Drink

<strong>The New Statesman 14 April 1917</strong> Fabian Sidney Webb calls for the liquor trade to be

Ninety years ago this spring, the British army was being prepared for another military offensive against the Germans through the mud and barbed wire of the western front. Back home, however, a moral panic had erupted about the heavy drinking habits of the working class, which were said to imperil the war effort. The Fabian Sidney Webb argued in the New Statesman against any state prohibition of the demon drink to deal with the problem. Instead, he called for the nationalisation of the liquor trade.

Selected by Robert Taylor

There was a calculated candour in the Prime Minister's speech to the combined deputations that appealed to him to deal drastically with the trade in alcoholic drinks which was as effective as it was astute. Mr Lloyd George is known as almost a lifelong sympathiser with temperance reform. Twice, at least, he is believed to have tried to get the Cabinet to agree to sweeping measures: first prohibition, and then State purchase with a view to coming as nearly and as quickly to prohibition as might prove possible. In neither case could he convince his colleagues that the nation would endure his proposed reforms. Now, as we all believe, he is making a third attempt; and his very frank interrogation of those who pleaded for summary prohibition “for the duration of the war,” and of those, on the other hand, who asked for State purchase, reminds the public of the difficulties and dangers of the position.

The case for action is sufficiently strong to stand in no need of the exaggeration with which it is too often presented. Alcoholic drink may perhaps be as useless and detrimental as teetotal advocates make out. They have, we imagine, a growing number of biologists and medical practitioners on their side. But it is difficult to ignore the fact that at dinners of biologists and medical men the festive glass is not commonly tabooed; and if alcohol is a poison, the common practice of mankind proves that it is not necessarily incompatible with a continuance of health and vigour to an extreme old age. Still, the amount of disease and crime and poverty and cruelty demonstrably caused by alcoholism is appalling. Even if we could be assured that the consumption was uniformly spread, so that no one drank to excess, the expense per head is certainly heavy – out of all proportion to what we can properly afford in war time. An expenditure of one hundred and eighty millions a year on beer, wine, and spirits – two-thirds of this being net cost, after deduction of the taxes – is too large a share (6 or 7 per cent) of our aggregate income to give to so mixed and so doubtful an item.

We spend in alcoholic drinks five times as much as we spend on education; perhaps a hundred times as much as we spend on books; probably nearly twice as much as we spend on all our holidays; more even that we spend each year, for all purposes whatever, on our children and young people. So large an expenditure in war time, when every scrap of labour-force is wanted (and even all the alcohol itself for munitions), is felt by many others than the teetotallers to be a scandal.

What, then, can be done? Neither exhortation nor taxation has availed to wean us from what is, financially at any rate, a vice. Even the drastic restrictions on production and import, and those on retail sale, whilst they have caused us to get less alcohol for our money, have apparently scarcely diminished our personal expenditure. We can hardly wonder that a strong movement has arisen, not by any means confined to teetotallers, for summary prohibition, “for the duration of the war,” of an expenditure which contributes nothing to the nation's fighting strength. Could we not agree, it is said, to forego, whilst the war lasts, what is costing the nation nearly as much as the whole maintenance of our Navy?

The Prime Minister, it is clear, has come to the conclusion that prohibition is impracticable, even with all the arguments in its favour. The people are not sufficiently convinced of its necessity to stand such an interference of their personal habits. In England, at any rate, no Trades Union Congress or Labour Party Conference – in fact no representative working-class gathering – would pass a resolution in favour of prohibition, in spite of the known teetotalism of many of the most influential Trade Union leaders. Any prohibitory Bill at the present moment, it is with full justification apprehended, would be regarded as an unwarrantable attempt to use the war emergency for the promotion of legislation which could not be carried in peace time. The masses are prepared for all reasonable restrictions, but not for prohibition. To couple prohibition with war would, it is feared, lead to such a growth of angry resentment as to endanger the national effort.

This attitude of the “average sensual man” is often misunderstood. It is not that he stands up for drunkenness, or for any drinking that he recognises as being inimical to health or efficiency. Nor does he defend such an extravagance in expenditure as leads to family destitution. But we have chosen so to arrange our national life that, for all that vast proportion of the population that lives in cottages or tenements of no more than one, two, three or even four rooms per family, and that cannot afford to subscribe to a social club – constituting, probably, four out of five of the whole population – the only accessible “public-house,” apart from the church or chapel, is the place which is maintained out of the profits of the sale of alcoholic drinks. This is often the only place where shelter can be found from the rain or wind; it is frequently the only place where anything to eat or drink can be found; it is often the only place where pen and ink can be borrowed to write a letter. It is all very well for people with comfortable homes, and sitting-rooms free from noisy children, with retreats in the shape of clubs and hotel lounges, to clamour for the shutting up of the only place in which the mass of the people can find refreshment, warmth, and light, or meet their friends. To the great mass of the population, the closing of the village inn, or the urban “gin palace,” would, quite apart from the enforced abstinence from the alcoholic drink to which they have been accustomed, constitute an intolerable hardship.

Against any improvement of the public-house is arrayed all the honest fanaticism of those who will allow no traffic with the accursed thing. But the mistake which the advocates of National Prohibition are here making is a common one with eager reformers. Because an evil is recognised, they wish simply to suppress it. Yet there is, in political evolution, no such thing as a negation. All legislation, in fact, all social change, is, even if it takes a negative form, really a proposal of positive character. A new state of things has to be substituted for that which it is desired to eliminate. The teetotallers seek merely to destroy the public-house; and they offer to the masses of the people, as an alternative, nothing but the absence of public-houses. But it is a fallacy to assume that, when something is wrong, the right course is to be found in the opposite of the wrong. If the present public-house represents a wrong policy, we have still to discover what is the right policy.

The public opinion of the masses of the people points plainly to a transition from mere drinking-dens to genuine “public houses,” adapted to the needs of the people, available for all the requirements of a common social life, but independent of the profits derived from the present competitive sale of alcoholic beverages. For this step in social evolution the necessary instrument is State purchase. We cannot safely “municipalise” the drink traffic because we have failed, so far, to create, all over the country, local authorities either efficient enough or sufficiently in touch with the electorate to be entrusted with so dangerous a public service. Moreover, the problem of areas is, for the moment, insoluble. But the Liquor Control Board has shown us, in the Carlisle district and elsewhere, how the trade can be bought up from brewery to beer-shop; how superfluous drink-shops can be suppressed (over sixty already); and how those that are retained can be transformed into really convenient centres of social life and public entertainment.

We hope that the War Cabinet, which has already taken nearly all the output of the distilleries, and cut down the production of beer to no more than a quarter of the pre-war brewing, will now finally expropriate all the manufacturers of alcoholic drink – lock, stock, and barrel; giving them in full discharge Government bonds to the amount of so many years' purchase – we suggest that ten would be liberal – of their pre-war profits. The Liquor Control Board might take into its service, at fixed salaries, all the present retailers and their staffs, giving such of them that preferred it the alternative of accepting situations of equal value in one or other of the innumerable enterprises for which the Government needs more hands; or even of retiring upon a gratuity or pension proportionate to their several claims. The whole of the profits to be derived from the nationalised liquor traffic should be devoted (after the service of the debt had been provided for) to the gradual transformation of the existing drinking-shops into comfortable and rational centres of social life in accord with the best aspirations of the people themselves. The few “reformed public houses,” which Lord Grey has so persistently striven to multiply, might be left under licence, at least temporarily, to serve as models and examples for the Central Liquor Board to imitate, and, we hope, gradually to surpass. The village inn, we may expect, conducted without any incentive to the sale of alcohol (and, perhaps, with actual encouragement to the State innkeeper to develop to the utmost every other side of its activity), should be gradually transformed into a centre of unobjectionable social recreation for the whole village. The town public-house, freed from its present repulsive features, reduced in numbers so as to exist only in proportion to local needs, and with premises greatly extended so as really to accommodate in comfort the whole of its visitors, should become the common place for eating and drinking, the poor man's social club, perhaps even the centre for municipal music. This is what State Purchase, widely and reasonably carried out, might, and should, mean. It is at least a fuller, wider, and deeper ideal than summary National Prohibition; and we cannot but hope that no fanatical opposition to alcoholic drink as such will prevent Mr Lloyd George from giving the nation this boon.