Keith Flett writes about Dry January, and outlines the history of temperance & the left
It’s Dry January – an annual campaign that suggests people should abstain from alcohol during the month, to recover from possible festive excesses and generally to cut down on drinking. It's important to understand that what we see in 2020 around campaigns like Dry January is historically the extreme end of the anti-drink movement.
There was a division between temperance campaigners, who thought the issue (with some justification) was heavy consumption of spirits and saw beer drinking as a moderate alternative, and those who promoted total abstinence, no consumption of alcohol at all. The relationship between radical and labour movements and drink was complex from the start. Pubs were radical meeting places. One need only look at how protesters gathered at Peterloo on 16th August 1819 from all over the north-west, some stopping at alehouses on the way for refreshment (water was not generally safe to drink).
The 1830 Beer Houses Act allowed for the opening of a new layer of pubs that sold beer only (no spirits) and had a mainly working-class clientele. The Chartist Movement certainly met in pubs but also contained those who rightly regarded drunkenness as the enemy of radical organisation. The Chartists had a principle of ‘exclusive dealing’ – buying things only from those who backed the Six Points of the Charter for the vote. The August 1839 Grand National Holiday called for abstention from all excisable goods, underlining the development of a trend towards temperance.
Temperance remained an important part of working-class and labour politics in the first decades of the twentieth century. Keir Hardie was a temperance supporter from the early days of the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s. He argued ‘that a man who can take a glass or let it alone is under a moral obligation for the sake of the weaker brother who cannot do so, to let it alone.’
By 1905 a Trade Union & Labour Official Temperance Fellowship had been formed, and a majority of the Labour MPs elected in 1906 were abstainers. Philip Snowden, a leading figure in the first Labour Government in 1924 published Socialism and the Drink Question in 1908. There was a problem though. The Tories were the party associated with brewing, beer and pubs; and working mens’ and socialist clubs sold drink, not only because it was what their customers wanted but also because it provided the profit to allow them to continue.
Temperance has remained, in part, an honourable tradition rooted in dislike of giving money to (Tory) drinks manufacturers and a realisation that unsober people rarely get to change the world for the better. Jeremy Corbyn for example, is a noted non-drinker.
In October 1908 the Labour MP Victor Grayson tried to adjourn a Licensing Debate in the Commons so the question of unemployment could be considered. The next day he underlined the point: ‘there are thousands of people dying in the streets while you are trifling with this Bill’.
Many of those who survive on Universal Credit may well think Grayson had a point. Whether they like a drink or not their focus is on keeping a roof over their heads and making sure they have enough money to buy food.
Even so Dry January gets plenty of publicity and support. In 2020 it has been notable for brewers coming on board. The range of low and no alcohol beers has developed in recent times to a situation where they can be a decent alternative to beer with alcoholic content. These beers, as was traditional with temperance drinks in Victorian times, are fermented. Brewers like Big Drop are known for producing such beers. For those who are driving, unable to drink for health reasons, or simply not wanting to drink alcohol on occasion, they allow a visit to the pub and socialising without having to drink overpriced and highly sweetened soft drinks.
Craft brewer Brewdog’s decision to open an alcohol-free beer bar in Old St on the northern edge of the City of London is an interesting and welcome development. The bar is on two levels with ample, comfortable seating, working wi-fi and a relatively small-ish bar area with 16 taps of low or no alcohol beer. There are also a couple of hammocks. Take care out there.
I stopped by at 6pm one day in opening week and it was fairly busy, though not rammed. I ordered a pint of Hazy AF (0.5% £5.90). The AF may stand for alcohol free or, being Brewdog, just as likely ‘As F*ck’. I sat down to drink my alcohol-free beer and pondered soberly how to smash capitalism, as you do. The beer was not particularly hazy, coldish and carbonated and tasted ok. It tasted less great as I got down the glass and it got less cold. It was still perfectly drinkable but not something that made me think, hmm, perhaps another.
Fortunately one of the original London craft beer pubs, the Old Fountain, is immediately over the road. It was busy, as it more or less always is. I had a glass of a Burnt Mill pale that was decent. Perhaps that makes me a beer flexitarian?
The demand for low to no alcohol beer is rising and it’s not necessarily associated with temperance. Big business was not a factor in the nineteenth century abstinence market either. Yet in 2020 global brewer Heineken have had a big marketing push on their 0.0% beer in the United States. If not drinking alcohol can be seen as a rebellion, at least by some, then the Clash’s words, ‘turning rebellion into money’ still ring true as well.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.