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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
May 05, 2010



Nationalise pubs? Well, why not

Pubs are higher on the election debate agenda than I can ever remember them being before. All three major parties have pledged to ‘save the pub’, two parties have come out with separate pub manifestos. As the election neared the Labour government even thought it would be a good idea to create the first minister for pubs.

The cynic might dismiss this as pre-election flimflam, meant to impress voters that politicians really do care about what ordinary people care about. The pub is a safe, sexy topic. Everyone loves pubs, even if they don’t use them, so politicians must love pubs too. Even if they haven’t the faintest clue about how the industry works.

There’s one candidate in this election, though, who has put forward a more radical proposal for pubs.

John Metcalfe is standing in Carlisle for the Trades Union & Socialist Coalition and he wants to nationalise pubs. Some of them anyway.

Metcalfe sees himself in a great local tradition – the Carlisle Experiment. During the First World War Carlisle’s pubs and breweries were brought under state control. Initially this was to stop munitions workers ‘binge-drinking’ as today’s jargon might have it. But the scheme brought many positives and inspired the ‘improved pubs’ movement that followed. In fact, the experiment was so successful – and profitable - that the last of these pub wasn’t de-nationalised until the early 1970s.

Very much in the spirit of the Carlisle Experiment Metcalfe’s manifesto pledges “to celebrate the city’s ‘State Control Scheme’… to build a city-run pub/microbrewery … to create a working pub/learning facility with community use space”.

“Basically, we're calling for the building or renovation of a state managed pub and microbrewery owned by the city, run by the city, and used not just for drinking and eating but for education purposes,” Metcalfe explains. “It’s a fairly basic principle, but given Carlisle's heritage, it’s something that’s been overlooked for too long.”

He also wants to take over closed-down ‘Harry Redferns’ - pubs designed the eponymous architect who devised a number of interesting new model pubs for the Carlisle scheme.

Okay, so Metcalfe’s not likely to get elected but at least he’s raised a solution to the pub industry’s current crisis that’s seldom heard and that, to my mind, is worth taking seriously.

Local pubs are always said to belong to their public, so it may not be such a large imaginative leap to envisage them coming under public ownership. They need not, indeed shouldn’t, be run under tight control from above. The best pub managers have the freedom to make operational decisions and to impose their personality on the business.

The idea is growing on me.

Meanwhile, make use of your five seconds every five years of democracy by voting on Thursday. Main party manifestos as they impact on pubs are here.

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