Towards the end of the 19th century, alcohol consumption reached a historic high that was not surpassed for 100 years. Yet much of the intervening period was characterised by far more moderate levels of drinking.
There are a number of explanations for the decline and continued restraint in alcohol consumption at the start of the 20th century, even as incomes were rising. One of the most compelling is that drink was starting to compete with alternative leisure activities, many of them publicly provided (parks, libraries, music halls etc.), and alternative ways of spending surplus income (radios, cinema and the pools). In addition, though the temperance movement may have failed in its goal of establishing prohibition in Britain, it has been credited with creating a culture of abstinence at the start of the 20th century: the Olympic Stadium in White City offered only ‘temperance refreshment rooms’ only during the 1908 Games.
WWI led to strong measures by the Government to control alcohol consumption, the enemy within: “we are fighting German, Austrians and drink,” as Lloyd George put it. The Central Control Board, established in 1915, effectively nationalised the brewery and pub industry in areas where the efficiency of munitions factories might have been damaged by drunkenness among workers. Across the country, taxes were increased, strengths reduced, licences restricted and ‘responsible pub management’ (including facilities for women) encouraged. Beer consumption per head by 1918 was half pre-war levels, and despite the return of troops continued to decline for the next 15 years, prompting a Royal Commission in 1931 to declare that “drunkenness has gone out of fashion”.
Binge Bordeaux. The chart shows estimated annual alcohol consumption in the UK by type of drink, measured in litres of pure alcohol per person.
With 10m adults regularly drinking more than recommended limits today, drunkenness, it would seem, is firmly back in fashion. Affluence, more liberal licensing, and larger and stronger drinks have certainly played a role; but is there, as is often suggested, an innately ‘British’ attitude to drinking that we are powerless to transform? The trends since 1908 suggest otherwise: policy can make a difference, and culture and tastes do change. In any case, the increase in alcohol consumption since 1970 has been driven mostly by wine. Binge Britain is looking more ‘Continental’ than ever before.