The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England

December 17, 2009

James Nicholls' excellent book focuses on alcohol legislation in England. This focus was chosen primarily for reasons of space, he says, but reference is also made to drinking cultures and government legislation in Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany and America - indeed, his account of the powerful Temperance movement in the US in the late 19th century and its subsequent triumph in establishing Prohibition is one of the liveliest sections of the book.

When writing about alcohol consumption in England during the late 17th century, he observes: "in the political discourse of the Restoration, drink became a symbolic marker of cultural difference in which Tories stood for claret and Whigs stood for beer". However, The Politics of Alcohol is not concerned with traditional party politics: instead, Nicholls traces the complicated, uneasy relationship that has always existed in England between government legislation on alcohol and the selling and consuming of it.

England has always seen a tension between free-trade ideologies and the need to maintain social order. Successive governments have forever found themselves excited by the immense revenue alcohol can generate for the state and, at the same time, have been aware that excessive indulgence in the substance is damaging to the individual and so, collectively, to the state.

One of the pleasures of this book is Nicholls' extensive and judicious use of epigraphs for his chapters, which strike a fine balance between the personal and the political. In the latter category, I liked David Lloyd George's "Every government that has ever touched alcohol has burnt its fingers in its lurid flames", while in the former, Samuel Johnson's shrewd observation is still relevant: "This is one of the disadvantages of wine. It makes a man mistake words for thoughts."

If, prior to reading this book, I had been asked to guess the date of the earliest English legislation governing alcohol, perhaps at some unusually cerebral pub quiz, I would have been out by several centuries. Nicholls informs us that as early as 1266, an Assize of Bread and Ale had pegged the price of one to the other. I was equally surprised to read that from 1393, alehouses had been required by law to display a stake in front of their houses, which, the author notes, eventually led to the development of the pub signboard.

It was not until 1552, however, that significant attempts to curb growing anxieties about drunkenness resulted in the first Licensing Act. The significance of this legislation was that it established the principle of licensing for the first time in England: "anyone wanting to maintain an alehouse had to obtain a licence to do so from two local Justices and had to give evidence of their good character", he writes. The central role of the state in intervening in the selling of so volatile a substance as alcohol was thus firmly established, and it has never really receded.

It would be too glib to suggest that The Politics of Alcohol is actually a history of England viewed from this specific perspective, but alcohol has always been central to the English way of life. Nicholls' book takes us through the Restoration, "Gin Lane", Georgian coffee houses, Romanticism, industrialisation and the Victorians, two World Wars, the liberalism of the 1960s, rave culture and the "Binge Britain" of the early 21st century.

As his history unfolds, Nicholls serves up all manner of interesting information. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the practice of paying working men in the pub was not abolished until 1883, and amused to read that the present Government's Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy laboured under the unfortunate acronym of AHRSE.

I was interested to learn that the first lager brewery in Britain was established in Wrexham, Wales, in 1882, and I was also interested to read that England's first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting took place in Croydon in 1952 - interested, but not surprised, because I used to live there.

The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England.

By James Nicholls. Manchester University Press. 304pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780719077050. Published 1 June 2009

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