How public houses enforce public order

No music; no rowdiness; no getting pissed in front of the kids... Britain's Wetherspoon chain of pubs is going even further than the government in policing our behaviour.

When George Orwell described his ideal pub – the Moon Under Water – in the Evening Standard in 1946, he railed against ‘the puritanical nonsense of excluding children’, arguing they should be able ‘to fetch drinks for their parents’ (1). Just over 60 years later, the pub chain that his romantic vision inspired – JD Wetherspoon – operates a policy of not allowing adults accompanied by children more than two alcoholic drinks. But that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the company’s efforts to regulate how - and how much - we drink.

From the point of view of drinkers, one fact about Wetherspoon pubs stands out: they are cheap. A pint here is usually 10-20 per cent cheaper than average. Wetherspoon also provides food at very competitive prices - even if it is just plonked on a plate and microwaved by kitchen staff who are not exactly Cordon Bleu chefs.

But such value for money comes with strings attached. Wetherspoon has only allowed children into their pubs in the past five years and it appears they are welcome only if their parents can put up with being treated like infants. Earlier this month, a Wetherspoon manager in Merseyside told a customer, Stephen Gandy, that two drinks was the limit prescribed for parents by - wait for it - ‘child cruelty legislation’ (2). Mr Gandy must have been surprised to find his landlord replaced by a law lord. A subsequent press release by JD Wetherspoon has confirmed its policy:

  • ‘Adults that are accompanied with children wishing to purchase an alcoholic drink should purchase a meal;
  • Once the meal has been finished and tables cleared it is our recommendation that only one more alcoholic drink should be purchased for each adult.’ (3)

Wetherspoon’s spokesman Eddie Gershorn said: ‘We don’t have a moral stance on kids being in pubs, we just don’t want them hanging around to the point where they get bored and annoy our other customers.’ (4) No moral stance? What is ‘should’ if not a moral injunction?

Wetherspoon has long taken the lead in laying down the law on how we should enjoy ourselves – only responsibly, mind – in pubs. No-smoking areas were pioneered in 1992 and the chain went completely smoke-free one year ahead of the ban on smoking in public places in England, which came into force on 1 July 2007. The company promotes healthy meals, pushing fruit and banning additives on its menu. Dogs are not allowed, and the company has considered warnings against swearing (5). The music is never too loud (if on at all) and the chain is an enthusiastic backer of responsible drinking: the Wetherspoon website says it is ‘keen to work with the authorities on the introduction of further sensible measures in this area’ (6). In a Wetherspoon’s pub, you always feel barely tolerated by condescending managers. The atmosphere screams ‘if you can only afford our sensibly priced food and drink and will put up with the company of our lonely, whispering patrons, then we have the right to decide what’s best for you’.

Orwell, despite welcoming children with open arms into his dream pub, embraced the same patrician, even Blairite, disdain for that certain bad element that just can’t behave in public: ‘In the Moon Under Water, it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano, and even on Christmas Eve and such occasions, the singing that happens is of a decorous kind.’ It was never full of ‘drunks and rowdies’ and the middle-aged barmaids called you ‘dear’, never ‘ducky’. ‘Pubs where the barmaid calls you “ducky” always have a disagreeable raffish atmosphere’, he wrote.

Wetherspoon’s policy must be, albeit quiet and decorous, music to the ears of a government that is champing at the bit to introduce restrictions on ‘binge drinking’ and other irresponsible enjoyments. As the UK prime minister and patrician-in-chief, Gordon Brown, gears up to help sustain our normal New Year resolutions to give up the booze, drinking is blamed for everything from teenage pregnancy to the state of the economy. In fact, the government has given the puritanical green light to any moralist who wants to tell us how to live. Who needs the government to enforce responsible drinking when my local won’t let me get drunk anyway? Who needs a democratically elected government to legislate on conditions for hens if the supermarkets will only sell me free-range eggs, with a helpful nudge from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver? The phrase ‘We only sell…’ is becoming the motto of every retailer on a range of lifestyle and ‘ethical’ matters.

What the Wetherspoon limits on drinks points up is that there is increasing public acceptance – tacit or otherwise – of restrictions on how we should act. These restrictions, whether imposed by the government or the private sector, are most effective when presented in the language of protecting the vulnerable. For example, it can seem commonsensical to accept that parents should not get drunk in front of their children. Stephen Gandy’s only real complaint after being denied a third drink was that the policy was not clearly signed. ‘There should be a note on the children’s menu informing adults about the policy’, he said, ‘and a customer services telephone number’ (7). He should have told the sneering loon of a manager where to put his in loco parentis.

What often gets overlooked is that we know our own limits better than anyone else. Orwell at least knew the Moon Under Water was a mirage, a shimmering reflection of the unreachable in an oasis. He did not demand that his idea of heaven be enforced on us sinners with admonitory signage and invasive legislation. Even his darkest totalitarian fears never stretched to publicans laying down the law. It is well past time that we start challenging the ideas that brand us as irresponsible feckless drunks, so ignorant of our actions that we need to be restrained before we hurt someone. Treating adults like children? Puritanical nonsense.

Angus Kennedy is a freelance writer living in London.

Previously on spiked

Anna Travis thought Xmas boozing was becoming a rather flat affair. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Bruno Waterfield looked at how the success of the smoking ban had encouraged health officials to discuss the idea of ‘passive drinking’. Brendan O’Neill thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) The Moon Under Water, George Orwell, Evening Standard, 9 February 1946

(2) Pub chain limits parents’ drinks, BBC News, 4 January 2008

(3) Families in JD Wetherspoon Pubs, wetherspoon news, 4 January 2008

(4) A pint-sized problem, Scotsman, 6 January 2008

(5) Pub chain wants to call time on bad language, Daily Telegraph, 2 June 2003

(6) Responsible drinks retailing, JD Wetherspoon website, 8 January 2008

(7) Pub chain limits parents’ drinks, BBC News, 4 January 2008

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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