Amol Rajan: Save our pubs before they call last orders for good

A report yesterday claimed that this nation of alleged binge-drinkers is drinking less beer than ever.

 

A report yesterday claimed that this nation of alleged binge-drinkers is drinking less beer than ever. Consumption of the amber nectar has fallen by almost a quarter since 2006, mainly because blokes aren't going to the pub so much, and are instead drinking at home, where wine and spirits tend to go down better with the rest of the family. Sales of beer in pubs, restaurants and on high streets are down from 4.1 billion litres a year to 3.2 billion, a drop of 23 per cent. A mere 15.2 million pints are being swilled across Britain each day, down by 4.3 million pints since 2006.

Naturally, this has been greeted as an encouraging sign by health zealots across Whitehall – champions all of a new puritanism that says if you smoke or drink, or generally don't breakfast on acai berries and quinoa, you're a filthy criminal. In fact, it is a social and moral catastrophe.

The decline of the English pub has been bemoaned for several years, of course. The fault lies chiefly with "pubcos", those dastardly companies that sell pub spaces to ambitious entrepreneurs, but operate a "tie" on rent and beer prices, which creep up steadily until the owners' margins are suffocated.

Supermarkets can now undercut pubs on beer prices, the smoking ban has had a deleterious effect, and in a time of austerity, social boozing becomes more unaffordable.

But public houses, which originated as the preserve of men during the week but expanded to accommodate families, have for centuries been woven into the fabric of our lives. The round of drinks, which institutionalised generosity and reciprocity – those foundations of any loving relationship, and which were initially dismissed by the rich as a sign of proletarian bad taste – squeezed precious social capital from the limited funds of the poor.

In Roger Scruton's unimproveable phrase, pub drinking "added to the moral savings of the community". This institution, like so many of the public houses that made it sacred, is being slowly strangled to death. No party leader (except perhaps the increasingly impressive Nigel Farage) could be expected to place a national quota of 20 million daily pints in their next manifesto.

But the politician who recognises that health zealotry and puritanism has converted our understanding of the pub as a precious benefit to the poor into an unbearable cost will be handsomely rewarded. And if he or she advances policies that make it easier rather than harder for our pubs to serve their communities, I for one shall raise a glass to that.

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