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Labour and the Politics of Alcohol: The Decline of a Cause

23 October 2014

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The Labour Party conference in Manchester on 23 September saw the launch of the latest work by Dr Peter Catterall, Reader in History, Department of Social and Historical Studies.

His analysis of Labour and the Politics of Alcohol: The Decline of a Cause, published by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, looks at the causes and consequences of Labour’s gradual shift away from the teetotalism which characterised many of its founding fathers to the effects of the 2003 Licensing Act.

Dr Catterall argues that the current Licensing Act, based on the delusion that liberalization would reduce heavy public drinking and the attendant problems, was the logical outcome of a repudiation by the Labour Party in the 1930s of the temperance outlook of so many of its pioneers.

His paper explains that while many Labour historians have written the alcohol question out of Labour Party history, it was in fact central to its origins and its early years. Keir Hardy, one of the founders of the Party was a lifelong teetotaler and temperance man, as was Arthur Henderson, general secretary of the Party from 1911-1932, during which time he played a key role in steering the new organization into becoming a Party of government.

Dr Catteral says:

“The majority of Edwardian Labour MPs were teetotal. Combatting the alcohol question and the drink trade was held by many to be integral to building the new social order they aspired to create.”

However, cracks soon began to emerge within the Party. Catterall’s report shows that opinion was divided between prohibitionists and those who saw the answer in nationalization of the drink trade. There was also an anti-temperance lobby centered around working mens’ clubs, many of which depended on alcohol sales for their financial viability. He says:

“The interwar period saw temperance become an embarrassment for the Labour Party, as policy goals shifted towards promoting moderate drinking through improved public houses.”

Catterall argues that by consciously dropping alcohol as an issue and freeing itself from the dominant influence of the chapel, Labour positioned itself for a straightforward fight with the Conservatives on economics rather than on an issue which had come to be seen as one primarily of personal morality.

Temperance, like pacifism, became in the course of the 1930s a faith of individuals rather than the policy of a political party. And so, argues Catterall, “the seeds were set for one of the most liberalizing reforms of the licensing law in British history”.

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