James Nicholls / “The State and the Trade: The Drink Question at the Turn of the Century” / The Politics of Alcohol / 2009

Joseph Rowntree at age 26 in 1862.

1880-1918, the political debate over alcohol was at its apex. Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, 1897: “If the state does not soon control the liquor traffic, the liquor traffic will control the state.” Does the state, while retaining free-trade principles, have a right to directly reduce the scale of the trade in alcohol? Prohibitionists asked, Should the trade in alcohol be placed nuder the direct control of local populations? Those in favor of state control asked, Should the profit motive be removed from the drink trade? Compromises attempted towards disinterested management. Joseph Chamberlain proposed system with State as nation’s publican. Joseph Rowntree and Arthur Sherwell in favor of disinterested management. Bishop of Chester, Drancis John Jaune, for moderation. 1896 he founded People’s Refreshment House Association, a profit share with disinterested management. 1886, Guinness went public, raised £6 million. Others followed. Price inflation for licensed properties, i.e. for one pub £3,500 to £24,500. Called “monopoly value.” If magistrate didn’t renew, value tanked, and people demanded compensation as a right. Debate over where right to sell alcohol was not inalienable. License was gift from state, since 1552 (except 1830 Beer act until 1869). Boer War caused 1900 consumption downturn. Property bubble burst. Brewery share value tanked. 1904, a Licensing Act, anyone refused licensing renewal would be compensated by a fund drawn from the brewing industry. National Liberal Foundation called this a “monstrous betrayal of the rights of the State.” So, 1904 Act recognized State’s right to intervene in alcohol market, but also, recognized that alcohol sale was a private industry. Ultimately murky, because unelected magistrates made licensing decisions about a limited number of licenses. Usually, the brewing industry thought them too restrictive, and temperance campaigners thought them too lax.


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