The run up to the 2010 election isn’t looking like much of a beery affair. There may be some lively debate between scaremongering neo-prohibitionists and staunch defenders of personal freedoms, but I’m yet to be convinced we’ll see mandatory tee-totalism as the main focus of the next live television debate.

Back in 1874 the general election was a distinctly beery affair. “We have been borne down in a torrent of gin and beer” mused William Gladstone in a letter to his brother, as his Liberal party crashed out of power, awarding the Tories their first majority for almost 30 years. The reference was more than a passing acknowledgement of the huge unpopularity of the Liberal’s 1872 Licensing Act, an piece of legislation so vehemently abhorred by publicans, drinkers and drinks manufacturers that almost every pub in the land became a Conservative stronghold and meeting place for Tory supporters.

The feeling of resentment against the act, which effectively restricted the country’s drinking through licensing hours and policing, was a significant factor in the flipping of the political balance of power. Disraeli played all his cards upon election in 1874 and overturned the bulk of the act that publicans and breweries objected too.

The duel between Gladstone and Disraeli, fuelled somewhat by Queen Victoria’s personal dislike of the Liberal leader, isn’t quite as black and white as policy and election victories suggest. Gladstone was in fact in favour of free trade – alcohol included – a vision which the Victorian temperance movement would see happen over their dead bodies. Despite being a great orator and a passionate leader Gladstone’s inability to satisfy the various groups within his party (and the country) was integral to his defeat in 1874. The Licensing Act served only to disenfranchise the common man and the powerful (and often Liberal) liquor industry, whilst simultaneously proving far from enough to please the prohibitionists (even though Gladstone ‘s Liberals had two years earlier repealed much of the 1830 Beerhouse act, thus (supposedly) helping clean up Britain’s drunken streets).

Despite repealing much of the 1872 act so soon after its introduction The Tories also felt the pressure of licensing, alcohol and beer. The backtrack did little to endear them to the temperance movement, who demanded further clamping down on the plague of drunkenness that blighted Victorian Britain. A prominent Lord (and bishop) didn’t agree, declaring that he would take freedom over sobriety any day, and thus implied that the licensing act was an infringement on the basic rights of Englishmen. The power of the people versus the temperance movement was significant (and the number of brewers who were MPs may have helped a little too!)

Many people might argue the weekend streets of 21st century Britain could be compared with the drunken alleys of 18th or 19th century Britain, but the days of street side gin hawkers are long gone and arguably the next British government have even bigger issues to address than even the significant social problem of binge drinking.

If the 2010 general election is to truly be a three horse race it’s unlikely that licensing will play a significant part in the popular vote as back in 1874, but it will be interesting to see how the next government tackles the recent issues highlighted in the drinks trade, including a certain level of neo-prohibition-ism and tax rises, against a back drop of pub closures, health scares and societal changes. The circumstances may be different but the role of public houses and the negative impact of alcohol on society remains a stumbling block for the men in Westminster. Funny how history repeats itself…

I wonder what torrent will be blamed if Gordon Brown loses Downing Street later this week.

  • Ensor, Sir R.; England 1870 – 1814, Clarendon Press, 1990
  • Willis, M.; Gladstone and Disraeli Principles and Policies, Cambridge Educational, 1989
  • Thomson, D.; England in the Nineteenth Century, Penguin Books, 1961
  • Jennings, P.; The Local: A History of the English Pub, The History Press, 2007