If the system of government in this country was not exactly built on the bottle, it has certainly been lubricated by it.
So when, while defending his attendance in European parliament debates, UKIP leader Nigel Farage said on Friday’s Daybreak: “I work an 18-hour day most days and I think I’m entitled at lunchtime to a pint,” he was merely echoing the sentiment of his forebears. Drink has been as familiar a companion to business as the order sheet or speaker’s chair. Parliamentarians have often been fond of a glass of something to ameliorate the sometimes long hours and ease tedium of endless meetings.
Pitt the Younger rarely ever rose from the Commons’ benches without the fortification of a bottle or three of port. But then he was Prime Minister at just 24.
Herbert Asquith was equally squiffy in the house, swaying like a palm tree in the wind during debates. A music hall ditty even ran: “Mr Asquith says in a manner sweet and calm: another little drink won’t do us any harm.”
Debate still rages over whether Winston Churchill was alcoholic. Certainly he was as dedicated to brandy as he was to champagne and he was a man of strong dedication. Yet in later years, reflecting on his reputation as a drinker, he was undisturbed: “Always remember I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
Of course, all of the above were helped along their way by the Palace of Westminster’s historic wine cellar. Alas today’s MPs can no longer buy a glass of claret for 30p in the House bars, as you could do in the 60s. After that members had to try much harder – but they managed. Famously Alan Clark, the uxorious philanderer and Tory MP, got up in the Commons to discuss equal pay after a “wine tasting”. He was three bottles down and it was an unmitigated disaster. He slurred his way through his speech until Clare Short stood and said: “It is disrespectful to the house… that he should come here in this condition”. The house went mad.
Still, Clark looks like a temperance campaigner in comparison to George Brown, who held various posts in Wilson’s government. He was, according to his colleague Dennis Healey, rarely capable after midday and, thanks to Private Eye’s regular references to his condition, left to the English language the euphemism “tired and emotional”.
No one has accused Farage of being “tired and emotional” of course, in fact, he and his lonely lunchtime pint look positively ascetic in comparison to the mottled cast of characters that came before him. Must try harder, Nige.