The Silly Season: it happens every year and usually coincides, for some reason, with the party political conference season. This year it has come a little early.
First, a little levity: the Palace of Westminster in which our MPs sit is a wonderful Gothic building; but it’s crumbling and needs more than just running repairs. Some may see this as a metaphor for our entire political system. When you look at the political events since the Brexit vote, and the state of turmoil in the political parties, it’s enough to drive MPs to drink!
And therein lies a tale. MPs are due to move out of their offices to enable much-needed reconstruction to the Palace of Westminster that will commence in 2020 and last for six years. However, the Department of Health offices they will move into are in a building called Richmond House which is held under an Islamic bond scheme that forbids the sale of alcohol. So, where will our heroic representatives of the people go for a little taxpayer-subsidised libation when the House of Commons ceases to be the best gentlemen’s club in London? Well, there is a nice little pub between the two buildings called the Red Lion, and it has been reported that nationalising it in order to reserve it for MP’s use was on the agenda. Fortunately the owners have refused to sell.
There is more than a little irony to all this. There has been a growing tendency to denigrate alcohol and to favour a temperance approach among some parliamentarians; well MPs, be careful what you wish for, a little Islamic teetotalism might be just what you need – remember what Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies said “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption” - so prepare to set a good example.
Meanwhile there is a House of Lords all party committee looking into the workings of the Licensing Act 2003. How is the Act doing? Do we need more licensing objectives? How about one on ‘health and wellbeing’ or one that requires licensees to ‘promote equality’? They can’t leave it alone can they? I do suspect that this committee is really about banging the health drum and calling for a health licensing objective, but I could be wrong.
But the House of Lords seems particularly exercised by alcohol at the moment. Lord Tariq Ahmad, our unelected new Aviation Minister, is concerned about incidents involving drunken people at airports or on board flights; to the extent that he is looking at restricting the hours of opening of airport pubs and bars. Helpfully he has said “I don’t want to end merriment altogether”. So, just a bit then? And on what basis does he consider this to be a problem? There are approximately 241 million people going in or out of UK airports every year. A FOI request by the Press Association revealed that there had been just 442 drunken incidents at UK airports in 2015 – just 0.0001% of the total throughput – time for a moral panic then!
Our politicians’ attitude to alcohol at both national and local level has historically been driven by paternalism. Some people feel quite nostalgic about this. So, July saw a spate of articles about the ‘Carlisle Experiment’. In July 1916, while the Battle of the Somme was raging, a new pub opened in Carlisle called the Gretna Tavern; it was our first nationalised pub. The Defence of the Realm Act was then used extensively to create a Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) and to nationalise five breweries in Carlisle as well as 235 pubs in the Carlisle, Gretna and Annan area. In 1917 pubs in the Enfield Lock area of London and Invergordon in Scotland were taken over. In all some 363 pubs were nationalised over 300 square miles either side of the English-Scots border around Solway Firth, where a giant munitions factory was being built; the idea was to keep the munitions workers sober and turning up on time for work.
The Central Control Board then took an axe to licences, with 40% of all alcohol licences in the area being declared ‘redundant’, including all grocers’ off-licences. Some authors today see this as a noble experiment to ‘civilise’ the pub; they suggest this was a successful example of nationalisation because the Central Control Board made a profit out of these pubs for every year it ran them. Well, I guess if you can buy a packet of already profitable pubs using taxpayers’ money, and then use your legal powers to close down most of the competition to them, that might give you a flying start!
Since the Labour Party appears to be undergoing a terrible attack of socialism at the moment, I wonder whether Diane Abbott might have a little word with Jeremy and see if he would like to nationalise some pubs along with the railways. Peoples’ quantitative easing; the peoples’ railways; the peoples’ pubs. You never know. It all depends on how long this year’s Silly Season lasts.