The decline of the public house should greatly concern us all. In a context of increasing business rates and rises in beer duty, more and more pubs have closed for good in the last decade, with it now being estimated that at least three establishments cease trading every single day. At the same time as 70% believe that ‘their communities have been eroded over the course of their lifetimes’, why are we not more worried about the cultural vandalism which continues to destroy core pillars of British civic life?
The pub is older, more ancient, than the idea of Britain, or even England, itself. Their presence in our communities stretch back at the very least to the Romans’ tabernae – taverns – which, initially designed to refresh the legionary troops with wine, had soon become alehouses, appropriated by natives, stocked with the classic domestic drink of choice, and quickly becoming the centre of thousands of communities across the isles. Through thousands of years of invasions, plagues, wars, revolutions and strife, the pub has served as a comforting constant, providing a crucial meeting-place in the heart of communities through which the social contract, binding countrymen in mutual love and friendship through good times and bad, could be maintained.
Crucially, pubs were not bland, soulless, commercialised establishments as many are today – with their ghastly characterless décor which displays not a hint of individuality – but were deeply rooted in national history, and their specific locations, in a meaningful way. After a law passed by Richard II in 1393 made it compulsory for pubs to display signs marking them as official alehouses, pubs began to choose names and signs which evidenced social or political moods in their area. ‘The Rose and Crown’, for example, became a popular pub name in areas across the country freed from decades of internecine war, celebrating the end of the War of the Roses. Many others would self-associate with the local trade – my own home town has ‘The Jolly Bricklayers’ – and therefore become not only a social hub, but a facilitator of commerce and trade as well. Particularly during the reign of Henry VIII, when falconry was the King’s preferred pastime and cock-fighting constituted recreation, pubs would derive their names from local sports and activities: ‘The Bird in Hand’, ‘The Cock’ and, near old hunting grounds, ‘The Greyhound’ and ‘The Dog & Duck’ were frequent. Names were not artificial brands devised by ‘market researchers’, but were a natural symbol of local history, folklore, trades, sports and ancient associations, and thus in many ways essentialised that village’s identity and past. In other words, the community pub was built upwards from local individuals: a signifier of a mutual identity – wherever that identity happened to be drawn from – and a celebration of a common spirit which defined a village or town as not merely a group of people who were living near to each other by chance, but as fellow subjects bound deeply together in invisible yet powerful social ties.
Can it therefore be any wonder that this persistent presence, this source of personal and community identity, made the pub a place of homely comfort, a comfort which was hospitably extended to compatriots from far-off towns? Can it be surprising that it was ‘The Tabard’ which housed Chaucer’s pilgrims as they set off towards Canterbury, or that the local pub is what was sought by fatigued merchants and travellers as they came to the end of their day? Is it not understandable that Shakespeare’s young man in Henry V cares not for winning ‘immortal fame’ as he faces impossible odds at Agincourt, but poignantly exclaims: ‘Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety’?
The fact is, that until recently, ‘a pot of ale’ really could be equated to ‘safety’, and an alehouse really was another type of home, the absence of which indicated a displacement from family and friends when stranded in far-off lands. The essential feelings of well-being and comfort were not imposed from above by an all-powerful and (supposedly) benevolent state, but from civic institutions like the pub. The consequences of this were politically significant. Local, apolitical establishments, such as the pub, were alternate sources of power through which communities could organise themselves independent of, and sometimes in opposition to, the state. This not only meant that people had an identity wholly detached from, and uninterested with, national politics – inevitably rendering them weary of the cynical forces of government which consisted of unwelcome intrusions into their lives, rather than a simple fact of it – but were better placed to actively resist state malpractice. It is no coincidence that Luddites, Chartists and other radical movements used the pub as an essential meeting-place – a suitable replacement of which is difficult to identify – in which aggrieved communities gathered and plotted. The force of community, which for centuries has found its ideal centre in the local pub, is a crucial bulwark to the force of the state. A decline in the power of the community ultimately means a decline in the power of the individual, and, consequently, an increase in the power of the state.
As the pub has declined, so the rates of binge-drinking have increased, particularly given that supermarkets – for a reason that is beyond me – have not been hit by the same taxes on alcohol as pubs. Why have we allowed a situation to develop where is much, much cheaper to sit indoors by yourself getting dangerously inebriated compared to enjoying a few pints with friends in your local pub? It is a mark of our increasingly anatomised society, in which the bonds which used to hold us together as a cohesive people have been systematically weakened, that more and people opt – not necessarily out of choice – to drink themselves into oblivion in the loneliness of their living room. Drinking in the pub, subject to the watchful eye of the landlord, is not only safer, but ritualises the experience of alcohol consumption: it becomes not a purely hedonistic activity designed solely for the obtaining of selfish pleasure, but a way of participating in the community as a social being, engaging in the ancient rituals which connect us to our ancestors and therefore, on some fundamental level, make us English. Sir Roger Scruton, in his wonderful I Drink Therefore I Am argued that ‘the practice of buying rounds in the pub is one of the great cultural achievements of the English’, and he is right. Because it transforms morally empty drinking for drinking’s sake – vain, superficial pursuit of pleasure – into a governed, ritualised experience through which one takes their place in an unselfish community.
The decline of the pub is symbolic of much greater and more profound social ills which have completely transformed the country in the last couple of generations. Society has become increasingly more lonely as the institutions which previously defined us, which brought us together as fellow subjects, have been destroyed and replaced by the isolated and base acquiring of pleasure for its own sake. We are losing touch with what our ancestors experienced and how they lived, and so are losing fundamental parts of our national identity and the power of our communities. In so doing, we are losing the power that comes when we organise ourselves into meaningful groups, becoming an unconnected collection of people with little in common, and thus making ourselves collectively weaker. The erosion of our national identity and spirit – exemplified poignantly by the fate of the pub – is nothing less than a tragedy.