Friday 11 September 2009

Temperance Is A Virtue

Frank Skinner, comedian, performer and a commentator on our times, has been temperance since 1986, when he realised that persistent heavy drinking was doing real damage. He has put his head above the parapet in support of the British Medical Association declaration that alcohol consumption is at levels that present serious health issues amongst increasing numbers of the population, of all ages. When I looked for a suitable image from the web it was serendipity that one showed a Band of Hope demonstration in Leek, Staffordshire, from 1907, with the Skinner name prominent above a shop.

Look closely, and you see that for a small town, it was a large demonstration. Into the early decades of the 20th Century, from small beginnings in the early 19th, the Movement had large followings across the Atlantic Isles, and complex and extensive organisation, albeit divided, too stratified, and given to spending too much time on obscure theological debates.

My personal acquaintance with Temperance organisations was a brief one. In the early 1950’s a jolly red headed girl with flashing blue eyes invited me and my friends to a social event in a local church hall. When we arrived there, we found that it was a GAY event; that is the Guild of Abstaining Youth, motto, you did not need to drink to be gay. In those days the word conveyed its original meaning in the provinces. Whilst it was for the most part an ordinary social occasion, unluckily, there was a price, an homily from a church elder on the virtues of temperance, intended to recruit us.

Even more unluckily, she chose to cite Gilbert Keith Chesterton as someone who would have done better sober. As I had read many of his works and she hadn’t, there was a debate she did not welcome. Worse still, it was apparent that before arriving we had been in the Marquis of Granby pub first a few doors away. We had been rugger training and we needed to restore our liquid balance with Shipstones Best Mild. We assumed we had lost a lot of liquid. The evening ended badly.

By this time the old Temperance Movement was in retreat for a variety of reasons, too much to go into here. One factor was that drinking was then much more under control than it had been in the past, especially in some towns where the local council, often with a strong Methodist element, limited the number of licences as much as possible. Not only were the outlets for the sale of drink reduced, with strict opening hours imposed, but the stuff itself was far from cheap. Spirits were very expensive, wines little known, and costly, as were the range of other stronger drinks. The beer was characteristically weaker, a legacy of two world wars. If your budget was limited to that, your stomach usually gave in long before the brain.

Added factors were that there was no credit of any kind, and working hours were a great deal longer. Saturday night was the only time available for many. As there was little interest in total prohibition, except for a small number of places which had exceptionally rigorous religious communities, the Movement lost impetus. Another factor was inevitably the media, films, TV and radio invariably portrayed drink as a necessary social skill, and temperance people as a miserable bunch. The distillers and brewers had quickly recognised the values of product placement.

In its time, the Movement had been a major agent of social reform, because it took in not only the interests of families, but critically of the children their health and education. It was very much an educational movement, and with an agenda of social interaction in an improving and positive community setting. It crossed class barriers, although with few of the upper classes much involved, they were not known as “The Beerage” for nothing.

It was that most shocking of things, a substantially lower middle and skilled working class supported form of political movement, which included those who did not get the vote until after 1865 in some cases and 1885 in most, with the women not voting until after 1918. We know a good deal about the leadership of the Movement from the works of Peter Turner Winskill (1834-1912). Although many academic historians turn up their noses at him, no discernable Marxist ideas, if his work is checked in detail it holds up. He was an Iron Moulder by trade, before taking on senior duties in the Movement. At its peak, the Movement numbered millions, gave a commitment and non-alcoholic full social life, and further education in skills and trades to many.

One of the main planks of the Temperance Movement was the claim that the drinks trade was not a free market in the way it worked. It was common in some trades for wages to be paid only in a public house. It was often a part of the job to drink with others. In many cases, beer was a great deal safer than the water or anything else. The pub trade was increasingly in the hands of the brewers, and they relentlessly expanded the number of outlets. Regulation was a matter of a battle for control over the freedom of people to decide for themselves.

Today, all we have is the medical and health lobby, AA and support groups with a few cheerleaders, and rare individuals like Frank Skinner to ask the awkward questions about what we are doing to ourselves, especially the young. We have some government publicity, and the seriousness of government can be measured by the size of the entertainment expenses of the Departments of State and all the Quangos. It takes some doing to shift booze on that scale. The affairs of state may be in chaos, but we lead the world in the size of our official drinks bills. It adds to the spending for economic growth, call it practical quantatitive easing.

One thing is certain, it is all a lot easier to do, and to fund these days for everyone from the age of eight and upwards (yes I have since kids swigging white cider) to an extent impossible fifty years ago. Moreover, there is a seamless transition. Long ago there were few cheap fizzy drinks for the masses, in recent decades there is now an abundance of all sorts of stuff, much of it choc a bloc with stimulants in the form of caffeine and high power sweeteners, sugars, and synthetic flavourings.

From there it is a very short step to alcopops, much the same sort of chemical mix but with alcohol; sometimes not so strong, but far stronger than a 1950’s pint of bitter. Once there, then the cocktails of fashion, and strong other drinks follow. Some of this is not so good, cheap eastern vodkas giving instant brain damage for the unwary. With so many outlets selling a wide variety, so much time available, so much credit, and a lifestyle culture for many of the young now built around binge drinking, the consequences are inevitable. For those who are more fastidious, the supermarkets now offer a range of wines at a comparative price that once would have been a good class stock in the few wine merchants in the provinces.

It is probable that in attempting to control the drink problems, the game is now lost, and the situation irrecoverable. When politicians, indeed party leaders, head marches of protest to the closure of a booze bottling plant as a sure fire way of winning voter sympathy and hopefully their votes, it says a lot about attitudes to temperance. Especially, when evidence points to alcoholic abuse being a major problem in the constituencies they hope to win. The Pubcorps have made great efforts, closing down tens of thousands of pubs in the name of the greater glory of property development, and leaving many small communities without any alcohol outlets, but the supermarkets have more than made up for it by all their cheap offers across the board, or rather counter.

The trouble is that the politicians do not appreciate the implications of letting it all hang out, and not simply in health terms. It involves policing, more on the streets, with more powers to deal with the consequences. It involves difficult tax issues. It involves careful monitoring of what is on sale, to get rid of the increasing amount of toxic stuff that is out there. It involves more closely monitoring all the outlets. In our modern world there is no hope of recreating any of the movements of the past. To attempt to go back to the limitations of the past is electoral suicide for any party that attempted it. Education is hopeless, with teachers claiming it is a human right to get plastered at weekends, possibly in the same pubs and clubs as the kids.

So any control or regulation is down to ourselves, and how much notice we take of the doctors, and the occasional homily from individuals, like Frank Skinner. Anyone for a cup of tea?

1 comment:

  1. Another fine post!

    It's a bleak idea - that we are facing a 'perfect storm' of cheap credit, cultural acceptance of drunkenness, freely avilable alcohol and an escalating continuum from chemically enhanced foodstuffs to ever-stronger concoctions.

    The Hogarthian scenes in our town centres at night demonstrate that the pursuit of pleasure (or at least oblivion) is out of control. Sadly, the educational practices pioneered in the 60's have produced a population that undervalues mental capacity to the extent that losing it in public is no deterrent.

    I agree with you that Frank Skinner deserves praise for having the moral courage to speak out. I may not agree with everything he says but I give him full marks for saying it at all.