How killjoys colonised Britain’s public houses

The smoking ban, on top of strict licensing laws and CCTV, has turned pubs from places of choice and tolerance into outlets for official meddling.

Two years into the English smoking ban, pubs are closing at a rate of 40 a week. The New Labour government and much of the media still claim to see no connection between the two, instead blaming economics and competition from supermarkets. But pubs have thrived in previous recessions, and supermarkets have always sold cheaper booze. People used to go to pubs for the social atmosphere. Some of us still would, if that atmosphere wasn’t fast disappearing.

Though I’m personally infuriated by the ban – which forbids smoking in enclosed public spaces and enclosed workplaces – and don’t believe that it’s doing anything for anyone’s health, I don’t claim that it’s the only factor in the decline of a once-great British institution. But I do believe it has had an insidious effect, which needs to be more widely recognised. Traditionally, a pub is supposed to offer hospitality, tolerance, free choice, and a place to relax away from official interference. The ban goes against all of this. It also sets a terrible precedent by overruling the property rights of publicans, and prohibiting adult citizens from negotiating their own arrangements – in this case, with regard to a perfectly legal habit.

For many pubs, already burdened by high costs, the need for special permits for just about every activity, and onerous health and safety regulations, the ban is the last straw. It is also the last straw for many pubgoers. The oppressive licensing laws (which in most cases haven’t changed that much), the small measures and high prices, and the CCTV cameras were bad enough; now, with the smoking ban, it’s as though we have to do our best to relax with not only Nanny looking over our shoulders, but Matron too.

I’ve always loved English pubs, but just how awful they are becoming wasn’t completely clear to me until I relocated a couple of years ago to Berlin. While too many pubs these days are soulless, generic commercial enterprises, staffed by people who clearly don’t give a damn, Berlin bars are often wonderfully idiosyncratic, and operated and patronised by people who clearly love them.

In my neighbourhood I’ve discovered, to select just a few, a bar run by a Frank Zappa lookalike who brews his own beer, a surreal dive run by an Albanian refugee who has Gypsy musicians playing on the street outside, a bar where patrons sit outside in an ex-Soviet Army jeep, and the world’s campest gay bar, whose walls and ceiling are lined with pink fur.

Many bars are just holes in the wall, furnished with flea-market junk, but made welcoming with a few candles, a few flowers, some local artwork, good music or good beer. Most allow smoking, though some don’t and others have separate rooms. They also keep their prices reasonable, keep their vodka in the freezer, serve mojitos in the summer and hot chocolate laced with rum in the winter, and open and close whenever they like. Some of the more traditional ‘Kneipen’ (corner pubs) close as early as 9pm – just when the more bohemian places are opening. Some stay open 24 hours; others, just until the last customer leaves. And why not? We’re all over 18, aren’t we?

Meanwhile, back in England, I’ve been in pubs where at the stroke of 11, staff start mopping the floor around my feet with vile-smelling disinfectant. I’ve been in pubs where miserable staff start cheering when the boss decides to close at 10.15 because they’re ‘not busy enough’. The convivial landlords and cheery barmaids of old seem to be disappearing, too, replaced by scowling franchise-managers and Polish immigrants like the one who, the last time I asked for a single malt Scotch in a London pub, droned, ‘Errr, I think we haff Jack Daniels’.

Just as sad is to see what some pubs do to themselves out of sheer desperation: turning, for instance, into mediocre ‘family’ eateries. Being neither good pubs nor good restaurants, they’re usually doomed. Saddest of all is to see irreplaceable historic pubs wrecked to make way for tacky ‘theme bars’ – and bulldozed a year later.

Why should German, and especially Berlin, pubs be so much more relaxed and more fun? I’m convinced that it has something to do with freedom, and the idea of ‘us and them’. Clichés about the Germans notwithstanding, the English seem to me much more deferential to authority, and when you go into an English pub you feel, more and more, that you’re entering ‘their’ territory; an ‘official’ place, where strict rules apply, and you’d better behave and be grateful they let you in at all.

In Berlin, though, the owners and customers all seem to be ‘us’, which explains why interference from ‘them’ (smoking bans, for instance) is so strongly resisted. And the lack of regulation makes for not only a better atmosphere but, interestingly, much less ‘trouble’. I’ve yet to see a German pub with a bouncer on the door.

When I last lived in London, my local pub was refused permission to stay open past 11pm ‘in case’ of noise – even though they hadn’t had a noise complaint in 15 years. They were then denied permission to put two tables outside in the summer, even though they’d already been doing so with no problems for a year. Why is it so unthinkable to just leave people alone, to sort things out among ourselves, and send in the cops only if or when something goes badly wrong?

But British authorities, it seems to me, have always mistrusted their own citizens to the point of contempt. Our pubs could be saved by a general ‘loosening up’, so let’s give our publicans a break. Let people run the kind of places they want, in their own way, for the kind of customers they want. Or are ‘they’ afraid we’d start having too much fun?

Joe Jackson is a musician and writer. He is a supporter of Save Our Pubs & Clubs: AmendTheSmokingBan.com, a cross-party campaign that wants amendments to the current smoking ban in Britain.

Previously on spiked

Anna Travis took a look round ban-happy Brighton. Josie Appleton showed how drinking control laws allow the police to behave like gangsters. Rob Lyons looked into the crazy world of England’s smoking ban. Brendan O’Neill thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Tim Black argued that Scottish plans to tax drinkers amounted to a sin tax. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

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

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