Updated: Aug 29
EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is delighted to welcome back past contributor Henry Yeomans (check out his previous series of Points posts here, here, and here). Yeomans is a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leeds. Here, he discusses new book, Alcohol and Moral Regulation: Public Attitudes, Spirited Measures and Victorian Hangovers (University of Chicago/Policy Press for the University of Bristol, 2014).
Alcohol is a magnetic topic for public attention in England and Wales. Newspapers incessantly run stories on the ills of binge drinking, new government policies regularly seek to address ‘irresponsible’ or ‘problem’ drinking, and commentators and campaign groups routinely demand tighter laws to counter an ‘out of control’ drinking ‘epidemic’. This level of alarmed attention tends to be justified by a widespread belief that drinking in Britain is a worsening and peculiarly British social problem. Historians have shown that this public anxiety about alcohol is nothing new and that bouts of acute unease about drinking have been evident since at least eighteenth century. Comparative data on consumption, moreover, reveals that average drinking levels in Britain are only around middling in European terms (WHO, 2004; WHO, 2014) and have been declining for a decade (ONS, 2013; BBPA, 2014). The idea that British people are particularly ‘bad’ in respect to drinking doesn’t really stack up. So where does this historically entrenched public anxiety about drinking in Britain come from?
This book investigates how public attitudes and the legal regulation of alcohol have developed through time. It presents a ‘history of the present’ in which the emergence and development of this British preoccupation with our own drinking habits is traced from the eighteenth century to the present day. Particular attention is drawn to the importance of the Victorian temperance movement which, it is argued, had a subtle but profound and enduring effect on how alcohol is both understood and regulated. Ultimately, it is argued that the anxiety which frequently animates public discourse and policy responses to drinking in Britain is better explained in reference to how we think about, rather than use, alcohol.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
Hopefully a lot! To start with, this is the first dedicated, systematic study of how public attitudes to alcohol in Britain have changed through the long sweep of modern history. It makes particular use of newspaper sources as a window onto dominant understandings of alcohol at different points in time and also involves an extensive consideration of changes in statutory law. These sources are studied from the eighteenth century onwards so the book provides a developmental, formative take on historical change and continuity. Additionally, the concept of moral regulation is used as a lens through which to view this long historical vista. It is not a particularly well known concept but some sociologists and criminologists have used it to analyse the ideas, beliefs and values which underpin the construction of certain social problems as well as the matrix of social relations within which problems are identified and action is (or is not) taken against them. In this book, the term is used to refer to a whole swathe of social action in which certain individuals or groups seek to change the behaviour of other individuals or groups due its perceived wrongness. As such, employing the concept of moral regulation helps focus analysis on the discourses which problematise certain forms of conduct at different points in time and the (often very long term) process through which governments, social movements and other actors then seek to affect these problem behaviours through legal or other means. The methodological and conceptual foundations of the book, therefore, make it unusual and innovative.
Importantly, these foundations help the book do two important things. Firstly, there is considerable analysis of historical periods which have hitherto been largely overlooked. The twentieth century, in particular, has long been neglected in this sort of academic research – probably as it fell into the cracks between history and social science. This book, however, analyses the formative importance of events in the 1920s, Second World War, 1960s and 1980s. The long term, discursive orientation means that, as with earlier historical periods examined, these twentieth century developments are investigated with reference to their impact on contemporary society. Secondly, the book provides new insights on issues which have been studied before. British debates about drinking during the First World War, for example, are fairly well-researched. But the use of press sources here reveals a whole moral dimension to these debates, particularly relating to the wartime ‘pledge’ campaigns for abstinence, which has not been examined before. The formative importance attributed to the temperance movement also arises from the analysis of both legal and extra-legal forms of regulation (as implied by the concept of moral regulation). So the conceptual and methodological parameters of the research allow the book to make a distinct contribution to wider literature in this area.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
I actually think it is quite a funny book (or at least I found writing it funny). From Cyril Black MP’s use of a large chocolate egg as a rhetorical tool in a parliamentary debate (which I have blogged about before) to the Chinese drink-driver ‘Giggling Wong’ who was too ticklish to be examined by police officers, the book is peppered with amusing news stories about fascinating characters. I am particularly fond of the story of the 13-14 year old boy who appeared in court in 1828 after smashing a shop window while drunk. The boy, the Morning Chronicle reports, explained to the court that he had been drinking gin, rum and “Meux”. Meux was the name of a London brewery at the time but this was evidently not known to everyone as the Lord Mayor of London (acting as magistrate) asked the boy if he meant Meux water. Humouring the seemingly naïve Lord Mayor, the young boy replied “God love you, no. Strong heavy wet. Everybody knows what it is”. The Lord Mayor was appalled by the boy’s antics, although it is reported that others in the courtroom were roaring with laughter!
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
I realized, on finishing the book, that it contains a quite limited consideration of the role of taxation in governing drinking. So I have since conducted some research on the development of alcohol excise duties in Britain which I am currently writing up. I also think there is a lot more research to be done on the ‘drink problem’ in Britain in the twentieth century. I like to think this book plugs a few gaps in knowledge here but there remain some gaping holes which need addressing.
Additionally, this book seeks to make public, national discourse on alcohol in England and Wales the object of enquiry. These parameters were chosen largely because of the shared legal system in England and Wales. But of course that focus neglects huge social and regional variations in how alcohol was consumed, understood and regulated within England and Wales, as well as the situation in other parts of Britain and the wider world. Hence, I think there is a lot of mileage in research projects which look at ‘drink problems’ in relation to their local, regional, national and international scale and consider the inter-connectivity between such ‘drink problems’. Some very good research of this sort already exists (e.g. David Beckingham’s article here) but I think this approach opens up many more promising avenues for further work.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
I would like the actor Richard E. Grant to narrate the audio book. I’m a big fan of the film Withnail and I in which he gives a hilarious, tragic and very convincing performance as a character who is drunk for virtually the whole film. Interestingly, however, Grant himself is apparently completely teetotal and has never been drunk in his life. I think this odd dichotomy, this tension between the perception of excess and the valorisation of sobriety, echoes the central themes of the book well. Plus Richard E. Grant has a posh English accent so the audio book would sell well in North America.
 ‘Police’, Morning Chronicle, 18 December 1828.