For the twelfth installment of the Points Interview we revisit alcohol (one of the psychoactive “Big Three”, to use David Courtwright’s term), and a marvelous account of England’s long public debate over the place of drinking in the social order. James Nicholls‘ The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England (Manchester University Press, 2009) is a well-reviewed and ambitious study set to appear this August in a paperback edition, and we’re grateful to James for taking a moment to answer a few questions.
Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.
The Politics of Alcohol is my attempt at a long history of public debates around drinking in England. It’s about how drinking has been talked about, policed, worried over and legislated for. The first proper Licensing Act was passed in England in 1552, and the most recent was 2003 – so that seemed like a good way of bookending the study. At least, it seemed like a good idea at the start: five hundred years turned out to be a long time.
What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
For me, what is most interesting is the way that debates on how to regulate alcohol have always been thinly veiled debates over the nature of freedom. I try to show how changing ideas about social rights, markets freedoms, personal responsibility and state intervention have underpinned concerns about both the nature of the risks associated with alcohol and the best way to regulate its use. In most western societies, alcohol is a kind of cultural constant: it is widely used, and it is embedded in an array of really fundamental social practices. Therefore, observing how attitudes towards it shift is a way of observing social change through a singular lens. In England, we have an especially fraught relationship with drink so the lens works particularly well here. To read a lot of the newspaper reports on British drinking, you’d think we’ve been binge drinkers since the dawn of time. That’s not true: in fact, for the first half of the twentieth century we were remarkably sober by international standards. However, we do have a long history of worrying about drink and about what it tells us about our cultural identity, and that is what makes the ‘drink question’ so interesting here.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
I find it fascinating that the critical political questions raised by drink refuse to go away. In the mid-nineteenth century, the two foremost British liberal thinkers – J. S. Mill and T. H. Green – sat on opposite sides of the ‘drink question’. Mill argued from his famous ‘harm principle’ that the individual had every right to drink until and unless their drinking demonstrably infringed upon the rights of others. Green, who was a prohibitionist, argued that the state had a duty to actively create conditions which would protect individuals from influences that may undermine their capacity for self-realisation. For him, that meant reducing access to drink – even if that meant infringing on the rights of those who saw themselves as moderate drinkers. Fellow prohibitionists also argued that because alcohol made you drunk and because it could cause addiction, it was simply not a substance that should be judged by the philosophical principles Mill applied. Today, we have a pitched battle taking place between the international drinks trade and an international public health lobby over very similar questions: is alcohol an ‘ordinary commodity’? Should we be free to risk harming ourselves through drinking? Does the state have a responsibility to curb the market if it stimulates demand? In this respect, the questions posed by alcohol are really the kind of fundamental questions that nag any liberal society: they are the conflict between what Isaiah Berlin called ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ conceptions of liberty applied to an especially tangible social practice.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone from The Politics of Alcohol are you most curious to see turned over soon?
Where to begin? Do I have a digger to work with? I guess the million dollar question is: what actually drives changes in any given drinking culture? As I said, drinking behaviours in England have changed many times: sometimes we have drunk heavily, at other times we have been relatively abstemious. In the last fifty years, we have been undergoing a long transformation from being primarily a male, pub-centric beer drinking culture to becoming a much more gender neutral, home-centred wine-drinking culture. There are numerous reasons for this: the development of a sophisticated global wine trade, the rise of supermarkets, the decline of public social spaces, feminism, greater levels of disposable income, the role of wine as a marker of cultural capital, and – equally important, I would say – the fact that wine is both stronger and more predictable than in the past. How much can public policy influence this? I still don’t know. Thankfully, neither does anyone else as far as I’m aware.
BONUS QUESTION: I suppose by now we give up on the Ken Burns documentary. Who should provide the voice of the audiobook of The Politics of Alcohol?
There’s a great Family Guy sketch where Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali and Popeye meet up backstage and have a completely incomprehensible conversation. I’d like the same line-up, please.