The concept of state-controlled pubs is a strange idea to those used to a free-market economy. But they do have their advantages.
Mention state control and the first thought that comes to mind is the former Eastern Bloc. That grey landscape on the far side of the Iron Curtain. Sure enough, there was lots of it there. But state-run pubs also existed this side of the fence in the UK.
Like so much in Britain’s 20th century beer landscape, state control was the result of WWI. In the early years of the war there was much concern about excessive drinking damaging the productivity of munitions workers. The result was DORA, the Defense of the Realm Act, which drastically reduced pub opening hours in London from 19.5 hours a day to just six.
But even that wasn’t considered enough in some areas. In 1916, several key munitions producing areas, Carlisle, Gretna, Cromarty Firth, and Enfield, had their breweries and pubs taken into state control. In Enfield, the pubs were returned to private ownership just after the end of the war, but the scheme continued in the other three until the 1970s.
In Carlisle, all the breweries but one closed, leaving the remaining plant to supply every pub in town. Then the number of pubs was reduced by shutting the smaller, less respectable ones. In 1950, there were 178 state pubs in Carlisle, 15 in Gretna, and 18 in Cromarty Firth.
Many changes were made to the fabric of Carlisle’s remaining pubs. Small rooms were knocked through into larger, airier ones; signage outside became more discrete; gaudy, gin-palace-style decoration was removed; and facilities for women were improved. This would form a blueprint for the so-called “improved public house,” championed by Whitbread and other progressive brewers during the interwar years.
The Labour government elected at the end of WWII proposed extending the state control scheme to the New Towns—large developments intended to absorb the overflow from Britain’s overcrowded and cramped cities. Understandably, brewers, who owned most pubs and saw New Towns as a rare opportunity to build large, new premises with little competition, weren’t happy.
Drinkers weren’t keen on the prospect, either:
“If it does happen it will be like being in the Army again. We do not come out to get drunk; the majority of us come to these places for company, relaxation in a game of darts, skittles or dominoes. We get told what to do by the wife, we don’t want the landlord to start being the same.”
Northampton Mercury, Friday 13 July 1951, page 1.
An odd idea of state control, especially when it comes from a steel worker. At that time the steel industry was nationalized. Before they had chance to implement their proposals, though, Labour were voted out of office.
The Carlisle scheme, you may be surprised to learn, was very successful commercially, unlike some state enterprises. It made a profit every single year it was in operation, despite selling its beer more cheaply than its private rivals (see table). But this wasn’t enough for Ted Heath’s Conservative government, which was ideologically opposed to all forms of state ownership.
In 1972 and 1973 the pubs were sold off in lots, mostly to national brewers. Leaving a brewery with no pubs rendered them almost worthless in the 1970s. Eventually the Carlisle pubs were sold to Theakston, which at the time sought expansion to meet demand for its cask products, popularized by CAMRA.
Forty years on, as memories fade, state pubs are slowly being forgotten. I believe it’s important to remember there’s another way to run the pub trade.