This week BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time told the story of the Temperance movement in Britain which is said to have really got going in 1832 in Preston. It provides fascinating insight into where we find ourselves now, where we have moved forward and where the debate has become frozen in time. You can listen yourself here.
What struck me was that we are not so much reliving this history, but that the knotty issues raised by retailing addictive psychoactives were never resolved. While we might scoff at our ancestors, we have not come much further. What we see now on the internet are, perhaps, are echoes of the arguments made in temperance halls and colourful lantern slides.
One notable quote from the programme came from Bishop of Peterborough in 1872. Looking it up verbatim in Hansard it was, “…it would be better that England should be free than that England should be compulsorily sober.” He went on, however, “I would distinctly prefer freedom to sobriety, because with freedom we might in the end attain sobriety.”
The bill he was opposing with this speech to the House of Lords was one to allow local parishes to stop the issue of alcohol licences. This might well have been a blunt and ineffective instrument. I don’t know. But what is clear is that the bishop’s argument brushed aside positive freedoms we typically value on a par with the freedom to do business.
This is a fateful oversimplification of the conception of freedom, which has the dire consequence of polarising the discussion from there on. I outline this more fully in the opening chapter of Alcohol for Nerds, drawing on the work of intellectual historian Professor Quentin Skinner who created a detailed genealogy of freedoms, plural.
But, in essence, 150-years on it is still not accurate to portray those who seek to regulate alcohol sales more as being “against freedom” and those in favour of fewer regulations as being “for freedom”. It ignores the fact that restrictions help curb the freedom-reducing effects of things like inebriation, violence, dependence, illness and disability.
As the BBC programme makes clear the Temperance movement was largely led by and for the benefit of working people looking to improve their lives, by avoiding the many perils of Victorian life. It was also part of a wider struggle to find a political voice. This is a struggle for freedom, not against it, although it can impinge on some commercial freedoms.
The UK has not found a satisfactory democratic solution to this day. Elected representatives have long abdicated responsibility for regulating alcohol marketing and advertising, handing it to the alcohol industry itself, despite the direct conflict of interest. The results are predictably poor, with government ministers unable to introduce something simple as guideline labelling.
We have changed enormously since the days of the Temperance movement, as has the knowledge-base from which we work. But the balancing of different conceptions of freedom goes on. This is society struggling to decide what freedom is and how to deliver it. Long may it continue. ■