Policy Papers

Current and future alcohol policy: the relevance of history

Virginia Berridge |

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Executive Summary

  • The history of alcohol in society, of the Temperance movement and of the failures and successes of alcohol policy offers options for the present.
  • There is a positive side to the debate on 24-hour local licensing. Licensing reform in local government was a key aim of the late-nineteenth-century Temperance movement (which it failed to achieve). Now this has been achieved it offers opportunities for the kind of local action which temperance reformers fought for.
  • Historic temperance arguments are unknowingly reproduced today, for example when women are singled out for blame for drinking. This was the case a century ago when women's role as mothers caused concern. However, women also played positive roles in temperance; and once again leading women politicians have spoken out on alcohol issues today.
  • In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries medical, temperance and public-order advocates worked towards common ends, such as the institution of a treatment system for inebriates or through the nascent probation service. Contemporary medical interests in alcohol could seek an alliance with the public-order interests, which are influential in current policy. They may be missing an opportunity, apparently reluctant to broaden treatment-focussed interventions.
  • Current public messages on drink and moderate drinking are confused. There could be a range of messages incorporating the temperance strategy of abstinence- building on the increasing proportion of Britons who do not drink.
  • The influence of religion has, by contrast with the nineteenth century, been muted in recent discussions. Historically the better health of racial minorities like the Jews was ascribed to their moderate drinking habits. Little emphasis is currently placed in multi-cultural British society on the non-drinking habits of Muslims.
  • The drink issue has been subordinate to illicit drugs as a political issue for many years. Recent policy developments have given it a high political profile, with division between the parties, as was also the case a century ago. This offers opportunities for outside advocacy coalitions to influence events.
  • The Temperance movement missed strategic opportunities to work with the drinks industry, in particular just after the First World War, when the Central Control Board, which had led alcohol policy during the war, was disbanded. Such options could again be on the agenda, as the drink trade is fragmented and seeking new avenues. But there is great hostility to such strategies from influential medical 'neo-temperance' interests.
  • Both the internationalism of temperance and the parallel example of smoking offer avenues for the future. The marginalisation of smoking and the cultural change which has taken place with that substance offer possible models for alcohol activism and policy in the future. Today's binge drinkers do so in smoke-free pubs!


Alcohol use and alcohol policy have a high profile currently in the UK. Binge drinking and public order; the government alcohol strategy; the new Licensing Act have all brought alcohol more into media and public discussion. The role of history in the debate on alcohol is relatively under-exploited and the historical role of temperance is rarely drawn on. 'Temperance' is still used as a pejorative term rather than any guide to current and future policy possibilities. Yet temperance and its history, its changing nature over time, offer many models and food for thought for policy-makers in the present. Health concerns and alliances; personal and cultural change; politics and licensing: temperance history is relevant to all of these and could be used in the current debates.

The research which led to these observations had two dimensions. A literature review surveyed the historiography of temperance and a database of references was compiled. In addition, twenty interviews were carried out with ' key informants' involved in aspects of current alcohol policy. These included the former head of the Cabinet Office team which produced the alcohol harm reduction strategy, the head of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) team producing the new Licensing Act; religious leaders, temperance supporters, a journalist, scientists and clinicians and the Director of the Portman Group, a body representing sections of the alcohol industry. Open-ended questioning and discussion concentrated on views of temperance and its history, and the development of current and future alcohol policy.

Two key themes emerged from the research:

  1. the importance of cultural change
  2. the political and policy implications of the history of temperance.

Temperance, it is important to remember, was a movement which changed over time. It began with middle-class support to suppress the consumption of spirits, and became a working-class mass movement by the middle of the nineteenth century. By the last decades of the century temperance had strong political connections with the Liberal Party, and focussed at the local level on the battle to secure local prohibition, the 'local veto'. It began to concentrate on licensing and later moved towards a moderate approach through the use of taxation or restriction of hours of opening. How can we transfer such ideas to the twenty first century? Do they have any relevance? Let us look at cultural change first.

Dealing with crime and disorder

The nineteenth-century situation was reminiscent of the present. Dealing with crime and disorder concerned society then as well as now: the 1830 Beer Act liberalised licensing while at the same time drunkenness mounted. A disciplined and sober workforce was needed by an industrialising economy. Temperance sentiment grew and the movement, with a strong youth organisation in the Band of Hope, became a badge of respectability for the working class and its middle-class allies. Temperance as a movement provided what politicians would now call 'social capital' and community cohesion. The 2003 Licensing Act with its option of 24-hour licensing has brought controversy. But temperance reformers could well have seen positive advantages in it. Gaining local government control of licensing was a temperance aim at the end of the nineteenth century. Current licensing reform offers local government and local action opportunities which temperance reformers fought for in the 1880s. In 2005, the licensing changes have given the drink question the opportunity to form alliances at the local level and to establish a wider basis of support. This keys in to ideas about 'new localism' discussed by politicians and to a greater stress on the role of local communities to exert influence on what happens in their own areas.

Women and drink

For women and drink, the Temperance movement offers models to use, but also a critique of the way women's drinking is currently presented. Women were central to the history of temperance. They were leaders of anti-drink sentiment: temperance activity was one of the first ways in which women found a role in public life. But they were also blamed for drinking at a time when people believed in the 'inheritance of acquired characteristics'. They threatened the 'future of the race'. Their role as mothers was of central concern. Such fears arose not just from objective realities but also from changes in women's role. Those past concerns have obvious parallels with the current focus on 'laddettes', although the emphasis on reproduction is more muted now. As in the past, this singling out of women for blame runs the risk of giving a phenomenon too much importance. There are also more positive roles deriving from the past. Leading women politicians such as Hazel Blears in the Home Office and Lynne Featherstone in the Liberal Party have taken initiatives on the alcohol issue. The leadership women offered in the past on the drink issue could be built on in the present: women are making educational advances as they did a century ago.

Linking health and public order

Medical temperance supporters took a strong policy line in the past. The role of medicine within temperance became important in Britain and other countries towards the end of the nineteenth century. The scientific side of temperance formed alliances, which contemporary health interests might do well to study. Medical temperance supporters worked with public-order interests in moves to establish a state-funded treatment system for 'inebriates' (the alcoholics of the day) and to divert drunkards out of the criminal-justice system and into treatment. The probation service, the classic cross-over between health and public-order interests, had its origins in the ' temperance missionaries' in the police courts. In more recent years, commentators have drawn attention to the rise of a 'neo-temperance' alliance round drink in which science has played a key role and which has exerted policy influence. In the past, such scientific interests built coalitions with the criminal-justice field. In current policy, public-order interests are driving policy, and an 'advocacy coalition' of health and public-order interests could again be effective. Such an alliance would build on past interconnections. But health interests currently seem slow to take advantage of these connections and it is arguable that their influence on policy has been less strong as a result.

Public messages need attention

The scientific message given to the public also needs attention. Science is still important, as continuing controversies over moderate drinking indicate, but the impact of science on policy was seen by interviewees in this research as less important than it had been in the past. This was in part for political reasons - the connections between the government and the drinks industry - and in part because the scientific message was blurred. 'Moderation' and 'units' are unclear concepts in the public mind, while abstinence - the strong and clear temperance objective - is never mentioned at all. Yet a recent Office of National Statistics survey showed that 15 % of people surveyed had not drunk alcohol in the last year. 'It's OK not to drink' could be one of a variety of public messages.

Education and alcohol

Temperance placed great emphasis on education and information. A flood of temperance tracts appeared and formal temperance education began in schools in the early 1900s. In 1909, the Board of Education issued a 'Syllabus of Lessons on Temperance for Scholars attending Public Elementary Schools'. The vehicles for education now are different. In school education, alcohol, drugs and smoking are brought together in the Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) part of the national curriculum. We have the ' information culture' of the twenty-first century instead of the nineteenth-century pamphlets. The media now helps set the agenda for the public, and for politicians. This is a tool which can be used. Alcohol is likely to remain high profile as the Licensing Act is implemented and its connections with other health concerns could develop. Levers might well include the ban on smoking in pubs - or the rising concern with obesity, where food, but not drink, has been the focus so far.

Religion and multi-culturalism

Temperance was a religious movement, with support from Quakers, from nonconformist religion, and, later in the nineteenth century from the Church of England and from the Catholic Church. But recently mainstream religions have had little to do with the alcohol issue, perhaps fearing to be tarred with their temperance heritage and seen as 'old fashioned'. The civil servant in charge of changes in the licensing law told me that the churches had only been seriously influential once: over the proposal that concerts in churches would have to obtain a licence if they wanted to sell drink. The proposal never became law: the churches could be influential when they chose. But here the memory of the past was holding them back from further comment on drink. There are current opportunities, even in a non-religious society. School health education acknowledges cultural and religious attitudes to drink, something which temperance also drew attention to. At the turn of the nineteenth century, a different attitude to drinking was seen as the root of the better health of the Jewish population. Now, the attitudes of other groups in British society, Muslims for example, could be built on in discussions of abstinence. A Muslim imam discussed with me how norms of non-drinking were maintained among young people in a drinking society such as Britain.

Political possibilities

Political change and influence is the other key legacy of temperance and this has current resonance. The Liberal Party was the temperance party towards the end of the nineteenth century while the brewers allied with the Conservatives. Alcohol has not been much of a party-political issue in recent times. But there are now political possibilities in the drink question. Historically the Labour Party's attitude to the drink issue was divided: the party had advocates of temperance, nationalisation and liberalisation. Now both major parties see political advantage in alcohol. The Daily Mail has opposed 24-hour licensing; while Labour is introducing alcohol-dispersal zones and other public-order interventions. Drink is beginning to line up the parties and there are opportunities, at both local and national political levels, for advocacy coalitions to influence events.

Working with the drink industry: for or against?

Working with, or against, the drink industry is another issue with a history. Here history suggests there were lost opportunities which could be considered and discussed in the present. During the First World War, controls put in place the equivalent of a national alcohol strategy. The creation of the Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) (CCB) in 1915 initiated a more active governmental interest in alcohol policy. The Board introduced the 'afternoon gap'; dilution of spirits; and 'treating' in public houses was prohibited to deal with the problem of servicemen being plied with drink. While the restriction on hours was enshrined in the 1921 Licensing Act, nevertheless the CCB was abolished after the war and the overall alcohol strategy it had embodied disappeared (although alcohol sales in some areas like Carlisle continued under government control until the 1970s). No alliance seized the opportunity after the war. In 1928, Viscount D'Abernon, former chair of the CCB, lamented this failure to appreciate what the war time strategy had achieved and its future potential:

neither of the parties interested - neither the temperance party nor the drink trade - have shown any indication in their speeches that they understand what has been discovered and accomplished. Temperance reformers denounce as they denounced in 1914; trade orators reiterate their speeches of 1750.

D'Abernon thought the two could have cooperated. There was limited cooperation with the trade through 'disinterested management' (management of a pub by a person or organisation with no financial interest in maximising sales) and the 'improved public house'. Before the War, 'disinterested management' had attracted support from temperance interests who had turned their backs on prohibition and the local veto. In the trade, too, there was enthusiasm for improving public houses so that they offered better facilities and food. Whitbread set up a special Improved Public House Company to manage the catering and other demands of the new public house and donated pubs as part of an experimental programme of the Association for Restaurant Public Houses in Poor Districts in the 1920s and 1930s.

Currently, voluntary improvement and regulation of drinking environments is on the agenda as part of the government's alcohol harm reduction strategy, published in 2004. The drink trade, despite its monolithic public image, is fragmented after restructuring. The brewers are separate from the pub chains, the ' pub cos' which often form part of international conglomerates. They are seeking ways to improve markets and their public image. Opportunities exist once more for coalitions of interest, but there is great opposition to any industry links among medical groups who have taken what some commentators have called a ' neo-temperance ' line.

Internationalism and Europe

There are also international possibilities and a role for Europe. Temperance was an international movement which linked reformers and scientists across countries and through international conferences, while the impact of models from other countries was strong, such as the Swedish Gothenburg system where the local authority granted licenses for the whole city to one company, which was run as a trust, or other examples where individual company profits were limited and profits used to benefit the local community. Models now also come from Europe and both industry and anti-drink interests are developing European coalitions: the International Life Sciences Institute (ISLI) for the industry; and Eurocare and a new European Alcohol Policy Network for anti-alcohol interests. Given the importance of Europe in securing action against tobacco this could be an important avenue for the future.

Learning from tobacco?

Looking across the history of related substances also offers options for the present. Historically there were close links between anti-drink and anti-opium sentiment. But it is tobacco which perhaps offers the most apposite parallel. Some temperance societies were also anti-tobacco and some in the nineteenth century even included smoking in the pledge. If we are looking for models from temperance, then it is tobacco activism which is now the inheritor of the nineteenth-century total abstinence model. But scientists and tobacco activists started from a harm-reduction position in the 1950s and 60s, often working with the industry. Only later did a more absolutist line develop as cultural change began to occur. Can this history of stages in culture and policy change offer a model for changes in attitudes to alcohol? Back in the 1950s the current state of play with regard to smoking would hardly have been envisaged. Now, as someone recently pointed out, drinkers will be able to binge drink in smoke-free pubs: smoking history over the last half century offers models for cultural change for alcohol.

Implications for policy

Society and government policy currently demonstrate contradictory tendencies in relation to alcohol. Government policy institutes longer opening hours, but also more stringent control of public drinking through ASBOs and alcohol-dispersal zones. Young people favour heavy drinking and the 'night-time economy', while an older generation organised in local political, residents' association and amenity groups opposes the extension of pub opening hours. The media debates the rationing of treatment for those with self-inflicted disease, but portrays national mourning at George Best's death. Are we perhaps at a 'tipping point' in culture in relation to alcohol?

Much of the current debate has echoes from the past but also strategies which derive from it. The current debates unwittingly re-use arguments first made in the nineteenth century, while other dimensions of the history of temperance are forgotten. There are potential alliances between medical and public-order advocates, and licensing reform offers opportunities for wider local democratic involvement. The temperance movement and its political and scientific allies missed strategic opportunities in the past which could be taken in the present. Women's roles could be presented in a more positive way, as could the role of religion in a multi-cultural society. The possibility of alliances with industry could be debated more than it is and public messages could be better designed and could reflect the reality of both drinking and non-drinking in the population. The history of alcohol offers much strategic thought for those interested in the future of alcohol policy.

Further Reading

V. Berridge Temperance: its history and impact on current and future alcohol policy. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2005, also available on http://www.jrf.org.uk

D'Abernon. Viscount,.'Introduction', in Vernon, H M., The Alcohol Problem. London: Bailliere, Tindall and Cox, 1928.

J. Greenaway Drink and British Politics since 1830. A study in policy making. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

D. Gutzke '"The Cry of the Children": The Edwardian Medical Campaign against Maternal Drinking' British Journal of Addiction 79 (1984), 71-84.

D. Gutzke Pubs and Progressives: reinventing the public house in England, 1896-1960. De Kalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005.

B. Harrison, Drink and the Victorians. The temperance question in England, 1815-1872. London: Faber and Faber,1971.


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