The Drink Problem: in Defence of the Public House

Few Scots would deny they enjoy a drink, and it is hard to dispute the fact that the nation’s rich tradition of brewing, distilling and consuming alcoholic beverages constitutes an important part of our cultural heritage. Yet the fact that there is a problem is something we have largely and unquestioningly come to accept: like so many other pressing issues in the times in which we live, Scotland’s relationship with the bevvy has become a crisis. It might, however, come as a surprise to learn that the problem is not a new one.

In The Scottish Nation: 1707–2007 (2006), Tom Devine charts practices and statistics to this effect: in 1852, following a substantial reduction in spirits duty (which no doubt had the effect of legalising much black market consumption to date), consumption surged to 7,171,000 gallons (well in excess of 32,000,000 litres).

Shortly after, in 1892, a certain Robert Farquharson was to be found pondering ‘The Case for Moderate Drinking’ in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. In an article colourfully embellished by his anecdote of a trusty mare that would come to a halt outside the inn and stubbornly refuse to go any further until it had received its quart of ale, we see a familiar pattern emerge: concern about the detrimental effects of immoderate alcohol consumption, a disapproving and over-zealous establishment (in those days, still very much a religious one), and a voice of reason speaking up for the punter’s right to a drink. The drink problem, it would seem, is nothing new. Yet while we can all raise a smile at Farquharson’s description of the thirsty mare, and more recently at caricatures such as Rab C. Nesbitt and McIlvanney’s dialogue between Frankenstein and the drunken Glaswegian, the dynamics of the problem have undoubtedly changed.

The society we live in is quite different from Farquharson’s. Among younger generations at least, the relationship between means and end has become inverted: for many, perhaps too many, consumption has become the predominant measure of a good night out, with success being measured in terms of the volume of alcohol consumed and meaningful social interaction relegated to a poor second. The spectre of binge drinking looms large, a malaise that is becoming deeply embedded in our society.

Yet prohibition and coercion seem ill equipped to deal with the problem, and in many cases may even prove counterproductive. Is it not the case that the most painful effects of such approaches are to the detriment of respectable on-trade establishments and social drinkers, while the intended targets continue to enjoy bargain off-trade booze and cheap nights out? Such approaches threaten to jeopardize a longstanding aspect of our culture, and one of which we should rightfully be proud.

There was a brief phase where the Scottish establishment looked to our counterparts across the water for the answer: time and time again we heard the words café culture uttered with a sense of reverence towards the levels of civilisation inherent in continental models, and always with the implicit suggestion that we too should follow suit, striving towards the examples set by chic Parisians and tapas-guzzling Spaniards. Perhaps part of the idea was that sitting people down at a table with a bottle of Beaujolais and some tasty pinxos would result in a metamorphosis, miraculously transforming them into philosophers and artistes who would sit stroking their chins and paving the way for the next Scottish Enlightenment. Je ne suis pas d’accord! Derrida? C’était un bouffon qui n’a rien du tout à offrir au nouveau mouvement des lumières ecossais!

The truth however, is that current approaches to tackling a centuries old drink problem seem to ignore, intentionally or otherwise, the unique and fascinating culture that has built up around an institution so central to life on the British Isles: the public house. While the humble pub may fail to evoke the sophistication of its continental counterparts, the conviviality and sense of community to be found there are truly unique, and something of which we should rightfully be proud.

Pubs bring people together in a way that cafés and restaurants do not: their layout and the absence of table service obliges people to mix and share conversation in what is a decidedly communal space. A pub is not an anonymous meeting space for immiscible groups, it is a node in a network, a gathering place, and perhaps it is a sad indictment of an increasingly individualistic society that, at least amongst younger generations, the public house is declining in popularity.

Drinking patterns have changed: our city centres are replete with clubs, bars and gastropubs, yet amidst all the talk of café culture and more recently minimum pricing, not once have we stopped to consider how this spectrum of demographically and socially segregated establishments has in fact served to fuel the problem of binge drinking. Indeed, proponents of the continental model are always quick to point out that other Europeans introduce their children to alcohol at a much earlier age, the typical example being the French tradition of allowing children a glass of watered-down wine with their meal. In Scotland however, our youngsters are deprived of the opportunity to take their first steps under the watchful eye of responsible elders: instead, they are left free to experiment on park benches and street corners, before graduating to cut-price bars and drinking dens forbidding to anyone outwith a certain demographic or social segment and inhibitive to any meaningful patterns of interaction.

The public house was, and continues to be, a place where people from all walks of life mix, a place where, to paraphrase the obituary of one of Edinburgh’s most famous publicans, social standing and material wealth were hung up with one’s coat at the door. Yet its kith-and-kin-based structure is at odds with the society in which we have come to live, and as the watchful eye of the barman—whose responsibility extended far beyond the realm of merely punting drink—begins to slowly fade from memory, so too does the hope of handing down this rich, fascinating and uniquely civilising tradition to generations to come.



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