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In praise of the pub

Long-read

In praise of the pub

The great British boozer is at the beating heart of our politics and culture.

Neil Davenport

Topics Long-reads Politics UK

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Since the late 2000s, a regular pulse check on pub closures has made for grim reading. Over the past decade, 7,000 pubs have closed. Today, there are fewer than 40,000 left in England and Wales.

If it wasn’t for pub-chain Wetherspoons, which has done an impressive job of converting old buildings into elegant drinking dens serving very affordable booze, the pub landscape would be almost barren. New microbreweries and pop-up bars have emerged to cater for a young and not-so-young crowd, but these tend to have a very short shelf-life compared with the established pubs and venues of old.

The explanations for pub closures are familiar: the steady, above-inflation price rises of beer over the past few decades, annual rises in alcohol duty and the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces and workplaces in 2007. As a result, people now increasingly prefer to buy their booze at a considerable discount from the supermarket and drink at home.

These largely economic trends have undoubtedly played a role in the decline of the pub. But they fail to explain why the enthusiasm for drinking in pubs was beginning to decline well before the price rises and VAT hikes. In fact, pubs have been in decline since the late 1970s, when alcohol consumption in the UK reached its peak.

As sociologists Peter Willmott and Michael Young argued in their ground-breaking 1957 study, Family and Kinship in East London, the pub started to slowly enter its decline as early as the 1950s. Looking at patterns of working-class life in Bethnal Green, Willmott and Young observed that people were moving away from the traditional masculine domain of the pub to that of the home and hearth. Other studies at the time noted similar trends (1).

By the close of the 20th century, it was clear it wasn’t just the pub in decline. People were also withdrawing from public life as a whole. Trade-union and political-party membership fell markedly during the late 1980s and 1990s, and Christian church congregations continued to shrink. Increasingly excluded from public, political life, people were more and more tending to stay at home.

The decline of the pub should be seen as a product of the broader, creeping privatisation of British society. As people have become more secluded and isolated, they have also become more fearful and suspicious of others. They have become more risk-averse and concerned about the potential threat posed by ‘strangers’.

A barman adjusts a sign in the window of the Saracens Head public house on 30 June 2007 in Bath, England in preparation for the smoking ban.
A barman adjusts a sign in the window of the Saracens Head public house on 30 June 2007 in Bath, England in preparation for the smoking ban.

The pub could hardly fail to have been affected by this change. Once it was regarded as a space for adults to drink, mix and express themselves freely. Now it’s increasingly seen as a dangerous place, posing a threat to health and personal safety. Successive governments’ regulation of the pub, taxing booze, prohibiting smoking and demanding increased safety measures, are not responses to an actual epidemic of hard drinking and pub violence. They’re a response to demands for safety and security. The struggles of the great British boozer are entwined with the widening fear of freedom.

The growth of the free house

The origins of the public house can be traced back to the taverns of Roman Britain and the alehouses of the Anglo-Saxon era. But it was not until the late 18th and early 19th century that pubs as we know them today first appeared – indeed, it was at this point that the term ‘public house’ started to replace ‘alehouse’.

Pubs developed in the context of Britain’s rapid industrialisation, urban expansion and, above all, the growth of its working class. The rise of the pub during the 19th and 20th centuries, as the public setting for working-class social life, mirrored the rise of the masses into public life more broadly.

Pubs existed outside the direct discipline of the workplace. They still had to adhere to certain rules and ‘permissions’, especially after the tightening of licensing laws during the 19th century. But they were principally spaces of freedom – of speech and association. Indeed, for centuries, pub rooms have provided the arenas for lively debate and discussion. It is doubtful whether countless working-class organisations and pressure groups could have developed without pubs as a meeting and debating place. Even today, politicians still admit that the pubs near the Palace of Westminster are where the real business of discussing politics happens. They have always been havens of conversation, discussion and arguments, fuelled by ale and lager.

Pubs have allowed creative freedom to flourish, too. From the 19th century onwards, many have hosted live music, cabaret and comedy. The so-called pub circuit helped furnish Britain with some of its greatest comedians and musicians – or, in the case of Billy Connolly, a combination of both. You weren’t viewed as a proper, hardened performer if you hadn’t cut it in pubs up and down the length and breadth of the UK.

‘Pub rock’ may have become a pejorative after the scorched-earth approach of punk. But neither punk nor what came after could have existed without the then thriving network of pub venues. In London alone, the Hope and Anchor in Islington, the Nashville Room in Kensington and the Dingwalls in Camden provided the launch pads for some of the greatest acts of the past 50 years. The same is true of countless pub venues across the UK.

The rough-and-tumble freedom of the public house could make them daunting places. Your bar-stool status could depend on your ability to verbally hold your own. Performers’ reputations could be made or broken by a pub crowd. This was a space in which you required a thick skin, sometimes quite literally in certain pubs known for their violence and hostility. These were places in which hard-man reputations were won and lost.

For generations of young Brits, going to the pub was a vital rite of passage. It helped to cultivate a degree of confidence, maturity and wherewithal. You had to adjust to adults’ informally established, unspoken codes of behaviour. These were spaces in which you had to take responsibility for your own adult freedoms. This is why illicit underage drinking in pubs often did more good than harm – teenagers learnt how to behave like adults among adults, rather than drink themselves to oblivion.

The taming of the pub

At the start of the 19th century, pubs were completely unregulated. That changed slightly with the Alehouses Act of 1828 and the Beerhouse Act of 1830, which insisted that the landlord did not maintain a ‘disorderly’ house. Nevertheless, landlords retained a large degree of autonomy over their premises. This is why it is their name above the door. It marks out the space where they have jurisdiction. Within the wider boundaries of the licensing laws, the landlord could set his or her own rules. The landlord could decide opening and closing times, what services were on offer and who could and couldn’t enter. Customers could be excluded (or ‘barred’) and, crucially, the police could only access a pub if asked to by the landlord or their representative.

That is why the 2007 smoking ban was so significant. It stripped the landlord of a part of his or her autonomy. The state, hitherto kept outside the pub doors, could now barge its way in. But the ban didn’t come out of the blue. It was part of the then New Labour government’s attempt to regulate the lifestyles of vast swathes of the population, especially the working class. A significant part of this effort involved demonising drinking and emboldening a narrative of pubs as dangerous places for young people – especially young women.

So successful was this narrative that, in 2006, several police forces used it as a pretext to introduce finger-print scanning in pubs. Drinkers entering a town’s main drinking joints were expected to register their personal details and submit to a biometric finger scan. As a police spokesperson put it at the time, the measures were designed to weed out underage drinkers and identify anyone who has ‘previously been intent on causing trouble’. Since then, these measures have been introduced in many more pubs across the UK. There are now plans for the authorities to introduce facial-recognition technology alongside the finger scanning. It seems punters may soon have to navigate airport levels of security just to go for a quiet pint.

This culture of unfreedom, in part a response to the rising demand across society to be protected from risk, reached an illiberal crescendo during the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 to 2021. Basic everyday freedoms were thrown out of the window, and even ostensibly radical left-wingers welcomed living in a ‘police state’.

It was telling that the authorities seemed particularly focussed on shutting down and regulating pubs during the pandemic. It showed how keen they were to exert control over public freedoms. At one point, during a relaxation of Covid rules, the government insisted that people could only drink in pubs if their pints and bottles were served with a meal. It was heartening to see landlords, their sense of public freedom undimmed, devise ways around the ludicrous lockdown measures, such as giving out cheese sandwiches on the door.

A staff member at a BrewDog pub holds up a pint as they prepare to reopen with social-distancing measures in place on 3 July 2020 in London, England.
A staff member at a BrewDog pub holds up a pint as they prepare to reopen with social-distancing measures in place on 3 July 2020 in London, England.

The lockdowns certainly reminded most of us, and even some politicians, just how important pubs remain as places of social and public freedom. It was notable that pubs were one of the first areas of social life to be allowed to re-open during the relaxation of lockdown measures in May 2021. It signalled perhaps that even officialdom sometimes recognises how vital pubs are to our national way of life.

The age of the teen puritan

The authorities might sometimes recognise the value of the public house. But it seems the nation’s young people are rather less enamoured with it. ‘Is this the age of the young puritan?’, asked the Observer in 2014. All the evidence suggests it is. Over the past two decades, the percentage of teens who drink booze has declined markedly. A 2018 study showed that the number of teenagers who drink regularly had fallen from 50 per cent in 2002 to just 10 per cent by 2014.

For health zealots, this is news to crack open the carrot juice to. But the discussion around young people and pubs reveals everything that is wrong about the way booze is discussed. Reducing alcohol consumption to a mere health issue ignores the role drink has played in human culture throughout the ages. It ignores alcohol’s part in great conversations, nights out with friends and even romance. Booze lowers inhibitions – it helps us get closer.

The problem of course is that our risk-averse society tends to view people getting close to one another as a source of multiple harms. Younger people’s abstention from pubs and boozing goes hand-in-hand with a fear of getting up close and personal. They seem to have internalised this risk-averse, safety-first outlook. A 2014 study from the University of Plymouth showed that many young people feel scared and unsafe in pubs and clubs.

This alarming trend, which has only deepened over the past decade, is detrimental to young people’s development as socially confident and independent adults. From holding your own in a conversation to being in a room populated with strangers, pubs are essential for socialisation. They instil expectations of adult norms in young punters. They also immerse young people in intergenerational social life. The demise of the teen pubgoer and the emergence of ‘generation stay-at-home’ is damaging young people’s social development. Young people seem more interested in watching footage of nightlife via YouTube and TikTok, rather than actually venturing out themselves.

The effects are becoming all too apparent. According to Age of Alienation, a 2021 report produced by think-tank Onward, young people aged between 18 and 34 are enduring an ‘epidemic of loneliness’. After ‘15 months of rolling lockdowns, young people have fewer friends, trust people less and are more alienated from their communities than ever before’, said Onward director Will Tanner at the time.

But lockdowns didn’t cause young people’s withdrawal from the social life offered by pubs and clubs. Young people were already fearful of the pub and public life more generally long before Covid struck. Lockdown merely provided additional security from having to deal with others. It intensified young people’s stay-at-home tendencies.

Another round?

When the masses burst into public life during the 19th century, they created a robust and fearless public square in Britain. As we’ve seen, the public house was often at its centre, playing an essential role in the life and leisure of vast swathes of Britain. It has long since become a cultural totem, an institution indissociable from our national identity. No one does a boozer quite like the British.

The public house is clearly under threat – the pub-closure stats speak for themselves. But this venerable institution is far from dead yet. The pub remains the go-to destination for most of us. It’s where we celebrate our birthdays, watch football matches and chat with friends and lovers.

Wetherspoons, in particular, has done a lot to sustain pub culture. Its venues even adhere to George Orwell’s ideal of the pub – outlined in his 1946 essay, ‘The Moon Under Water’ – that it should be above all a place for free conversation among patrons. That means no loud music to distract from the key focus of conversation. In many towns, the local Spoons has become the last bastion of working-class pub culture. Perhaps that’s why this particular chain is so despised by middle-class snobs – that and the fact that Wetherspoons owner Tim Martin has been a vocal supporter of Brexit.

There is still hope for the pub. The populist mood of the past few years, as more and more people turn against an out-of-touch political class, could fuel a revival of the pub as a haven for good time. For letting go and defying the nanny staters’ prohibitions. Furthermore, there has been a mini-boom of new live venues over the past couple of years in cities across the UK. It seems that Netflix can’t entirely replace the thrill of live music and a few beers.

The government could help by reducing the tax burden on pubs. Local councils could also help, by cutting a lot of the red tape. But the future of rowdy locals relies above all on us, the punters. We need to rediscover and reshape the public square as a place of freedom.

Last orders are a long way off just yet.

Neil Davenport is a writer based in London.

This is an edited essay version of a Letters on Liberty pamphlet, Pubs: Defending the Free House, which can be purchased in full here. Subscribe to the Academy of Ideas Substack for this and more.

(1) See The Affluent Worker: Industrial Attitudes and Behaviour, by JH Goldthorpe, D Lockwood, F Bechhofer and J Platt, Cambridge University Press, 1969

Pictures by: Getty.

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Topics Long-reads Politics UK

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