Last orders for the British boozer

Going to a pub was a way for young people, pints in hand, to learn to behave like adults. No more.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

The editors of the Good Pub Guide 2014 forecast that between 2,500 and 4,000 old-fashioned pubs in the UK will be forced to shut in the near future. Controversially, they also claim that it is ‘high time they closed their doors’ to make way for more energetic and dynamic new licensees, such as gastro pubs.

Maybe the editors at the Good Pub Guide have come to this conclusion after a lengthy liquid lunch? Maybe they see anti-pub chain JD Wetherspoon as the energetic and dynamic replacement for dilapidated Dog and Duck-style locals in provincial towns. Much of the available evidence, however, suggests an alarming haemorrhaging rather than a sparkling re-invention of pubs. And if pubs are really becoming a more attractive place to be, how come fewer and fewer young people now drink in them?

If we examine statistics published by the brewery industry, in 2002 there were approximately 60,000 pubs open across the UK. Ten years later, the number had dropped to about 50,000. For all the handwringing over ‘boozy Britain’ and the rather unworldly jitters about ‘binge drinking’ (that is, having four pints in one evening), booze consumption in pubs has also declined. In fact, just about the only thing that has increased pub-wise is tax on alcohol. For example, from 2000 to 2008, the duty on a bottle of wine rose by 15 per cent; from 2008, after Labour chancellor of the exchequer Alastair Darling introduced the ‘alcohol duty escalator’, the duty on a bottle of wine increased by 46 per cent, with similar rises for beer and spirits, too. Add to that the restrictions placed on smokers, forced to step outside to enjoy a cigarette, and it’s little wonder that many people are opting for the cheaper option of supermarket booze and a night in.

Many mainstream commentators have expressed concern about the pub’s steady demise. They rightly point out how pubs have played an important part in local communities, particularly for elderly and retired citizens, acting as places where adults can talk and socialise like adults. George Orwell’s 1946 article, ‘The Moon Under Water’, is often cited as a perfect evocation of what a classic British pub should look and feel like, to be contrasted with the new breed of anti-pubs characteristic of our brave new Wetherspoon’s world. ‘Pubs have always been meeting places and to take them away is like ripping the heart out of a community’, said John Bell of, of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), when examining the rate of pub closures in the North. ‘People have less money to spend on things like a pint, but there are other things like the cost of beer duty, the smoking ban and the fact that a lot of pubs used to be based in the heart of industrial areas that aren’t there anymore. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.’

Chris Hackley, a marketing professor at the University of London, argues that the brewery industry itself must take some of the blame. ‘In the 1980s there was a big shift on the part of breweries, from pubs to off-licence sales’, he says. ‘Whereas alcohol sales had a special place in the pub, we saw a shift to its normalisation through supermarkets. The obsession with youth marketing, such as with alcopops, has had a bit of an infantilising effect on young people’s relationship with alcohol. The pub as a rite-of-passage into drinking alcohol had effectively gone.’ Hackley has raised an important and often overlooked point here: that young people are not being socialised into how to handle alcohol in a public environment. ‘Drinking in pubs is an informal level of controlled alcohol consumption’, says Hackley. ‘Young people would learn the rituals of drinking, such as patiently waiting to be served, and thus learn to become an adult.’

Unfortunately, such observations are rare when examining the traditional role of pubs and why their decline is having a damaging impact on young people. There has always been a panic regarding youthful booziness, especially in recent years. The tabloids’ favourite binge drinker, Laura Hall, was often held up as an example as to why there should be greater restrictions on alcohol in British society. But as a BBC3 documentary on her in 2011 revealed, it is the way young people consume alcohol that is the problem. In recent years, young people are more likely to consume alcohol in parks, or at each other’s homes, rather than in pubs. This effectively means they are cut off from interacting with older adults and becoming socialised into the civilised norms of public drinking.

As a consequence, immature behaviour is more likely to be amplified among teens than tempered by the presence of older people. It also means that the let-it-all-hang-out, therapeutic norms that young people have been schooled in are less likely to be challenged, as they would be in a more public environment. Far more worrying is that, cut adrift from older members of the same community, young people are less likely to develop ties to the areas they live in. In the wake of the 2011 riots, there was the familiar call for more ‘youth centres’ for young people to go to. A far better alternative would be to encourage young people to drink alcohol in pubs, a state of affairs that is unlikely to develop when beer tax has made a pint so unaffordable in recent years.

The knock-on effect can be seen in recent figures, which show that alcohol consumption among the young has actually declined. Despite lurid depictions of young women incapacitated on pavements with their knickers on display, young people are drinking less and less alcohol.

Official research has shown that over the past decade, alcohol and drugs consumption among the young is declining. There is also an increasing stigma attached to drinking and smoking by young people. Government health officials like to congratulate themselves on the apparent ‘effectiveness’ of scary health campaigns against booze and fags. But young people have rarely ever listened to ‘what’s good for them’, so there must be other factors as to why youngsters are boozing less. It’s rarely acknowledged, but many young people have always found socialising a rather daunting prospect, especially in the ‘nowhere to hide’ environs of a pub. As we have all experienced, you stand or fall on the quality of your conversation, your level of wit and knowledge when putting the world to rights. As young people have been socialised away from traditional adult norms, such as independence, self-reliance and emotional maturity, is it any wonder that a last bastion of old-fashioned adulthood, the local pub, should be seen as an alien place to be? It often seems that official policy on public drinking has enabled adolescents to avoid those awkward first steps of drinking and chatting in pubs.

Of course, pubs and public drinking still exist, and twentysomethings will make it through a pub door at some point, especially as part of an after-work jaunt. But increasingly this will be a minority pursuit of professionals keen on dining out in a smokefree zone. Historically, pubs appealed to mainly working people as a cheap way to relax, socialise and get steadily inebriated with other like-minded adults. They were also an important, informal way through which young people were socialised into the wider adult community. When the cultural script implies that young people need to be protected from traditional adult norms, it is little wonder that, for many, the pub is surplus to requirements.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics/sociology teacher in London. He will be speaking at the session Last Orders: calling time on the pub at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival at the Barbican, London, on Saturday 20 October.

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Topics Politics