I do like the Guardian’s ‘In praise of…’ column. It’s nice to be positive about something especially when the national media seems like a torrent of poisonous commentary.
This week the Guardian is praising pubs. It’s a great little piece and worth quoting in full.
Dr Johnson observed that ‘there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn’. Both he and Samuel Pepys, for whom the pub was ‘the heart of England’, would be nonplussed by the decline in happiness implied by the crisis in the industry today. Already buffeted by smoking bans, cut-price alcohol in supermarkets and higher duties in the pre-budget report, pubs now face a severe recession in addition to something that would need to be explained even to Dr Johnson: the use of securitisation to finance leveraged expansion by the big pub-owning corporations. Earlier this week Jon Moulton, the private equity specialist, warned that a good chunk of the industry’s £20bn debt was ‘unsustainable’. Britain’s 47,000 pubs can be traced back to the inns along the roads that the Romans built. They became so popular that in AD965 King Edgar is said to have limited them to one per village. Now many villages are facing the prospect of no pub at all (and maybe no post office either) as the cumulative effect of their woes takes its toll. It is perhaps too much to expect a government pub strategy, to complement the burgeoning policies for all the other troubled sectors. But as well as providing much-needed local employment, pubs are part of our heritage and an essential part of the vibrancy of life. Politicians don’t often have an opportunity to increase or preserve happiness. They will ignore the plight of pubs at their peril.
I remember reflecting, before the smoking ban came in, on the incongruity of most of the liberal left supporting a policy that could only benefit the big capitalist pub chains whose profits could absorb the inevitable loss of custom. It was obvious that the smoking ban, like the hunting ban before it, was only ever a piece of red meat to throw to the salivating dogs of puritan left opinion. Government figured it would compensate for Iraq, cash for peerages, the crackdown on civil liberties and the rest of the administration’s misdeeds. Astonishingly, the gamble paid off and the antiwar middle class continued to vote Labour – albeit with their noses squeezed by Toynbee’s clothespeg.
There has always been a vocal segment of the upper middle class who hold pleasure in contempt and want pubs turned into restaurants. But reading the above column, can you see a change stirring? There’s an acknowledgement that the smoking ban has hit trade (which we were assured would not happen) some sympathy for working-class publicans and bar workers, concern about the further atomisation of society and the power of the Wetherspoons/Yates conglomerates and even a reference to the ‘vibrancy of life’ – which is the angle some of us have been arguing from for a while. After all, the Americans even wrote ‘the pursuit of happiness’ into their constitution.
What on earth is going on? I sense a little disillusionment here. Anti-smoking activists fought for years to get a smoking ban, now they’ve got it, they are looking around and can’t help feeling a bit hollow inside. The country hasn’t entered a glorious era of prohibition where bar staff thank ASH for freeing them from the tyranny of working in a pub where some people are smoking. Instead Britain seems like a evil, miserable country in the grip of recession. Can we afford the luxury of puritanism?
It’s a time for reflection, and possibly even a change in liberal orthodoxy. I can hear the plates rumbling. Watch this space.