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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

July 26, 2011



The pub on the Left. Part two: Beyond the undeserving poor

As I said in the first part of this two-part post, there is a difference between a state negotiating a course between the needs of industry and the anxieties provoked by disorderly masses, and those who can consider more freely the politics of drinking. Not that it’s easy for anyone to to shake off the orthodoxies generated by the governing dialectic.

I was stimulated to say something about this by an interesting post written by a socialist acquaintance, Shona McCulloch, that later appeared in the Morning Star.

In it, her personal decision to stop drinking* is illuminated by a reading of Robert Tressell’s great socialist novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

McCulloch has some good insights, especially around the matter of the loss of public spaces to meet in that means, more often than not, you finish up down the pub.

This is fine by me, of course, and I believe pubs are getting better all the time at being places for everyone and not just boozing blokes, but I take the point that we need more choice.

Tressell demands more critical attention, however. The chapters of Ragged Trousered Philanthropists set in the pub make fascinating reading, but should be put in context. It was written around the time when organised temperance in the UK was building towards its zenith, expressed in the 1908 Licensing Bill. Eventually defeated, this legislation would have closed a third of pubs and nationalised the rest.

Brought by a Liberal Party worried that the working classes were doing too much drinking and not enough working, the Bill was supported not only by temperance campaigners but by the mainstream of a labour movement still with one foot in methodist teetotalism.

The argument from most of the left, echoed by Tressell and, more circumspectly, by McCulloch, was that workers should be bettering themselves and struggling for socialism rather than frittering their lives away in the pub. Instead of putting their wages across the bar they should be spending it on books.

There was another position on the left, though, argued by the likes of Ernest Belfort Bax and Harry Quelch, both members of the marginalised Social Democratic Federation.

The SDF was an elitist organisation that had some funny ideas, but these two put their fingers on the moralism that underlies an apparently political critique of drinking. The idea that, as Quelch puts it, “the poor are poor through their own fault, and that the remedy for poverty is to forcibly cure the poor of their vices, or remove the opportunity for gratifying them”.

And now, exactly 100 years after Tressell’s death, we are still being assailed by spectres of an undeserving drunken poor.

“It would be nice to think that come the revolution there will be dialogue and debate about the wider role that alcohol and intoxication plays in our society and how we can address it in a manner which liberates us all,” concludes McCulloch.

I don’t see why we shouldn’t start that debate now, actually. We might even suggest some practical measures  that push forward into a new dimension the evolution of the pub as a safe drinking environment and genuinely public social space that makes everyone welcome.

*You’ll be relieved to hear she’s drinking again – though hopefully no more than three pints of fruit beer per session.

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