The Drink Crisis During World War One

Pubs and Patriots
The Drink Crisis During World War One
Robert Duncan
Liverpool University Press   262pp   £70

In February 1915 the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, delivered a speech at Bangor, North Wales, in which he sought to focus the war effort onto the need for efficiency in the industrial production of ships, bullets and shells. The address was wide-ranging but Lloyd George paid particular attention to a peril at the heart of British cultural life. ‘I hear of workmen in armament works who refuse to work a full week for the nation’s need’, he told his audience. ‘What is the reason? Sometimes it is one thing, sometimes it is another, but let us be perfectly candid. It is mostly the lure of drink … Drink is doing more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together.’ Lloyd George’s so-called Bangor Speech marked a watershed in political attitudes to alcohol. While he was derided in some quarters for both hyperbole and obfuscation, his words tapped into a more general sense that, so long as military victory over Germany was uncertain, alcohol could not maintain its customary position in society. Within months George V had ‘taken the pledge’ and Lloyd George had, after flirting with prohibition and the nationalisation of the drinks trade, established a Central Control Board (CCB) for the regulation of the liquor traffic. The CCB would go on to slash pub opening hours, ban the buying of rounds and even purchase and manage the entire drinks trade in and around Carlisle.

In Pubs and Patriots Robert Duncan provides the first full-length study of this extraordinary period. He describes the controversies around the CCB’s establishment, its successes and failures and how, once hostilities ceased, it rapidly came to be seen as an illiberal body whose raison d’etre had passed.  In his 2003 study Alcohol and British Politics Since 1830, John Greenaway argued that the moral framing of Victorian temperance mutated into a discourse on industrial efficiency once the Great War broke out. Here Duncan puts considerable flesh on the bones of that important observation, while showing ‘efficiency’ and morality were never entirely separate concepts.  Ostensibly, the task of the CCB was not to effect moral regeneration but to show that, by reducing consumption, harmful consequences – violence and loss of productivity in particular – could be reduced. Inevitably it struggled to resist the lure of encouraging wider social reform.

The CCB was definitely radical, but to many the state control of private brewing interests was perilously close to socialism. However, under Lord D’Abernon’s charismatic leadership and comprising members from temperance and trade bodies, the CCB displayed a genius for consensus-building and got things done. By 1918 both alcohol policy and drinking behaviours had changed enormously.

Lloyd George’s speech involved a degree of class scapegoating and Duncan’s central thesis is that by promoting temperance the CCB was engaged in an unwarranted attack on working-class culture. This underplays the social diversity of the temperance movement and the strong socialist wing of temperance agitation; it also takes rather readily the repeated claims by middle-class brewers that in protecting their lucrative trade they were merely defending the working man in the face of snobbish reformist zeal.

Nevertheless Pubs and Patriots shows convincingly that, while alcohol policy during the First World War focused on efficiency, it also articulated complex problems of class, identity and consumption that had dogged Victorian debates on alcohol (and which still frame questions about drink today). The First World War ‘drink crisis’ is an illuminating moment in British social and political history and Pubs and Patriots provides a detailed guide for experts and lay readers alike.

James Nicholls is research manager at Alcohol Research UK and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Centre for History in Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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