Alcohol is omnipresent across the history of modern Britain. The beginning of the Victorian era coincided with the rise of the temperance movement, an influential campaign for social reform that opposed the pervasiveness of heavy drinking in British society.1 The political conflict over drink peaked during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, eventually culminating in the implementation of the most far-reaching regulations on the liquor trade during the First World War. The policies of the Central Control Board (CCB), including the imposition of higher beverage duties and reduced licensing hours, were widely perceived to be successful in diminishing the problem of drunkenness.2 While many other parts of the Western world proceeded to implement a national prohibition on the sale of alcohol, most notably in the United States with the passage of the eighteenth amendment, such reforms were seen to be unnecessarily disruptive in Britain following the demonstration that the destructive impact of drink could be mitigated by controlling the sale of alcohol instead of banning it.3 This established narrative of the British experience with alcohol framed the rest of the century as a success story in rational alcohol policies and the scientization of harm reduction strategies, coinciding with the diminishing significance of the Victorian temperance movement and its uncompromising support for prohibition.4
This article reviews recent developments in the historiography of the politics of alcohol in twentieth-century Britain, concerning which three broad observations can be made. First, historians have stressed that continuity was as significant as change over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whilst older accounts supposed that the influence of the temperance movement diminished after the First World War, later accounts have instead argued that temperance ideas continued to shape the debate surrounding drink across the twentieth century. The most recent literature emphasizes the importance of the discursive legacy of temperance morality in the modern public health approaches to alcohol. Second, the historiography has been strongly associated with the debates surrounding alcohol consumption and harm in Britain today. The current scholarly interest in the history of drink in Britain is largely attributable to the resurgent concerns over alcohol misuse that have emerged since the 1990s. Many of the accounts reviewed here have been produced to inform and contextualize the present in terms of the past. Third, an exploration of the literature reveals that the history of alcohol has always been much more than just about alcohol itself. Drink is understood to be a useful microcosm to highlight a multiplicity of historical themes, as controversies surrounding alcohol were often at the heart of wider developments. A comprehensive account of social and cultural change in modern Britain would, therefore, be incomplete without accounting for the far-reaching significance of drink within such processes.
The first section of what follows explores how the standard narrative of the politics of alcohol has been framed as a struggle between groups that supported its unrestricted distribution and groups that sought to regulate it, while recent interpretations have highlighted the complexity of the drink question by examining factions and ideologies that failed to fit neatly into either side of the dialectic. The second section moves onto the recent interpretive critique of the supposed ‘rationality’, ‘impartiality’, and ‘scientificity’ of Britain's alcohol policy during the First World War and of the modern public health model, both of which have increasingly been framed in terms of the legacy of the nineteenth-century temperance movement. This shift directly relates to a wider question within the history of science and medicine on the nature of scientific knowledge and its relation to non-scientific social and cultural contexts. The final section discusses the broader methodological implications of the manner in which historians have popularly framed the upsurge in public anxieties over drink as ‘moral panics’, highlighting the usefulness of drink to understand the complex web of interaction between the media, the state, and public opinion in contributing to the problematization of social issues. The article will conclude by exploring some of the shortfalls in the historiography and suggest possible trajectories for further research.
Historians have traditionally presented the politics of alcohol as a binary confrontation between groups that benefited from a freer distribution of alcohol and groups that were determined to restrict or ban its sale. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the temperance movement was locked into conflict with the liquor trade, or ‘the trade’, a pejorative used by the anti-drink movement to label the collective interests of brewers, distillers, publicans, retailers, and other groups that profited from the sale of alcohol.5 By the late twentieth century, growing concerns over alcohol-related harm led to the emergence of the public health model, which pushed for tougher alcohol controls. Within this dialectical narrative, more recent accounts by David Gutzke and Henry Yeomans present the liquor trade in a more favourable light by taking a critical view of the discourses and motives of the temperance movement and the public health model.6 A handful of other contributions by Joanna Woiak, James Kneale, and Shaun French take an interest in the discourses surrounding the moderate consumption of alcohol in medicine, hinting at the existence of other factions outside the dialectic that had a stake in the politics of alcohol.7 When viewed within the context of wider developments during the period, the drink question and alcohol regulation constitute a useful lens to understand the expanding role of the state and the process in which industrial interests adjusted to such developments.
A dialectic over the availability of alcohol, or of any other purchasable commodity, is founded on the conflict of interests that naturally arises between the ‘profiteers’ and ‘restrictors’. The liquor trade has, for the most part, benefited from minimum restrictions on alcohol licensing and pricing. On the other hand, the temperance and public health movements opposed the unrestricted sale of alcohol by pressuring the state to regulate strictly or ban its supply and distribution. James Nicholls accordingly understands the politics of alcohol as ‘a question of liberty itself’, an apt representation of the contradictions that have existed within liberalism over the past two centuries.8 Classical liberalism, with its support for both civil and economic liberties, championed the right of the individual to indulge freely in alcohol and the right of businesses to engage in the uninterrupted sale of alcoholic beverages. Social liberalism advocated the proactive role of the state in addressing issues related to social justice by restricting the availability of alcohol to not only free individuals from the debilitating effects of drunkenness and inebriety, but to free others from the disruption and harm caused by drinkers.9 According to Nicholls, this distinction was marked by a disagreement between the two titans of nineteenth-century liberal thought, John Stuart Mill and T. H. Green. Mill vehemently opposed prohibition for infringing on the individual's freedom to drink at his or her own expense, especially those of more moderate habits who were seldom harmful to the rest of society. On the other hand, Green advocated prohibition by arguing that alcohol restricted individuals’ freedom by subjecting them to the bondage of alcohol dependence.10 A similar premise underwrote public health campaigners’ advocacy for controls as a means to uphold the right of individuals to be protected from ill health and other risks brought about by drink. Therefore, in either stance, the state has been understood as the primary agent that determines the distribution of alcohol in society. However, in Britain, individual consumption was always permitted within acceptable confines set by beverage duties and licensing laws, a facet of Patrick Joyce's concept of the ‘liberal state’ that characterized modern British governance.11
The understanding of the state as an inherently restrictive institution is, however, not universal in itself and associated most strongly with the developments of the first half of the twentieth century, when the government played an increasingly proactive role in the economy.12 Other possible variations in the relationship of drink to the state can be observed when moving across national and periodical boundaries. In his monograph on the significance of vodka in Russian history from the beginning of the tsardom to the present day, Mark Schrad argues that drink was an instrument of the autocratic state to control and disorient the masses while extracting much needed revenue.13 Similarly, David Courtwright understands alcohol as a ‘fiscal cornerstone of the modern state’ within which duties on beverages made up a large proportion of state revenue in Victorian Britain.14 As such, the relationship between alcohol and the state has not always been limited to that of control.
Within this purported dialectic between temperance and the liquor trade, recent accounts have gradually shifted towards classical liberalism in their narrative allegiances. Instead of being written from the perspective of the ‘restrictors’, the most recent accounts have become increasingly critical of the opposition to drink and calls to restrict its availability. In Alcohol and moral regulation, Yeomans explores the history of public attitudes and regulatory responses to alcohol by examining how the ‘morally laden’ discourse of temperance persisted following the political demise of the movement.15 This shift towards a more critical account of the anti-alcohol movement and the public health model will be explored in greater detail in the next section of this article.
The other important aspect of the historiographical shift has been the emergence of narratives written from the angle of the producers and sellers of alcoholic beverages. Economic and business histories of brewers and distillers are by any means not new.16 However, the latest works specifically account for the politics of alcohol from a perspective much more sympathetic to such actors. For instance, Paul Jennings gives a favourable portrayal of the pub as an institution central to everyday life in English society rather than as a space merely associated with intemperance.17 The work that best embodies this trend is Gutzke's Pubs and progressives. The book portrays the brewing industry as an actor with its own set of priorities in the drink question, exploring how interwar ‘progressive’ brewers adapted to the austere licensing regime that emerged out of the First World War.18 In order to reform what they perceived as ‘problematic’ forms of working-class drinking and to widen the social appeal of the pub, prominent brewers such as Sydney Nevile and W. Waters Butler paved the way in transforming the pub from a ‘vilified drinking den’ to a ‘respectable’ social space that appealed to a more bourgeois sensibility.19 During the First World War, both Nevile and Butler sat on the board with temperance reformers in the CCB to push for the first major drive for ‘pub reform’, where as many as 20,000 pubs across the country were renovated to provide more space, seating, and lighting.20 Gutzke re-examines this attempt at the manipulation of social space in his most recent monograph, Women drinking out in Britain since the early twentieth century, which explores the efforts by the very same brewers to attract more women to the pub.21 In order to stay profitable under the interwar licensing regime, brewers and publicans sought to deal with the problem of drunkenness on their own terms by willingly co-operating with the massive expansion in state control over the liquor trade. Many temperance groups, in contrast, were driven to political obscurity after refusing to compromise their support for total prohibition.22
Other accounts have gone further by alluding to the existence of distinct ideologies that do not strictly align to either the ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-’ drink camps. One of the earliest scholars to comment on the significance of a possible third faction was Woiak, who discusses the emergence of ‘the new moderationist paradigm’, or simply ‘moderationism’, after the First World War.23 Moderationism was a new scientific approach that developed out of the CCB's scientific research on alcohol's effects on the human body. Based on the existing body of knowledge, the advisory committee of the board settled with an understanding that excessive drinking was undeniably detrimental to one's health and longevity, while small or moderate quantities had little or no negative effects on the body.24 This assumption led to a conclusion that the solution to the problem of drunkenness lay in the encouragement of moderation rather than abstinence. Moderationism, therefore, undermined the beverage industry's promotion of alcohol as a nutritional health beverage and, more importantly, the scientific legitimacy of the temperance promotion of abstinence.25 The diminishing political and social influence of the temperance movement after the 1920s is a facet of what S. J. D. Green understood as a wider shift towards secularization in British society and the decline of puritanical attitudes towards drinking and other pleasure-seeking activities.26
The relative absence of historical interest in moderationism has also been flagged up by Kneale and French.27 Their article discusses the origins and impact of ‘Anstie's limit’, an early attempt by physician Francis E. Anstie to quantify the extent to which drinking was ‘safe’ before it threatened one's longevity. The influence of ‘the limit’ was so far-reaching that it was widely adopted by life assurance offices in the turn of the century as a means to differentiate ‘moderate’ and ‘excessive’ drinkers so that larger premiums could be charged to policyholders whose habits posed a greater risk to their mortality.28 Moreover, it empowered a group of doctors opposed to teetotalism to promote instead a scientized conception of moderate consumption over that of the temperance belief in the virtues of abstinence.29 By demonstrating the significance of life insurance in providing a separate approach to drink, Kneale and French hint at the idea that the drink question in the past two centuries was far more complex than the ‘temperance-trade’ binary that had been assumed to exist by many of the earlier narratives.
The interest in moderation signals two potential historiographical trajectories. First, historians should overcome the assumption that the period from the 1920s to the 1970s was a relatively uneventful ‘twilight zone’ that witnessed little or no conflict over drink.30 Compared to the furore of the First World War, the Second World War receives minimum coverage from Nicholls and Yeomans on the basis that there was very little controversy over drink.31 Brian Glover's popular history on drink during the Second World War argues that beer and the pub were vital sources of morale at both home and abroad. Although Glover's monograph has been largely overlooked by academic historians due to the descriptive nature of its narrative, his findings nonetheless signal the usefulness of understanding drink and its association with ‘Britishness’ as a potential field of study for scholars of British national identity.32 Dan Malleck's work on the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's discursive construction of the normative ‘citizen-drinker’ embodying the ideals of a responsible, ‘moderate’ consumer in post-prohibition Canada might also give British historians an idea on how to approach the triumph of moderation throughout the half-century after the First World War.33
Concerning the second trajectory, readers of this review would have no doubt noticed that the newfound interest in the discourses surrounding moderate drinking has not translated to a serious study of drinking itself, or that of the individual drinker.34 The historiography has yet to take into account the bottom-up attitudes and practices of both moderate and heavy consumers. Dwight B. Heath observed in 1987 that ‘the importance of drinking as a “normal” behavior has rarely been recognized in other disciplines’.35 Health, alongside other anthropologists including Mac Marshall and Mary Douglas, promoted the understanding that, in most cases, alcohol consumption in varying quantities was largely perceived in most cultures as an ordinary, constructive part of daily life.36 The furore of the temperance movement and their crusade against alcohol and the wider discourse surrounding drunkenness and alcoholism are peculiar themes that understandably divert the attention of many scholars away from the more ‘mundane’ aspects of drinking. Heath's call for a focus on ‘ordinary’ drinking has not been adequately addressed by the largely elitist, top-down perspective that colours much of the historiography, most aptly exemplified by the neglect of the voices of male and female drinkers in Gutzke's account of interwar pub improvement.37 The absence of the agency of the ordinary drinker in the literature is telling, especially considering the wealth of existing studies on the social history of everyday drinking practices in early modern Europe.38 In addition to having access to a slew of personal letters, diaries, and biographies, historians of the twentieth century have the advantage of conducting oral history interviews. Therefore, there is clear potential to expand the historical interest in the discourses surrounding ordinary drinking towards a social history of ordinary drinkers.
One of the most profound historiographical developments on the drink question in Britain has been the recognition of a broad continuity between the ‘pre-modern’ and ‘modern’, ‘moral’ and ‘rational’, and ‘non-scientific’ and ‘scientific’ phases in approaches to alcohol consumption and harm. The assumption that twentieth-century approaches to alcohol control and regulation were founded on scientific evidence came under the scrutiny of an increasing recognition that such approaches were shaped also by politics, a line of thought that resonates strongly with Foucault's theory of medical knowledge as a pathologization of culturally determined abnormalities and transgressions.39 Older accounts by John Greenaway and others reinforce the assumption that the CCB maintained its ideological neutrality from the temperance movement during the First World War under a secular, non-ideological objective of safeguarding the efficiency of the homefront.40 Recent historians such as Robert Duncan, however, oppose this interpretation by arguing that the CCB's claim to ‘political impartiality’ concealed the significant extent to which its liquor control policies were shaped by some of the most radical temperance ideas at the time.41 The anti-drink movement is revealed to have also had a lasting significance across the century beyond its declining political influence after the war. A growing historiographical interest by Yeomans and others focused on the discursive influence of temperance ‘morality’ in the modern public health model, an approach to alcohol misuse that emerged in the 1970s, and that continues to shape much of the present discussions surrounding consumption and harm.42 The debate over the ‘scientificity’ of the public health model reflects a theme that has been identified within the history of science, namely the idea that all forms of scientific activity are ultimately inseparable from their non-scientific contexts, and that social and cultural preconditions often function to shape such activities.43 Previous attempts to separate the ‘moral’ concerns of the old temperance movement and the ‘medical’ concerns of the public health model have been scrutinized by historians who have pointed to discursive continuities between the two intellectual approaches to the drink question.
Alcohol historians have reasserted the significance of Britain's wartime controls on drink. Public concern over the impact of drunkenness on the war effort led to the creation of the CCB in May 1915, an independent branch of the state given near-dictatorial powers to restrict the nationwide supply and distribution of alcohol on a scale previously unseen in British history.44 Pubs were forced to close before 9 pm, the practice of buying drinks in rounds (‘treating’) was banned, beverages were diluted, and duties were significantly raised. Hundreds of canteens were built in munitions factories across the country to rival licensed establishments, while entire pubs were purchased for interior renovation and for the provision of warm food and non-alcoholic beverages.45 The establishment of the CCB was one of the facets of the shift from Asquith's policy of ‘business as usual’ towards Lloyd George's mobilization of the national economy under a state of total war, which granted the state extensive powers over private affairs.46 Surprisingly for such a significant moment in the history of drink, the subject did not receive a book-length study until the publication of Pubs and patriots: the drink crisis in Britain during World War One by Duncan.47 Backed by a wealth of new empirical evidence of both internal documents and popular sources, Duncan places the CCB within the wider trajectory of the history of the politics of alcohol in Britain, especially as a sort of continuation of pre-war temperance agitations.
Duncan challenges two assumptions that formed the basis of the institutional ‘brand’ of the CCB, one of which argued that the CCB was ideologically neutral, and another that stated that its policies were driven by a purely ‘secular’ and ‘pragmatic’ initiative to protect the efficiency of the homefront. Greenaway's earlier work on the British history of the ‘high politics’ of alcohol supports these assumptions by arguing that the CCB's strength lay precisely in its independence from the ‘vested interests’ of both the evangelical crusade against drink and the profit motive of the trade.48 Nicholls, while providing a more balanced account of the CCB than Greenaway does, seldom challenges these assumptions.49 On the other hand, while Duncan does not deny that the CCB was driven by its need to protect national efficiency, he points out that the body was established on the assumption that this objective could be achieved through the reduction of drunkenness.50 This implied that drink itself was specifically targeted as a threat whereby its heavy consumption was seen to cause enormous disruption to wartime mobilization and munitions production, indicating that the CCB was anything but ‘neutral’ from the politics of alcohol.
One of the most historiographically contentious episodes of the war concerns the Carlisle scheme. Following an exponential rise in public drunkenness from the influx of munitions workers to Carlisle, the CCB placed the entire liquor industry of the town, including breweries, pubs, and off-licences, under state ownership to more efficiently manage alcohol pricing, licensing hours, and the drinking environment.51 Greenaway interprets the scheme primarily as a temporary measure for the CCB to experiment with different models of temperance reform.52 Duncan, on the contrary, believes that it was much more than just an ‘experiment’, arguing that Carlisle was where the board was able to ‘implement its most radical agenda’.53 Outside of outright prohibition, the nationalization of the liquor industry was understood then to be one of the most radical solutions proposed by sections of the temperance movement to tackle drunkenness.54 Duncan uncovered an internal memorandum submitted by the CCB to Lloyd George on 16 December 1916, which recommended that a Carlisle-style public ownership of the liquor industry should be implemented nationwide.55 This demonstrates that the radical reform agenda was ideologically endorsed by the CCB as a normative solution to the problem of intemperance in Britain, a revelation that confirms Gutzke's earlier contention that Carlisle was a ‘model farm’ and a ‘blueprint for post-war reconstruction’ in licensing.56 Yeomans, therefore, correctly describes the First World War as the ‘apogee of the temperance movement’ when unprecedented levels of hysteria over drunkenness led to the implementation of the most far-reaching controls on alcohol in modern British history.57
The association between the ‘modern’ or ‘rational’ approaches to alcohol with the more ‘traditional’ or ‘moral’ concerns of the old temperance movement is a poignant theme that carries into the historiography of the drink question in the late twentieth century. Historians have invested a significant amount of attention to the revival of concerns over alcohol use by public health campaigners and professional medical bodies after the 1970s. The costs of alcohol misuse attracted public attention following an exponential rise in per capita levels of alcohol consumption between 1950 and 1975.58 This was attributable both to the growth of disposable incomes throughout the post-1945 era and to the gradual liberalization of licensing laws after the 1960s.59 It was precisely within this context that an approach to alcohol policy founded on the epidemiological study of ‘problem drinking’ across whole populations emerged. The language shifted from one based on ‘treatment’ that dominated the immediate post-war era to that of ‘prevention’ and ‘risk’. The former focused on treating individual alcoholics, understood then to be a fixed number of a minority of drinkers, while the latter, the new public health model, labelled all drinkers as being potentially ‘at risk’ of alcohol-related diseases and harms.60 A network of social scientists, epidemiologists, physicians, and civil servants adopted this new approach, targeting ‘problem drinking’ by focusing on prevention through controls on alcohol pricing and licensing.61 The new linguistic paradigm legitimized the right of the state to have indirect control over the body of whole populations through the problematization of consumption and behaviour, emblematic of Foucault's concept of biopower.62
The present drive to reduce the affordability of retailed beverages by setting a minimum price on every unit of alcohol is the latest rendition of the public health model, a reminder that the approach continues to be influential well into the twenty-first century.63 Indeed, the revival of scholarly interest in alcohol history across the past two decades has undoubtedly been the product of the resurgent public discourse surrounding alcohol use from the 1990s.64 Many of the recent accounts, including that of Nicholls and Yeomans, are partially intended to inform the current discussion on drink by historically contextualizing an existing problem.65 This tendency is especially reflected in how a large proportion of the scholars mentioned in this article are themselves affiliated with disciplines other than history, indicating that the historiography has a strong normative function in addressing existing policy debates.66 The public health model has therefore been the subject of critical interest and dissection by historians, both as a phenomenon within a wider historical trajectory of the drink question and as an existing paradigm in alcohol policy. The drive to inform the present, however, has imposed serious limitations on the historiography. As explored in the previous section, the overwhelming interest in the elitist, top-down perspective at the expense of a ‘history from below’ approach to the politics of drink is a direct outcome of the need to historicize alcohol from the angle of medical professionals and policy-makers.
The earliest accounts of the public health model have been characterized by their emphasis on its ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ properties. The historical origins of the approach were explored first by Rob Baggott in Alcohol, politics and social policy.67 Baggott identifies three main groups that have focused on the problematization of drink: the temperance movement and its understanding of alcohol use as a ‘moral’ issue; law enforcement and its interest in maintaining public order; and professional medical bodies driven by ‘medical’ concerns. Based on this framework, he argues that the drink question was increasingly dealt with as a ‘medical’ issue after the 1970s, rendering the ‘moral’ considerations of the old temperance movement obsolete.68 Betsy Thom provides a similar interpretation in Dealing with drink, which focuses on the changes in scientific ideas that have contributed to the formation of the public health model.69 Thom detected two major shifts in the ‘conceptualisation’ of the alcohol problem in the twentieth century. First, the ‘moral’ model of the temperance movement that understood ‘inebriety’ as a failure of individual will was replaced by the ‘disease’ concept that labelled ‘alcoholism’ as a pathological condition requiring treatment. Second, this ‘disease’ concept later shifted to the public health model where alcohol was framed in terms of its ‘risk’ to the whole drinking population, rather than just to a set minority of drinkers predisposed to alcoholism. Thom argues that these changes were triggered simultaneously by new scientific evidence, the increasing influence of key actors, and changing cultural understandings of alcohol consumption.70 While her last point acknowledges the relevance of ‘non-scientific’ factors in the formation of scientific knowledge, Thom nonetheless agrees with Baggott that the modern public health approach was, in essence, more ‘scientific’ than the older, moral-laden ideology of the temperance movement. Although both approaches effectively advocated for legislative solutions, they crucially differed in that the problematization of alcohol consumption under the public health model was, in theory, justified by its epidemiological role in the growing incidence of alcohol-related harms rather than as a value judgement on consumption itself. This historiographical interpretation resonates with the sociological concept of a ‘risk society’ that was famously articulated by Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, an idea that understood the societal preoccupation with potential harm or loss as one of the characteristic features of modernity.71 Perhaps unintentionally, Thom's and Baggott's ‘rationalist’ accounts reinforce a similar linear, progressivist narrative that presented the long-term shift from the ‘moral’ model to the public health model as part of the wider process of modernization.
A number of objections have been raised in opposition to this interpretation. Against the ‘rational–moral’ dichotomy, newer accounts highlight the existence of connections between the public health movement and the old temperance movement, citing the influence of older temperance ideas and discourses within the modern language of ‘risk’ and ‘prevention’. On the surface, it is of no coincidence that the Institute of Alcohol Studies, one of the leading advocacy groups in the public health movement today, also happens to be the direct institutional descendant of the United Kingdom Alliance, the most influential prohibitionist pressure group of the nineteenth century.72 Similarly, the Band of Hope, a Victorian coalition of Christian teetotal educational societies for children, is now Hope UK, a charity providing education on alcohol and drugs to young people.73 Partly due to these organizational continuities, the public health movement has been labelled by several historians as the ‘new temperance movement’ or the ‘neo-temperance alliance’.74 Though the existence of such continuities does not necessarily invalidate the credibility of arguments put forward by the public health campaigners, it is nevertheless relevant to how the content of the ‘modern’ approach to the problematization of drink can partly be explained by their historical roots.
As for the intellectual and discursive similarities, Robin Room, an early contributor to the formation of the public health model and one of the leading authorities in alcohol research today, admits himself that the approach took ‘on a tone reminiscent of nineteenth-century temperance publications’.75 Yeomans describes the new model as a ‘secular rendering of the religious struggle to lead a virtuous life’, labelling the public health model and its concerns over alcohol consumption across the ‘whole population’ as part of the legacy of the temperance problematization of all forms of drinking, moderate and excessive.76 The focus on prevention originated from an influential 1975 World Health Organization report titled Alcohol control policies in public health perspective.77 Based on a demonstrable statistical correlation between per capita levels of alcohol consumption and overall levels of alcohol misuse, the report concluded that a productive prevention policy should aim to reduce overall levels of consumption among all drinkers in order to minimize harm across the board.78 In Britain, this ‘total consumption theory’ was heavily promoted by Griffith Edwards, a prominent British addiction researcher and one of the authors of the WHO report, and was later endorsed by numerous professional medical and psychiatric associations.79 Yeomans argues that the decision to target all levels of consumption for the prevention of alcohol misuse was, in essence, a by-product of the teetotalist notion that drinking even the smallest amount of alcohol was a ‘slippery slope’ to becoming a fully fledged alcoholic.80 Furthermore, he understands the notion of ‘risk’ as a ‘normatively charged concept that differentiates the desirable from the undesirable and supports efforts to reform the behaviour of those whose conduct is judged to be the latter.’81
Nicholls likewise acknowledges the association between the public health model and temperance ideology, though his work chooses instead to highlight more of the discursive discontinuities between the two over that of the continuities.82 Nicholls points out that the ‘moral argumentation’ of temperance medicine was indeed quite distinct from the ‘approach grounded in statistical analysis, risk-assessment and the language of harm reduction rather than total abstinence’. The difference was clear not just in the content of the claims but also in the discourse, where ‘the attempt to manage public behaviour becomes expressed in terms that are, on the surface at least, grounded in the morally neutral language of science, in which the “value of drinking is not commented upon; only consequences matter”’.83 Jennings similarly argues that ‘change has been as significant as continuity’ from the earlier anti-drink movement, as the discourse of the public health model and its emphasis on ‘risk’ is not equivalent to ‘the Demon Drink of the nineteenth century’.84 The critique of moderate consumption, while shared between the two approaches, is not as profound as it is portrayed by Yeomans when one considers the glaring differences between the two in both discourse and practice. Indeed, targeting all forms of consumption does not automatically equate to the promotion of abstinence or prohibition.
The historiographical reassessment of the CCB and, more prominently, the modern public health model presents itself to be relevant to a wider debate in the history of science and medicine over the nature of scientific knowledge. While Baggott and Thom distinguish the ‘moral’ and ‘rational’ approaches to alcohol policy, Yeomans and Nicholls instead argue that the two are not mutually exclusive given that the public health model borrows the notion from the temperance movement that all forms of alcohol consumption, moderate or heavy, should be problematized. In the same vein, a vast literature around the social constructionist approaches to the history of science and medicine posits the question whether scientific knowledge and activity is truly inseparable from their ‘non-scientific’ social and cultural contexts.85 The enormous influence of Foucault in the field of alcohol and drug history radically altered historians’ understanding of modern medical expertise, where intellectual change is attributed to the power of ‘authoritative’, ‘scientific’ professionals and institutions in constructing medical knowledge through their ‘non-scientific’, ‘moral’ prejudices.86 In her seminal study on opium in Victorian England, Virginia Berridge argues that the early rise of the ‘disease’ theory of addiction was laced with moral prejudices held by professional physicians towards what they perceived to be a deviant practice of intoxication by the lower classes.87 A related debate within the philosophy of science asks whether modern science possesses a ‘better’ or a ‘different’ epistemological status in comparison to other forms of knowledge and activity.88 The public health model is indeed more ‘different’ than ‘similar’ to the temperance approach to drink, but Yeomans is nonetheless correct to highlight the significance of the connections between the modern approach and the ideological tradition of the anti-drink movement from the nineteenth century.
There are two noticeable deficits in the present historiography. First, as hinted by Baggott, law enforcement is another key stakeholder alongside temperance reformers and public health advocates, and it has yet to be seriously studied.89 In his paper on the drink question in Victorian and Edwardian Liverpool, David Beckingham argues that the police played a distinct role in targeting female drunkenness by subjecting women to greater penalties.90 Berridge also describes how the public health movement was deterred at the beginning of the twenty-first century by lobbyists representing the police force pressuring for greater attention to be paid to public order over health.91 These works indicate that the historiography should consider law enforcement as an independent group with its own, separate agency and interest in the alcohol problem.
Second, the institutional continuities between the temperance movement and the modern public health model have not been thoroughly explored. Although the discursive continuity between the two dominant paradigms is aptly demonstrated by Yeomans, very little actual evidence is provided in terms of how the two groups are directly connected through individuals and organizations. Such shortages in the literature imply that the popular label of the public health movement as the ‘new temperance movement’ is empirically underdeveloped. Duncan's assessment of the influence of the temperance movement in shaping the policies of the CCB could also be understood as a direct attack on how the temperance movement strangely ‘disappears’ after the First World War from many of the historical accounts. To expand on how the emergence of moderationism intellectually discredited the promotion of total abstinence during the interwar era, it would be fruitful to study how various temperance organizations reacted and adjusted to these changes.92 Therefore, greater attention should be paid to the institutional and ideological transformation of the anti-alcohol movement by taking advantage of the wealth of published and unpublished sources of temperance groups that survived across the twentieth century. This line of inquiry would work to complement the historiography of the impact of the legacy of the temperance movement in the present-day problematization of alcohol beyond that of the discursive continuities.
The historiographical scepticism of the objectivity and impartiality of the public health model has been tied to a separate, but related, scholarly interest in the nature of social attitudes towards drink. The increasing reliance on social constructionist methods is signalled by the use of ‘moral panics’ as a popular framework among historians to understand the upsurges in anxieties over alcohol, even forming one of the central theoretical pillars of Yeomans's account.93 The use of this concept is tied to a key methodological development in the field, whereby alcohol historians have adopted approaches from cultural history to decipher the meanings and symbols of the drink question. Furthermore, the historiographical interest in the social perception of alcohol reveals a unique ontological approach in which the discourse surrounding alcohol is crucially separated from the reality.
The earliest academic conceptualization of ‘moral panics’ is commonly attributed to Stanley Cohen's Folk devils and moral panics, a sociological study of the media coverage of youth riots by the mods and rockers during the 1960s. Cohen uses the term to describe a situation in which a ‘condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interest’.94 The concept proved to be a compelling way to understand the process in which public opinion is manufactured by mass media through the exaggeration of certain social problems. Historians have popularly employed this sociological theory to understand if the problematizing discourses surrounding drink were truly representative of the state of reality. Duncan, for instance, discusses how the supposed rise in female drunkenness was high on the agenda for the CCB, when as a matter of fact both the per capita level alcohol consumption and arrests from drunkenness for women decreased in the first two years of the war.95 Stella Moss explores how the hyperbolic coverage of what was, in reality, a statistically rare case of methylated (industrially denatured) spirits abuse in interwar England led to a variety of regulatory responses.96 This conceptual framework poses a methodological challenge to historians who depend on the press as a source to construct an accurate account of public opinion within a given period. Instead, newspapers are revealed to be more useful in understanding the content of the narratives that were discursively constructed and propagated through the media.
The use of this malleable concept as a narrative framework directly relates to the wider impact of cultural history on the historiography of alcohol and politics. The interdisciplinary nature of the field signals the entrenchment of social constructionism in the discipline of history, which, much like most disciplines of the humanities and the social sciences, has virtually abandoned epistemological positivism.97 Older accounts by Baggott and Greenaway focus on the role of political actors in the formation of alcohol policy, while Thom explores the intellectual shifts within the content of the scientific and medical understandings of alcohol and health. These two approaches differ considerably from Yeomans, whose central thesis concerning the enduring legacy of the temperance movement is grounded in a discourse analysis of the problematization of drink across modern Britain. The historiographical study of language, representations, and meanings has gradually replaced the traditional preoccupation with institutions, ideologies, and structures.
The popularity of ‘moral panics’ has also inadvertently shaped the ontological approach of many historians. The concept, by definition, assumes not only that social hysteria is manufactured by the media; the hysteria itself is also understood as an exaggeration of reality itself.98 The existence of a public concern over a specific problem does not automatically imply that the problem itself is real or fairly represented, meaning that the theory assumes the existence of a social reality that is independent of social perception. The word ‘reality’ is understood here as the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to how things might be perceived or imagined. Thus, the literature explored in this article has sought to go beyond the discourses, meanings, symbols, and representations of drink by choosing instead to assess their truthfulness by juxtaposing them to what could be discerned to have actually happened in reality.
In this vein, Yeomans takes issue with how many social scientists fail to see a distinction between the ‘imagined’ and the ‘reality’ in their research, arguing that they have the duty to abandon their relativist approach by presenting an ‘accurate, valid knowledge about social reality and the elimination of misrepresentations’.99 By espousing the virtue of an ‘accurate, valid knowledge about social reality’, Yeomans is not calling for the return to an empiricist/positivist approach. Rather, he believes that a social researcher is obliged at the very least to attempt to understand the actual state of affairs.100 A similar commitment to social reality is also evident in Duncan's work on the drink question during the First World War, where he questions whether the moral panic over drunkenness and national efficiency was ever justified in the first place.101
The popular use of ‘moral panics’ as a conceptual framework has not been without its critics. David Rowe famously remarked that ‘the strengths and limitations of the concept…lie in its adaptability and applicability, but not in its explanatory comprehensiveness’.102 Berridge takes this point further in Demons: our changing attitudes to alcohol, tobacco, & drugs, describing ‘moral panics’ as a ‘tired catch-all explanation’. Berridge warns against the pitfalls of making far-reaching historiographical conclusions through what is evidently an overused sociological theory that oversimplifies a complex historical phenomenon, failing to account for the crucial role of state actors and vested political and economic interests in the formation of public opinion.103 The use of ‘moral panics’ as a framework additionally enables the historian to take the power of the press for granted in being able to shape the attitudes of a largely passive populace abject of any agency. Much like the problem of ‘elitism’ in the historiography explored in the first section of this article, historians have not looked at how people perceived and interacted with drink independent of what was stated in the press. In order to follow through on the ontological commitment to uncovering the social reality and to gain a more complete understanding of the panics surrounding alcohol, the field would have to account for the slew of available popular sources that gives the closest approximation of popular attitudes.
At the same time, Berridge also believes that historians must maintain a distinction between reality and perception. Her monograph is framed by the assumption that the intrinsic dangers and harms of intoxicating substances are seldom associated with their reputation. Understanding the harms of a specific substance does not always explain why they become restricted or prohibited, a point that Berridge emphasized to highlight the usefulness of history to provide such explanations.104 A similar sentiment was echoed by Joseph Gusfield, who understood alcohol problems as a ‘historical occurrence that emerge or disappear without any necessary relationship to the conditions of their existence.’105 The late addiction psychiatrist Griffith Edwards concurred with Berridge's emphasis on the reputations, or the meanings, attached to such substances:
Drugs are chemicals but they are also potently symbols. We need to understand how drugs produce their effects on the brain, but whatever the chemical, it is likely to find itself dressed up by society with symbolic meanings, packaged as a social construct, and made into a good and cherished, or evil and hated, object. The physical reality of these drugs is manifest, but the symbolism that attaches is also a potent and sometimes toxic reality that is likely to colour the policy choices.106
Understanding the different ways that historical actors have constructed the discourses on alcohol, both positive and negative, within their contingent circumstances complements the existing literature that expounds on the social anxieties and hysterias surrounding drink. Although it possesses its own specific reputations, alcohol is nonetheless one of the many licit and illicit substances whose significance in society has been heavily shaped by the subjective meanings that people have attached to it. Thus, the historiography can take a cue from Berridge and Edwards by exploring how alcohol fits into the wider story of the politics surrounding all problematic articles of consumption.
Compared to the long-established literature on the Victorian temperance movement, it has only been in the past two and a half decades that the drink question in the twentieth century has been the subject of historical inquiry.107 However, in spite of its relative infancy, the historiography should be admired for clearly demonstrating the absolute centrality of drink within the wider social and cultural changes in Britain. Alcohol turns out to be a useful microcosm of a variety of developments across the past hundred years, including the growth of state intervention in the economy and private life, the importance of morality in scientific knowledge and public policy, and the complex formation of social attitudes under the nexus of the state, the media, and the public.
There are, however, some important gaps in the literature that are still to be addressed fully. As a by-product of the present debate on consumption and harm, the historiography continues to be restricted to its elitist purview of policy-makers, interest groups, the media, and medical professionals. A more complete picture of the politics of alcohol would inevitably have to take a ‘history from below’ approach and study the sources that reveal the discourses, meanings, and practices that ordinary people have attached to drink. The other weakness of the literature concerns how the politics of drink in modern Britain is often studied in isolation from other substances and regional contexts. Psychopharmacologist David Nutt famously ranked alcohol alongside other licit (tobacco) and illicit (marijuana, cocaine, and heroin) drugs as one of the most dangerous substances available today, an apt reminder that its distinct legal status is not based on an objective understanding of its levels of harm.108 Indeed, some scholars have begun to regard alcohol as just one of the large cohort of psychoactive drugs, understood collectively as ‘peculiar substances’ by Andrew Sherratt and more recently as ‘intoxicants’ by Phil Withington.109 When placed within the spectrum of all problematized articles of consumption, it is revealed that alcohol carries a Janus-faced reputation in which it is celebrated and tolerated while simultaneously being condemned and controlled. The literature could also widen its relevance by placing the British experience of the drink question alongside other national and transnational contexts, where the degree and content of the problematization of drink varied widely.110 Although the restricted angle of the historiography allows for an in depth account of the attitudes and responses that are particular to Britain, a more comparative approach to the subject should allow historians to understand the case as part of a wider spectrum of global issues surrounding substance use and abuse.