Monday, June 16, 2008

Gladstonian Ghosts - Our British Moslems

I have no wish to say anything disrespectful of the religion of Islam. In many respects it is a very good religion; without doubt it is a great one and one of the most vigorous in the world. It is said still to make more converts annually than any other. It reigns unchallenged from Morocco to Persia, it is dominant throughout a large part of India, and is spreading more and more every year amongst the wild tribes of Central Africa and the islanders of the Malay Peninsular. In this country the orthodox Mohammedan creed has made but little headway; nevertheless a number of more or less heretical Moslem sects, among which the Wesleyans, the Baptists, and the
Congregationalists are perhaps the most important, flourish there exceedingly and, if not on the increase, are at least fairly holding their ground.

One of the basic moral tenets of the Moslem faith is, as everyone knows, the prohibition of alcohol, and this tenet, despite doctrinal variations, is held with equal firmness by the English sects above mentioned. The analogy is not a fanciful one; I express it in this way because I wish to emphasize the fact that the objection of the Daily News and of those whose views it represents to beer and spirit drinking is an objection not to the social evils inseparable from alcoholic excess, nor to the many corruptions connected with the private drink trade, but simply and emphatically to the thing, itself. It is, in fact, a religious tapu. I can respect it as such, and I can respect the Samoan tapus described by Stevenson, but it is necessary to recognise its nature, if we wish to understand its relation to what plain men mean by the temperance problem.

It may reasonably be deduced that the demand so constantly made that temperance reformers of all schools should unite on a common programme is utterly impracticable. They cannot unite, because they do not want the same things. There is no point of contact possible between those who think beer so bad a thing that they are angry that anyone shold be supplied with it and those that think it so good a thing that they are angry that it should not be supplied in a pure state and under decent conditions; between those who object to the modern public house because they think it at once evil and seductive and those who object to it because they think it demoralisingly ugly and uncomfortable. In short there is no possible community of interest between those for whom the liquour problem is how to supply alcoholic liquors with the greatest social profit and the least social damage and those lor whom the problem is how to prevent such liquours from being supplied at all. "The average man" says Mr. Edward R. Pease "wants beer." This remarkable discovery is alone sufficient to place Mr. Pease at the head of all our temperance reformers, for he is the only one of them who seems to have realised its incontestable truth and importance. His admirable book "The Case for Municipal Drink"* which I strongly advise all my readers interested in the question to obtain and study, is the most perfect presentation I know of the position of those who wish to know how best to supply drink, not how best not to supply it. Contrast it with the views constantly set forth in the Daily News views which may be taken to represent those espoused by at least a large section of the Liberal Party and you have something like a clear issue.

Now if we could only get these two contradictory conceptions of temperance reform clearly defined and separated, the drink question would be a much easier thing to discuss than it is.. Un- fortunately they have got almost indissoiubly tangled by reason of the fact that so many who secretly hold the dogmatic teetotal view will not avow it frankly, while many others (practically the whole Liberal and Progressive parties for example) hastily adopt measures which have no raison d'etre save in this view without thinking seriously about their nature. If the teetotal enthusiasts would say frankly (as some but by no means all of them do) that they want absolute and unqualified. Prohibition and only support Local Veto and the much-vaunted Temperance Policy of the London County Council as steps towards Prohibition then at least we should know where we were. But when the Daily News itself was plainly and publicly challenged by the Rev. Stewart Headlam to say whether it meant that or not, it pointedly evaded the question. The fact is, of course that if this policy were frankly explained its supporters would be snowed under at the next election even more finally than the supporters of Local Veto were in 1895. So they do not avow it, but try to get essentially prohibitionist legislation through under cover of vague phrases like "temperance reform" to which we are all urged to rally.

Take Local Veto for example. What was the main proposal involved in Sir William Harcourt's famous measure. It proposed that every ward (the smallest area known to English local government) should have the right by a two-thirds majority to veto all licenses within its area or by a bare majority to reduce them by one fourth. Now was this measure intended to lead to Prohibition or was it not? If it was, then the English people who did not want Prohibition did well to reject it ; but if it was not, and its supporters generally insist that it was not, whither was it intended to lead. Its obvious effect in practice, as Mr. Pease has justly pointed out, would be that the rich districts, where public houses are few and cannot in any sense be regarded as a social evil, would probably expel them as derogatory to the interests of property and the "character of the neighbourhood," while all the drinking would be concentrated in the worst slum areas, where public houses, not of the best type, are already dangerously numerous and crowded, and where prohibition would have no chance whatever. This is clearly not a temperance reform in any sense of the word. It could have been framed only in the interests of men who regard alcohol as so positively a devilish thing that they rejoice at the destruction of any place defiled by its presence regardless of the ulterior consequences to temperance itself.

The Temperance Policy of the London County Council is at least as strong a case in point. What is this much-trumpetted policy? It is this; that when the County Council has to acquire the license of a public house in the course of making some street improvement, it first pays huge compensation to the publican and then abandon the the license, thus practically throwing the ratepayer's money into the sea. That is all. In the course of its distinguished career the L.C.C. has spent more than 300,000 in this wise and beneficent manner.

Now what does the County Council suppose that it is doing? For a systematic reduction of drink licenses in certain districts there is doubtless much to be said, though I am inclined to think that the importance of this as a factor in the temperance problem is grossly exaggerated. But, if that is to be effected, the whole licensing system must be brought under review and houses suppressed according to a well-considered plan. Care would for example be taken that the worse kind of houses were suppressed and the better retained. The Council suppresses them on no plan whatever simply where it happens to be making a street improvement. The result is, of course, that the gain to temperance is absolutely nil. A street is to be widened; the public houses on one side of the street are pulled down, their licenses purchased and abandoned; those on the other side remain. The people who used to drink on the one side go over and drink on the other. The suppressed publican (or the brewer he represents) gets ample compensation; the unsuppressed publican gets his neighbour's trade in addition to his own without paying one farthing for it And the public ? What does the public get? The satisfaction of knowing that the workman may have to cross the road in order to refresh himself.

The fact is that the Progressive party, dangerously subject to intimidation by the Nonconformist chapels, has adopted a policy entirely meaningless from the standpoint of enlightened temperance, in obedience to the irrational demands of those who think that the destruction of any public house must be a righteous act.

Now the same spirit which revealed in the Local Veto Bill and still shows itself in the County Council policy has been to a great extent responsible for the opposition encountered by the government's Licensing Act. I do not say that this Act could not be fairly criticised upon other grounds. The terms accorded to the Trade are certainly high in my view too high and of the compensation granted too much seems likely (in the case of a tied house) to go to the brewer and too little to the publican. But that is not the ground chosen by the most vehement enemies of the measure. The ground explicitly chosen by them is that the publican is an enemy, a wicked man, whom we ought to punish for his misdeeds. If it were the case of any other trade, would anybody venture to deny that a man whose livelihood is taken away by the arbitrary act of the governing powers through no fault of his own is entitled, whatever be his strict legal position, to some measure of relief. To which the only answer vouchsafed by the teetotal faction consists in windy abuse of the publican as a "vampire." I think that private monopoly in the Drink Trade is a great evil; so is private monopoly everywhere else. But to abuse the man who merely sells what the public demands and the community, instructs him to supply is fanaticism and not statesmanship

Now if, leaving this foolish cult, whose voting power is by no means in proportion to the noise it makes, we ask ourselves what kind of temperance reform sensible reformers really want, we shall not find it difficult to answer.

First and foremost then we want good liquour and especially good beer. Every- one who frequents public houses knows how hard this often is to obtain. Yet beer is our national drink, of which we ought to be proud. Properly manufactured it does no one any harm, though when made of chemical " substitutes " instead of sound malt and hops it is as noxious as any other adulterated concoction. Beer-drinking, within reasonable limits, and provided the beer be sound liquour, is a national habit which no wise ruler would attempt to suppress. For it is the best prophylactic against the inordinate consumption of cheap and bad spirits which really is a national curse in Scotland and elsewhere.

Secondly we want decent surroundings. It is a most unfortunate thing that few temperance reformers have any personal acquaintance with public houses or with alcoholic drinking. For if they had they would know that a man is much more likely to brutalise himself if he is compelled to drink "perpendicularly" in a dirty, ugly, and gloomy bar than if he can sit down comfortably, talk to his friends, play cards and listen, perhaps, to a little music. That is why another phase of the L.C.C. "temperance" policy, the refusal of drink licenses to music halls, is so manifestly absurd. A man who drinks at a music hall, where he is being amused in other ways, is much less likely to get drunk than one who drinks in a public house bar (as such bars are now conducted) where there is nothing to do but to go on drinking. As Mr. Headlam has excellently expressed it, it would be a great deal better policy to turn every public house into a music hall than to turn every music hall into a teetotal institution. The second thing we want then is a humanised public house.

Thirdly we want to get rid of the private commercial monopoly which exploits the drink trade, whereby vast fortunes are made at the expense of the community. These immense profits are the direct result of the monopoly granted by the community to private traders in return for a nominal fee. To grant away what is practically public money in this way is monstrous. It is satisfactory to find that something like High License is foreshadowed in this year's Licensing Act. But High License is not enough.

The sensible remedy is the municipalization of the liquour traffic which would fulfil all the above conditions. The municipal public house would refuse to sell any but the best liquors, and it would supply these with humanising instead of demoralising surroundings. The profits which the public are entitled to the public would receive. And let me say here that there is no reason whatever why we should wait for a municipal monopoly which means waiting till Doomsday. The idea that municipal houses must not compete with privately owned ones rests ultimately upon the mischievous notion already examined that the drinking of alcohol is in itself an evil thing upon which the state ought to frown if it cannot actually suppress it. The typical British workman (whatever "democratic" politicians may say) does not go into the public house in order to get drunk but in order to refresh himself. If the municipality gives him better drink under more pleasant conditions than the publican he will frequent its houses without demanding that drunkenness shall be either encouraged or connived at. And the competition of the municipal house will infallibly raise the standard of those houses that remain in private hands.

Why does not the London County Council abandon its "Settled Temperance Policy" and go as straight for municipal public houses as it has gone for municipal trams? The common answer is that the Council has no power to run public houses; but this is no answer at all. Till this year it had no power to run steamers on the Thames. But it wanted the power, it agitated for it, embodied it in its Bills and eventually forced a Tory House of Commons to concede it. Has it ever asked for power to run public houses? Not once. Moreover, even as things stand, it could if it pleased get to work on the right lines instead of on the wrong ones. Instead of abandoning licenses it could retain them and lease the new houses to publicans at pretty high ground rents and on stringent conditions such as would insure that the house should be of the best type possible under private management. Besides there is Earl Grey's Trust, an organisation founded expressly to anticipate most of the results of municipalism. They could easily have let the Trust take over the licenses, but they have persistently refused to do so. The fact is that the London Progressives do not want to municipalise the retail liquour trade. They do not want to do it, because they dread the power of the Nonconformist chapel and the forces which find their political rallying ground in the local P.S.A., forces of which the guiding principle is not temperance, but a hatred of alcohol per se. But surely it is possible to make a last appeal to the Progressive leaders. After all they have pricked that bubble once. To their eternal credit they have defied and bitterly offended the chapels over the education question, and no very dire consequences have followed. Will they not take their courage in their hands and defy them on the drink question also?

*"The Case for Municipal Drink" by E. R. Pease King & Son.

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