Since then, it has enjoyed great success as an organisation, reaching a record membership figure of over 190,000 before the Covid crisis deprived it of the opportunity of recruiting at beer festivals. It was described in the late 1970s as “the most successful consumer organisation in Europe”. However, if you look at the wider picture, during CAMRA’s lifetime both the share of real ale in the overall British beer market, and its absolute sales, have shown a dramatic decline, as has the number of pubs in the country. Obviously those trends are due to wider factors largely outside its control or influence, but at least on those terms its record cannot be judged as a successful one.
At the outset, CAMRA’s mission was very clear, and could be expressed as “to encourage pubs to sell beers in established British styles (overwhelmingly Mild and Bitter) in cask-conditioned rather than pressurised (keg, tank or top-pressure) form.” Yes, it was accompanied by assorted baggage in people’s minds about defending tradition and standing up to corporate power, which gave it an appeal across the political spectrum, but it was pretty unequivocal.
However, over the ensuring fifty years there has been a steady accretion of other objectives which have served to blur the organisations’s original single-minded purpose.
These include, amongst others:
- Encourage pubs and bars to stock real ale
- Promote traditional British beer styles
- Encourage new breweries and innovative beer styles
- Support the appreciation and preservation of traditional pubs
- Lobby for the pub trade in general
- Stand up for the wider interests of drinkers
- Challenge the corporate power of breweries, pubcos and supermarkets
- Organise beer festivals and social events
- Offer a discount scheme for pubs and beer festivals
- Doing all the above for cider and perry as well as beer
A few years ago, CAMRA underwent a “Revitalisation” process which was supposed to make it more fit for the 21st century and free it from the narrow-minded dogmatism that had often characterised it in the past. However, it’s hard to see what difference it has actually made, and in some ways it seems to have only served to extend that dogmatism into new areas. Does anyone outside CAMRA actually care less whether keykeg beers are “keg-conditioned” or not? And CAMRA’s stance as a generalised campaigning organisation representing all beer drinkers, pubs and brewers is undermined if it refuses to give house room to the beers that most people drink.
Many members still remain blind to the existential threat to all that they hold dear posed by the public health lobby, and much prefer to direct their ire at evil pubcos and supermarkets. It is a massive pivot from assuming your main enemy is business to realising it is government, and one many have no intention of making. Indeed, while it may claim to be promoting something that is “fun”, CAMRA members often taken a very puritanical view towards anything outside their narrow definition. They are often very much anti-smoking, anti-“junk food”, anti-popular culture and anti-gambling, and signally fail to join up the dots. As I quoted in this blogpost,
... if you do a sociological analysis on the IanB Scale, a scale of Puritanism which I invented several seconds ago, CAMRA are a heavily puritan social formation. Puritans come in a number of guises, and can, on the surface seem to be promoting something notionally libertine, such as imbibing an intoxicant. Nudists are another example of a puritan formation that you have to look more closely at to see it. Try bumming a fag in a nudist camp and see the reaction you get.Back in 2005, before the days of blogs, I wrote an assessment of CAMRA’s achievements to date.
In conclusion, if we take the view that CAMRA has not managed to curb the power of the major breweries, increase the amount of real ale sold in Britain, or stem the tide of pub closures, then it must be judged a failure. Many of the campaigns it has mounted on wider issues have been damp squibs, or have spectacularly backfired. But, to my mind, its lasting achievement has been to greatly raise the profile of beer in the UK, and to encourage the creation a network of producers, outlets and consumers where beer is appreciated in a way that was scarcely imaginable in 1971. Real ale undeniably has to an extent become a niche product, but it occupies a large and thriving niche. And it is the positive promotion of real ale – in all its forms – and the establishments that sell it, that should form the core of its activities in the future. If that means CAMRA drawing in its horns a little, then that would be no bad thing.And perhaps that message of sticking to the knitting is one it would do well to heed today.