This review surveys recent developments in the historiography of the politics of alcohol in twentieth-century Britain. The ‘drink question’ has undergone a set of tumultuous shifts, beginning with the decline of the temperance movement after the First World War, diminished conflict in the interwar and post-1945 periods, and the revived concerns over consumption and harm in the late twentieth century. Historians have traditionally presented the drink question as a binary conflict between advocates and opponents of the liberal distribution of drink. Newer narratives question the assumed ‘rationality’ of modern approaches to alcohol, especially concerning the post-1970s public health model which has been increasingly understood as an indirect manifestation of the temperance movement. The concept of ‘moral panics’ has been frequently employed to frame the formation of public attitudes towards drink. The article argues that these multifarious developments illustrate how alcohol offers a unique vantage point into various social developments in modern Britain, including that of the changing role of the state, the contested nature of scientific knowledge, and the formation of public opinion. It also suggests that the historiography should overcome its narrow focus on alcohol in modern Britain by juxtaposing it with other substances, regions, and periods.
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