for example, a CAMRA spokesperson was asked to give an official response to BrewDog's opening of a chain of keg-only bars, what would their answer be?

    Also I recall you putting forward a motion at last year's AGM calling for CAMRA to take a more proactive stance in combatting the anti-drink lobby. AIUI that was withdrawn following certain assurances from the NE, but I've seen no evidence of anything actually happening, and it certainly wasn't the case that the issue would be within the remit of the Strategic Review.

  6. "It is not the kind of existential look at CAMRA's place in the world that many were led to expect."

    I think more correctly that should read "chose to expect", as there was no leading anyone to such an expectation. I certainly didn't read the motion like that, and I've a lot of experience with conference motions, having written and debated many in my time. If people misinterpret CAMRA motions, they can't complain if the outcome isn't what they wanted.

    You're a CAMRA member, Curmudgeon: I think you should put your money where your mouth is with a motion to the next AGM. It's certainly what I'd do if I felt like you on this matter.

  7. I suppose the difficulty is that the issues you raise don't have an obvious answer and could never be part of a fit for purpose review which was never the be all that some hoped for. We have managed to get some quite good stuff in including ensuring that powerful committees are more accountable and that dead wood is chopped out. There is much more besides.

    Mike Benner continues to fight the anti alcohol lobby in more subtle ways through parliament, the EU and other means, though we have asked for him (and he agrees) that any good opportunity to strike back should be taken. The problem is that going in with all guns blazing can easily backfire. As you point out there are powerful enemies out there who happily lie and misrepresent.

    If only it was all easy, but it isn't and if you have a good way of combating the things you worry about, I'm sure Mike would be glad to hear from you.

    As for BrewDog, the grown up response would be "it is disappointing that they choose not to offer their excellent cask beers, but good luck to them if that's what they want to do, but we feel they are missing a trick."

  8. @Tandleman - I certainly recognise that any combatting of the anti-drink lobby done by CAMRA needs to be somewhat cautious and oblique. Head-on confrontation would not be productive and it has to be admitted there are some things CAMRA does that might not look good with a neo-Pro spotlight turned on them.

    However, something like the series of blogposts Pete Brown did last year on "ten myths about alcohol" could, for example, become a series of articles in What's Brewing. A lot, of course, comes from the tone as much as the substance of what is said.

    As you know, I am somewhat of an agnostic about the "craft beer revolution" (something which might warrant a future post), but I think your suggested response, while probably what a well-briefed spokesperson would say, comes across as rather grudging.

  9. "I think your suggested response, while probably what a well-briefed spokesperson would say, comes across as rather grudging."

    It didn't read that way to me but, regardless of that, is there any reason why a spokesperson for the Campaign for Real Ale should respond any differently to a brewer opening keg-only bars?

  10. Why would anyone (not just a CAMRA spokesperson) not be grudging about BD cutting off their nose to spite CAMRA's face? If they didn't make any cask ale, or if they made great keg and mediocre cask, the keg bars would make perfect sense & would present our hypothetical CAMRA spokesperson with a real problem. As it is, they make quite good keg beers and superb cask. The keg thing suggests they're either crazy or very greedy (keeps longer, needs less attention, less wastage, and you get to mark up the price - how does that work again?).

  11. "However, something like the series of blogposts Pete Brown did last year on "ten myths about alcohol" could, for example, become a series of articles in What's Brewing. A lot, of course, comes from the tone as much as the substance of what is said."

    Already suggested and is being looked at I understand.

    As for grudging, as Phil points out it would be odd if a CAMRA spokesman didn't suggest a cask producer sells cask surely?


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