Friday 31 January 2020

Raise a glass

Well, at last we’ve got there. Forty-three months after the referendum, and ten months after it was supposed to happen, today we are finally leaving the European Union. So I think I can be forgiven for indulging in a celebratory libation of English ale.

The day after the referendum, I made the point that the smoking ban, and other instances of the political class treating ordinary people with patronising contempt, was a small contributory factor towards the result. And subsequent events have only served to reinforce that message.

A reminder that the comment facility is not provided as a platform for Brexit bitterness.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Can I just try one of those?

Martin Taylor has drawn my attention to this brilliant skit making fun of people who take advantage of asking for tasters in pubs. The punchline is, from what I’ve heard, only too true. While tasters have their place, I have written before about how asking for one is often just an affectation, and some people do abuse the facility. As one licensee said, “Yes, I do offer tasters. They’re called halves.”

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Economies of ale

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware that I’ve not always seen eye-to-eye with beer writer Pete Brown. However, when he puts the agitprop politics to one side and takes a detailed look at the beer and pub industry he can come up with some well-researched and interesting material. He has recently been investigating the truth behind the recent news that there had been an increase in pub numbers in the past year, and has produced a couple of blogposts on the subject, both of which are well worth reading in detail.

Is The Moon Under Water Finally Getting its Head Above the Surface?

Economies of Ale Part Two: How the Pub is Evolving

It’s interesting that he acknowledges the impact of the smoking ban on the decline of pubs, something that for long was taboo amongst most of the beer commentariat.

That massive, horrible drop between 2007 and 2013 was the result of a clusterf*ck of negative factors: the smoking ban started in 2007, the global financial crash happened in 2008, and in response the then government thought it would be a good idea to punish an already reeling industry with the beer duty escalator, which helped the total tax burden payable on beer rise by 40% in four years.
He’s also pretty scathing about the anti-pubco conspiracy theorists. As I’ve often said on here before, while some of the business practices of the pubcos leave much to be desired, their role in the decline of the pub trade has been trivial. It is essentially a problem of demand, not supply. And, if there was a huge untapped demand, then surely independently-run pubs would be booming, whereas in reality they’re doing no better than ones owned by pubcos.
Last year the Office of National Statistics (ONS) launched their ‘Economies of Ale’ report into the changing numbers of British pubs. It painted a gloomy picture that we were used to, but I spotted an interesting quirk in the data. It showed that small, independently owned pubs were closing faster than larger pubs owned by the big pub companies. So I wrote a column pointing out that, if this was the case, the big pubco tie can’t be the main reason for pub closures – not if pubs that have nothing to do with the pubcos are closing faster than pubco-owned pubs. That’s simple logic. It’s not to say the pubco tie isn’t a factor in closures, but it can’t possibly be the main factor.

Not for the first time, the piece was given a misleading headline by the sub-editors, which didn’t accurately reflect the tone of the piece. And as few people these days bother to read beyond the headline, if you follow the debate around pub closures at all, you can guess what happened next.

According to my social media feeds, my story was proof that the ONS, the whole British Guild of Beer Writers, the entire UK national media and most of all, me personally, were involved in a vast conspiracy and were being paid off by the likes of Ei Group (formerly Enterprise Inns) and Punch Taverns. I had been paid thousands of pounds by the pubcos to write this piece. I was apparently performing sexual favours on the chief executives of these companies, and I was actively supporting their actions in the pub market because I hated pub tenants and lessees and the businesses they ran. I absolutely loved big corporate CEOs because, in ways that were never made quite clear, their actions benefited me professionally.

The people who wrote these comments remain hurt and bewildered that most beer writers refuse to engage with them.

A few years ago, Pete wrote an angry blogpost in which he called racism over the suggestion that had made that, in some areas, the increasing Muslim population had been a major factor in the decline in pub numbers. However, it was pointed out in the comments that this wasn’t racism, but a simple question of fact. If the proportion of people in the population who don’t drink alcohol, especially in public, increases, then inevitably the demand for pubgoing will decline. He later deleted the post, and now accepts the point in his article.
The worst-hit boroughs are an absolute bloodbath:

- Barking and Dagenham has lost 67% of its pubs between 2001 and 2019

- Newham has lost 57%

- Luton has lost 55%

- Burnley has lost 53%

Why? Well, one thing all these areas have in common is that they have a high proportion of ethnic communities who for religious and cultural reasons don’t drink alcohol. Over the course of the 21st century, while the ethnic population as a whole may or may not have increased all that much, the children of people who moved there earlier have grown up and replaced a cohort of young people who used to spend a lot of time in pubs with a cohort of young people who don’t.

In contrast, some areas, especially those with a strong tourist appeal, have seen an absolute increase in the number of pubs, although I have suggested that this is likely to be not so much from the opening of new bars as from the reclassification of existing restaurants and hotels, and new restaurant-type establishments obtaining full on-licences. However, he rather gets his statistics in a twist:
West Somerset has seen a 25% increase in the number of pubs – the most of any region in the UK. Numbers have also grown in the Scottish Highlands and stayed stable in the Western Isles, confirming that tourism plays a key part in keeping pubs alive. This gets even more apparent when you split the data by number of pubs per capita. West Somerset, the Cotswolds, South Lakeland, the Derbyshire Dales, North Devon, West Dorset and Stratford-upon-Avon all have more than one pub for each person who actually lives there, and have only seen a fractional fall – or an actual increase – in the total number of pubs.
More pubs than there are residents – I don’t think so. That would suggest 35,000 pubs in West Somerset, which seems a little unlikely. At a guess, the figure is more likely to be no more than one pub per hundred population, if that.

Monday 27 January 2020

A dismal milestone

Over the past few days, the pub closures ticker in the sidebar has passed the 20,000 mark. Now, I’m well aware of the limitations of this data, that it’s simply based on statements of weekly or monthly pub closures issued by the likes of the BBPA and CAMRA, and that it’s essentially a gross figure that does not take account of new bar openings. But it certainly conveys a fundamental truth, that the pub trade overall has seen a dramatic decline over that period. According to the most recent figures produced by the BBPA, beer sales in pubs have declined by 35% since 2007, so it’s not exactly surprising that so many have closed.

I would never claim that the smoking ban has been a monocausal factor in pub decline over that period, but it has certainly been a significant one, especially amongst the more down-to-earth, wet-led pubs. It’s undoubtedly true that a huge number of much-loved pubs have been lost, such as, in Stockport alone, the Tiviot, Waterloo and Grapes. And, if you’ve lost the only pub in the area where you live, it’s scant consolation that a new craft bar has opened up three miles away in the town centre charging four quid a pint. It is nothing remotely resembling a like-for-like replacement.

Edit: At present the counter appears to be advancing by three per day.

Thursday 23 January 2020

One wrong doesn’t excuse another

Pellicle magazine has recently published an article entitled Pubs, Parenthood and Children at the Heart of the Community advocating a more tolerant attitude to children in pubs. Now, I’ve been over this ground many times before, so I don’t propose to revisit it here. However, I can’t help thinking that the article paints a rather rose-tinted picture of mummy happily sipping her third of craft beer with her friends while little Jocasta quietly sits with a colouring book, which all too often bears little relation to reality.

One argument that came up in discussion about this was the old chestnut that “what adults do in pubs is far worse than a few noisy children”. Now, in extremis, this is undoubtedly true, but it is essentially a classic example of the logical fallacy of tu quoque, that wrongdoing by one group in some may justifies or excuses the (possibly less serious) wrongdoing by another group.

I also have to say that, in my experience, witnessing inappropriate adult behaviour in pubs is extremely rare. This is true not only of actions at the extreme end of the scale such as fighting, or being abusive or threatening, but also more low-level behaviour such as shouting too loudly, throwing tantrums or deliberately annoying or pestering others. Of course it does happen, but it isn’t an everyday occurrence.

It has to be remembered, though, that behaviour has to be taken in context, and what might be par for the course when the local team win a football match, or in a lively city-centre bar late at night, would stand out like a sore thumb at lunchtime in a rural gastropub. Pubs often, by definition, are somewhat boisterous – that comes with the territory.

Children in pubs can often behave in a way that would be entirely normal for the playground, but is inappropriate for a pub environment and would not be considered acceptable in adults. (By “pub” I mean a drinking place, not a casual dining venue) It doesn’t mean that you hate children not to want to be in the presence of their happy laughter all the time.

The article rightly points to the importance of the pub as a “third space”, a refuge where people can relax away from the pressures of the workplace and the home. And, for many people, that also means an adult space that offers a respite from the responsibility of tending to children’s needs, and where inhibitions can be loosened somewhat. Is that something so unreasonable to ask for?

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Drying out

To tie in with Dry January, the Morning Advertiser reports that one in four pub visits no longer involve consuming an alcoholic drink. My first thought is to wonder how many of these are connected with eating. My guess would be that the proportion on non-dining occasions is much smaller.

It’s also of limited usefulness taken in isolation. How does it compare with previous years? Does it represent a marked change, or is it little different? It could, of course, be the case that as the amount of drinking in pubs decreases, the proportion of dining occasions rises, and with it the percentage of non-drinking visits, even without much change in individual behaviour when in the pub. It could simply be a reflection of the growing role of food in pubs.

It’s certainly true, as I have observed before, that adults in groups of diners in pubs are now much more likely to be having a non-alcoholic drink than they were twenty or thirty years. But it doesn’t follow that hordes of people have suddenly started jugging back non-alcoholic beers on non-dining pub visits.

And, if they are, there must come a point where they start to wonder what they’re doing there at all. If one person decides to hang on the coat-tails of a group of drinkers and enjoy an evening in the pub while avoiding alcohol, that’s understandable. But, once the non-drinkers become a majority, they might one day ask “Paula, you’re now the only one of us who’s actually drinking alcohol. Wouldn’t it be better if we all did something else?”

Friday 17 January 2020

Drinking with the enemy

For a number of years, we have seen the Dry January campaign run by the public health lobby, which aims to encourage people to abstain from alcohol entirely throughout the month and hopefully to take stock of their drinking in a wider sense. Understandably, the licensed trade have viewed this as a threat to their business, especially as January is one of the slackest months for trade and a time that sees many pubs financially struggling. As a response, various initiatives have been devised, including Drinkuary (which now seems to have faded away) and, most prominently, Tryanuary. This aims not to encourage people to drink more, but to take the opportunity to try out new and unfamiliar beers and venues.

However, we are now seeing voices raised that are critical of this approach, arguing that to oppose Dry January comes across as disrespectful and unhelpful to people who are genuinely trying to reduce their consumption or grappling with alcohol-related problems, not to mention being potentially damaging to business, For example, see this post on Bring on the Beer, a blog which I have to admit I hadn’t previously come across.

I wouldn't for one moment decry desperate business owners for being miffed at a campaign that they perceive as seeking to undermine their footfall at a needy time of year. But I would like to know if it's been proven that that's where their ire should be directed. Blunt, hostile rejection of the "other" camp is completely illogical and does more harm than any abstinence campaign ever could. If a pub does put out a tweet saying "Forget (or stronger) Dryanuary" it makes it less likely that folks will come into their pub to partake of a soft drink or two, so they're basically shooting themselves in the foot.
The post makes some nuanced points, not least that Dry January is unlikely to reach those most in need of a break from alcohol, and is well worth reading. However, it is important to distinguish the individual from the general. On the personal level, people may well wish to reduce their overall alcohol consumption, or give it a miss for a while, and that needs to be respected. They shouldn’t be badgered into have a drink when they don’t want one, or told that they’re letting the side down, and pubs should offer products that enable them to make a non-alcoholic choice, which of course in general they do.

But Dry January isn’t just about individual responsibility. It is a campaign that has been consciously crafted by the anti-drink lobby with the declared intention of not just allowing people something of a detox but to review their entire relationship with alcohol. It takes advantage of the fact that, after Christmas and New Year, people maybe will feel they’ve overdone it a bit, and may also find themselves short of funds, so abstinence becomes doubly attractive. In the past, anti-drink campaigns often focused on morality and the role of drink as a step on the road to ruin, but now they have been subtly redirected to capitalise on contemporary concerns about health and general feelings of purity and well-being.

This objective is made explicit in this blogpost, which also reiterates the point that Dry January does little to help those most in need of it.

For two campaigns aimed at helping beer sellers and alcoholics, it seems that neither of them actually have much effect. It can be argued that Tryanuary doesn't drive more folk to pubs in January than those who would go anyway, and Dryanuary is mostly partaken by folk who sensibly drink in moderation. Which means that, when you strip away the superficiality of likes, retweets, shares, headlines and humblebragging social media posts, the real world effect is negligible at best.

So what does this mean for the value of Dry January? It’s potentially helpful for a lot of people at an individual level, but for me its key contribution is about culture change, which then provides a space for policy change.

First, it prompts everyone to think about their alcohol consumption, and that fits perfectly with Alcohol Change UK’s admirable goal of getting everyone to make well-informed decisions.

Second, it provides an opportunity for commentators and policymakers to note that alcohol isn’t just any other commodity, and for all its strengths the individual-focused approach of Dry January doesn’t work for everyone, so we need more.

“Its key contribution is about culture change, which then provides a space for policy change.” Mark those words very carefully.

Some initiatives proposed by the anti-drink lobby may actually make sense. But they should always be taken with a large pinch of salt, because we know all too well what their ultimate objective is. There is no acceptable end-point short of outright prohibition, and whatever you agree with, they will always come back for more. Therefore, while it may well be prudent for pubs to keep their heads down during Dry January, and make good business sense to offer alcohol-free products, embracing the concept is effectively getting into bed with those who wish to destroy you.

The point has also been made, for example in the blogpost I linked to above, that, given the greatly improved choice and quality of alcohol-free beers available now, doing without alcohol doesn’t require as much of a sacrifice as it once did. There’s certainly a fair amount of truth in that – it’s no longer a question of having just a limited selection of bland ersatz lagers, although in practice the range available in the typical pub is still pretty narrow.

However, it misses the point that the fundamental reason people drink beer is because it contains alcohol. While people may have entirely valid reasons for choosing an alcohol-free beer, and I sometimes drink it myself, it’s always to some extent a distress purchase. They are intended to mimic, as far as possible, the experience of drinking a standard beer, but with that crucial element omitted. Ideally, all other things being equal, people would prefer to be drinking a normal-strength equivalent.

Without standard beer, there would be no alcohol-free beer, just as there would be no decaffeinated coffee without regular coffee or nut roasts without meat roasts. One is a mere echo of the other. While people may be happy enough with an alcohol-free beer if they find themselves in the pub, they’re not going to go out of their way to seek them out. Nobody is going to go on AFB pub crawls. So it’s always going to be an inferior substitute that falls short of the real thing, but will constantly remind you of it.

People who choose to switch to AFBs during January are not, in practice, going to spend as much time or money in pubs, so it is still undermining the trade to some extent. There may be the odd exception, but they will be vanishingly few. The best way to cut down on alcohol is simply not to go to the pub in the first place. And it should always be remembered that, without alcoholic drinks, and the people who consume them, there would be no pubs.

Monday 13 January 2020

An old-fashioned success story

Yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph carried a feature article by beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones on the reasons behind Samuel Smith’s perhaps unlikely success story. It’s paywalled, but I believe it’s possible to read a limited number of articles for free. It includes a brief quotation from me (albeit without any explanation of who I am):
They are pubs as they used to be,” says Peter Edwardson, “though I do think the mobile phone ban is bonkers and represents eccentricity taken a bit too far.”
And a lengthier explanation from Peter Alexander aka Tandleman, which hits the nail on the head.
For Peter Alexander, a Rochdale-based beer writer and CAMRA activist, the pubs’ popularity is due to the fact that visiting them is “like stepping back into the late 70s and early 80s. They are clean and bright, not hugely over-decorated and well run. There is no music. The beer is cheap, with a pint of keg mild being £1.29 and Old Brewery Bitter below £2, so they attract people who don’t have much to spend. The bottled beer and spirits prices are higher though — £6 for Imperial Stout for instance.

“The thing about Humphrey Smith,” he adds, “is that he has a demographic of customers who find the pubs comfortable, and they are mainly in their fifties, sixties and seventies. He also doesn’t stint on heating with the pubs always having coal fires in the winter.”

This comment from an ex-manager sums it up very well:
A former licensee I spoke with (on condition of anonymity) said that the pubs’ success was due to the fact that they have got their business model absolutely right. “They trade off their heritage, which is real and authentic. They are streets ahead of other pubs that also try to trade as traditional pubs. The authenticity is why I bought it into it. They were also the first brewery to be vegan, and the beer is also crucial to their reputation as it is so natural.”
No other pub chain comes anywhere close to matching the ambiance of pubs as people imagine they used to be. In Sam’s pubs, people do talk to each other in a way they rarely do elsewhere.

It was also very well explained in Anthony Avis’ book on the postwar brewing industry. He praises Samuel Smith’s for being an “exemplar among the smaller brewery companies”, and says “The custom is aimed at the older person, who relishes a good pint, with home-produced food if he wants it, and the surroundings to sit down and talk with his companions in unfashionable comfort – just like the brewery industry advertising of forty years ago represented pubs to be”. This was written in the 1990s, but remains just as true today, especially the “unfashionable comfort” point, at a time when many other operators seem determined to make their pubs as uncomfortable as possible.

As regular readers will know, I have long been a strong supporter of Samuel Smith’s general approach to their pubs, and locally often find them the most congenial places to go for a drink. However, while I can easily manage without my phone for the time it takes me to drink a couple of pints, I do regard that particular policy as a ban too far. I am also somewhat dismayed by Humphrey Smith’s refusal to employ relief managers, which leads to unnecessary and often protracted closures of pubs that on the face of it appear to be perfectly viable.

Saturday 11 January 2020

A question of more or less

You can just go in for a drink, but would you call it a pub?
I recently linked to a Guardian editorial praising the British pub, which mentioned that, after years of decline, the number of pubs in the country had actually increased in the past year. The detailed story can be found here in the same newspaper.
The decline of the British pub may be at an end, according to official figures showing that the number of pubs has increased for the first time this decade.

The UK ended March 2019 with 39,135 pubs, 320 more than a year earlier, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). It is the first net increase since 2010.

The rise marked a dramatic turnaround compared with the previous nine years, during which the UK pub network declined by an average of 732 each year, comparable data showed.

I have to say I’m distinctly sceptical about what this is actually telling us. It all hinges, of course, on how “pub” is actually defined. It is certainly true that, in the past two or three years, the rate of closures of existing pubs, which had been vertiginous in the years immediately following 2007, has distinctly slowed. It hasn’t entirely come to a stop, though, with, for example, one prominent pub in Stockport apparently going to close for redevelopment later this month.

On the other hand, made possible by post-2005 changes in licensing laws, there has been a growth in the number of new drinking establishments. This doesn’t just include micropubs, but a whole swathe of new bars in various formats, very often in former shop premises. We recently did a crawl around Stockport Market Place where four of the eight establishments visited had opened fairly recently, three in the preceding twelve months. It would be entirely credible that Stockport has more licensed premises than it did twelve months previously.

Another, less-recognised, factor may be the reclassification of existing premises. The changes in licensing laws have made it easier and more attractive for other types of establishment – restaurants, social clubs and residential hotels – to obtain full on-licences so the general public can, if they want just go in there for a drink. Added to this, many new places that once would have clearly fallen into the category of restaurants now choose to define themselves as “restaurant and bar” or similar terminology, even if their primary purpose is still the serving of meals. It is perceived as being more modern and informal. Figures were recently published showing an increase in the number of “pubs” in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. As Scottish licensing law is not so conducive to the opening of new small bars, and the general climate there is hardly a fertile one for new stand-alone pubs, this kind of reclassification must be a major factor.

In many ways, all of this has been a positive development. It allows the market to function to provide new drinking establishments of a type and in locations that people actually want, and it opens up existing premises to a wider clientele. But what it has done is to blur the boundaries between different types of businesses. Go back twenty years, and if someone referred to a pub it would have been pretty clear what they were talking about. Now it is much less obvious.

Many of the pubs that have been converted to Indian or Chinese restaurants over the past two decades will have retained their full licences, so in theory you can just go in for a drink, but their body language very clearly states “eatery”. Just off Stockport Market Place, there’s a new establishment called Vinabod which describes itself as a “Viking-themed tapas bar”. I’m not knocking it – you have to commend their enterprise – but how many people would really think of it as a pub, even though you don’t have to eat. Over the summer, I had lunches in a couple of cafés when on holiday, both of which also served alcoholic drinks, one even having a couple of keg taps. Go back twenty years, and that wouldn’t have been the case.

This doesn’t mean, though, that everything blurs into one, and words lose their meaning. Pub, bar, hotel, social club, restaurant and café are all separate concepts that carry very different connotations. The boundaries may be blurred, and there may be a considerable area of overlap, but it shouldn’t be inferred that the distinctions no longer exist. A year or so, I wrote about the difference between a pub and a bar. Legally, there may well be none, but they still occupy very distinct spaces in people’s minds. Indeed, as I pointed out, some bars took exception to being classified alongside pubs, as they thought it put across an undesirably stuffy image.

Now, I don’t know how many of these new styles of establishment are included within the headline total of “pubs”, as the definition has not been given. But we need to very careful about assuming that the reported rise in the headline number actually does represent any kind of renaissance of pubs as generally understood. Maybe we need a new term to encompass the whole variety of different establishments that now possess full on-licences. It may be a business success story, but it isn’t necessarily a pub success story.

Tuesday 7 January 2020

Do it the French way

Last week, I made the point that the lack of legislative action on the anti-drink agenda during the 2010s shouldn’t give any grounds for complacency during the coming decade. And, as sure as night follows day, it didn’t take long for the first salvo to be fired by the neo-Prohibitionists in the New Year.

Writing in Saturday’s Daily Mail, our old friend Professor David Nutt described alcohol as a national epidemic and urged concerted action across a number of fronts to address this menace. Not surprisingly, the article was full of exaggerations, misleading statements and downright lies. It was comprehensively filleted by Christopher Snowdon with his usual aplomb, saying that Nutt was “wrong in every possible way”. Please read it – there’s really very little I can add.

It is interesting that Nutt singles out France as an example for us to follow, although I’m not sure it’s really such a good role model as he seems to think. It is certainly true that France has halved its per capita alcohol consumption from a very high figure in the early 1960s, but according to various international comparisons it’s still at a similar level to the UK. And how much of that is due to general social trends as opposed to specific government policies?

He praises France’s severe restrictions on alcohol advertising, but it’s generally recognised that advertising primarily serves to influence brand choice rather than the level of consumption as such. The main impact of advertising curbs is to make it more difficult to launch new products. He also says that the government encouraged wine producers to make higher quality wines rather than vin ordinaire, but isn’t that in line with the general trend across the developed world to drink “less but better”? And you certainly can get drunk on Chateau Latour if you can afford it.

He highlights France’s decision to cut its drink-driving limit, but by doing so he effectively identifies this as primarily an anti-alcohol measure, which of course it is. Despite this, France still has a level of road fatalities, in terms of both population and vehicle mileage, about 70% higher than the UK. He conveniently ignores the fact that the limit was reduced in Scotland five years ago, and so far has failed to produce any noticeable reduction in accidents either in absolute terms or relative to England and Wales.

He also urges the other parts of the UK to follow Scotland’s example and introduce minimum unit pricing. But there is no minimum pricing in France, and you will still make big savings across the range of alcoholic drinks in the Calais hypermarket, although maybe not as much as you once could, due to the relative weakness of the pound in recent years.

Of course alcohol does cause problems for some who misuse it, but most people manage to handle it in a responsible manner and it brings pleasure to millions. Any attempt to deal with alcohol-related issues should surely adopt a targeted approach rather than being a form of indiscriminate collective punishment.

It may be easy to dismiss this as typical hyberbolic Daily Mail scaremongering. However, it should not be forgotten that the Mail was one of the main cheerleaders for the current government, and is often thought to represent the voice of “middle England”. They are far more likely to listen to the Mail than the Guardian. So nobody should delude themselves that the election of a new government that claims to listen to ordinary people means that the Nanny State agenda is now off the menu.

Sunday 5 January 2020

Two cheers for pubs

The Guardian newspaper recently published an editorial praising pubs as the heart of the community. To be fair, it includes much to agree with:

Britons cling to their pubs because they have been engraved on to their hearts. Hilaire Belloc remarked that “when you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England”. They represent to us what cafes are to the French: a way of seeing ourselves and our condition. It was painful to see a British institution sadly and slowly disappearing, and that trend risked losing an important part of our culture. With more pubs opening, Britain feels like we can overcome the social isolation and cultural confusion of the age. We ought to raise a glass to good news in these dark times.
It can’t help saying, though, that “the pub’s image was perhaps not helped by Nigel Farage’s obvious joy at being inside one.” However, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that it all rings a bit hollow when the paper has, over the years, enthusiastically published every scare story about alcohol and often given editorial support to anti-drink and anti-pub policies.

Pubs are only going to thrive when people feel relaxed and confident about visiting them, rather than sensing they are doing something vaguely disreputable. It seems, as I have remarked before, that many media commentators have a rose-tinted affection for the idea of pubs in the abstract, but are uncomfortable with the rumbustious reality of what they actually are and what people do there.

Friday 3 January 2020

The dog that didn’t bark

Something that jumped out at me from my review of the past decade is just how little progress the anti-drink agenda has actually made in practical terms. Yes, there have been many warnings about the possibilities, often including on this blog, but on the ground not a lot has happened.

After the end of the alcohol duty escalator in 2014, duty has either been frozen or only increased by the rate of inflation. Indeed there have been a couple of small cuts in beer duty. While higher duty rates have been introduced for strong beers and ciders, these have only affected a tiny proportion of the overall market. Equally, the lower duty rate for beers of 2.8% ABV has proved a damp squib, showing that there is little appetite for these products.

Earlier in the decade, there were some half-hearted attempts by government to twist the arm of the drinks industry to reduce the strength of some popular beers and ciders, resulting, for example, in Stella Artois being cut in two stages from 5.2% ABV to 4.8%. However, there is a limit on how far this can be taken without destroying the credibility of the product, and more recently nothing seems to have been heard of it.

It’s still possible to advertise alcohol across the whole spectrum of media using a wide variety of messages and imagery. Likewise, there are few restrictions on the design of packaging and labelling. A few slaps on the wrist for craft brewers using cartoon teddy bears doesn’t really add up to very much. You can display alcoholic drinks openly anywhere in the supermarket and use short-term price cuts, multibuy discounts and BOGOFs (at least south of the Border).

In England and Wales at least, the drink-drive limit has not been reduced, something that has been shown in Scotland to be a far more effective way of deterring people from visiting pubs than of improving road safety.

The total number of outlets licensed to sell alcohol has, if anything, increased, with many new small bars opening up and all kinds of small corner shops and petrol stations now displaying a few shelves of bottles and cans. There have been no moves to cut licensing hours, which are now the most liberal for a century. If pubs in practice are opening shorter hours, it’s done voluntarily because the business simply isn’t there, not because they’ve been made to by the authorities.

As suggested above, Scotland, influenced more by a Scandinavian prohibitionist tradition, has gone somewhat further down the road. They have reduced the drink-driving limit, banned short-term price promotions and multibuy discounts, introduced minimum pricing and operate a stricter licensing regime than England and Wales that has made it well-nigh impossible to open new micropubs.

But even that is only scratching the surface when you compare it with what has been done in the field of tobacco control. The rate of duty has been consistently increased above inflation for many years, all advertising and promotion has been banned, smoking in all indoor public places has been prohibited, plain packaging, including graphic health warnings, has been mandated and even displaying tobacco products on sale is now impossible. Smokers in general have been demonised and made to feel like third-class citizens. The anti-drink lobby (who of course are often the same people) must be feeling rather envious.

In practice, a lot of the attention of public health seems to have been diverted in the direction of food and soft drinks, something that few would have predicted in 2010. We had seen the introduction of the ineffective and discriminatory sugar tax, and pressure growing for the “reformulation” of food products (i.e. in general making them smaller and less palatable) and mandatory portion size reduction. Introducing plain packaging for products such as crisps and biscuits is now being seriously discussed. This has even extended to restricting the advertising of natural, but supposedly high-fat, foodstuffs such as cheese and butter.

In fact, changes in social attitudes have been doing a lot of the anti-drink lobby’s work for them. Over the past ten years, there has been a gentle but significant fall in per capita alcohol consumption, probably more than they would have hoped for in 2009, but largely without help from public policy. As I’ve said in the past, the moderate consumption of alcohol in social situations has increasingly been stigmatised, and the range of occasions on which people will consider an alcoholic drink has shrunk. Just look at all those pubs that no longer open at lunchtimes, or are virtually deserted when they do, and observe amongst a party of diners in a pub how many of the adults have a soft drink.

There is a constant stream of negative stories in the media, with examples of alcohol consumption being portrayed in a positive light being vanishingly rare. The proportion of people who say they never drink alcohol has been steadily rising, a trend that is particularly marked amongst the young. It is now often the middle-aged who drink most. This change in attitudes must eventually feed through into public policy.

One stumbling block is that, while it is generally reckoned that smoking is harmful at any level of consumption, there is a wealth of evidence that drinking moderate quantities of alcohol is actually beneficial to health. However, undermining this is a holy grail for the anti-drink lobby. We have already seen a steady ratcheting down of recommended consumption guidelines, often completely unsupported by scientific evidence, to a level where people who take official advice seriously may wonder whether it’s even worth bothering with. Expect to see a steady increase in “any quantity is dangerous” scare stories during the coming decade.

Significant restrictions on smoking only became possible once smokers formed a relatively small minority of adults, possibly below 25%. But the figure for the proportion of people who drink alcohol will need to be carefully watched, as once it falls below 50% it changes the political climate and potentially opens the door for much stricter policies. So there are no grounds for complacency – what largely failed to happen in the 2010s may very well become reality in the 2020s.

Wednesday 1 January 2020

Pub pet peeves

The fallow period between Christmas and New Year inevitably gives rise to various diversions, one of which is the making of lists. One of these that cropped up on Twitter this week was listing five things that annoyed you beyond all reason. I couldn’t avoid the temptation to answer specifically for pubs, and indeed eventually stretched it to fifteen.

These were a couple of other good ones: But, of course, not wanting to be entirely negative, I have in the past come up with a list of ten things I’d like to see in a good pub. Pub cat and Bass of course feature.