Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0) and Wikimedia Commons.

In public debates around intoxicants, political and medical commentators tend to focus on their biological, neurological, pharmaceutical, and criminological aspects, while the complex historical and cultural roots that have shaped the deeply embedded modern cultures of intoxication are ignored. In contrast, this short conference at the Palace of Westminster brought some of the latest historical and social scientific research into the social, cultural, and political significance of intoxicants to the heart of government. The papers explored two themes that should be of central importance in determining intoxicants related policy: governance, in national and international perspective; and the hugely powerful cultural contexts of intoxication.

In our audience, MPs, lawyers, parliamentary clerks and secretaries, alcohol education charities, social design academics, representatives of the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group, promoters of beer culture, and magazine editors joined historians and social scientists from the the UK, the US, and the EU, as well as representatives from some of the UK’s leading cultural institutions, especially the V&A.

The conference was generously supported by external funding from two UK Research Councils – the ESRC and the AHRC – and also from Alcohol Research UK. We are also very grateful for the invaluable support we received from inside the Palace of Westminster from David Harrison, Sir Kevin Edwards, Chloe Challender, Michael Collon, Ben Taylor, Paul Hagarty, Sarah Clover, and Rita Patel.

Panel 1: British Governance

While national governments decide which intoxicants may be consumed, where, by whom, and at what cost, it is local authorities who have always had the most significant effect (and not always the intended one) on their social role and impact. Our first panel contrasted the past and present experience of alcohol licensing in Britain.

A clear thread that emerged from all three papers was the importance of local discretionary powers. Crucial features of regulatory systems in the past, these powers have been eroded in the present by an overwhelming tidal wave of legislative requirements. These have tended to shift the attention of local magistrates away from local enforcement (as in the past) and towards an anxious ‘tick-box’ approach to legislative compliance with the State.

The first speaker, James Brown (University of East Anglia), is an expert on the history of alcohol licensing and its origins in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and was the lead research associate for the Intoxicants and Early Modernity project. His topic was ‘Licensing and Alcohol: The Long View’.

Our second speaker, David Beckingham (University of Cambridge), is a historical geographer. His topic ‘Women, Drink, and Regulation in Victorian Glasgow’ drew upon his new book, which explores at length how Victorian licensing policy influenced the management of British licensed premises, the habits of women drinkers, and the early development of child protection policy.

Our third speaker, Gerald Gouriet (QC, FTB Chambers), is a QC with unparalleled experience in handling licensing applications, spanning the previous regimes for liquor/entertainment and gambling (principally the 1963, 1964 and 1968 Acts) and the wholly new regimes that replaced them (the 2003 and 2005 Acts). He is also General Editor of Paterson’s Licensing Acts. His topic was ‘The Heavy Hand of Light Touch Bureaucracy’ (Download Paper [pdf]).

Panel 2: Comparative Perspectives

Our second panel was sponsored by Alcohol Research UK. It contrasted the British experience of governing intoxicants with perspectives from Europe and the Middle East. These papers, which ranged in time from the seventh century to the 1980s, made very clear that the historical and cultural contexts in which intoxicants are produced, traded, and consumed have a more fundamental part to play in their wider social role than their chemical or ‘toxic’ contents.

The first speaker was Karin Sennefelt (Stockholm University), a Professor of Swedish history specialising in the history of social differentiation and social order. Her topic ‘The Necessity of Drink: Alcohol and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Sweden’ drew upon her essay in Cultures of Intoxication, the Past & Present suppedited by Phil Withington and Angela McShane (Download Paper [pdf]).

The next speaker, Gemma Blok (University of Amsterdam), is Assistant Professor of modern Dutch history and is an expert in the history of addiction treatment and medical health in the Netherlands. Her topic was ‘Pride and Prejudice: Dutch and German Drug Policy in Historical Comparative Perspective’ (Download Paper [pdf]/Download Slides [pdf]).

The final speaker for this panel was Rudi Matthee (University of Delaware), the John and Dorothy Munroe Distinguished Professor of History. He specialises in Middle Eastern history, especially early modern Iran and the Persian Gulf. His topic was ‘Alcohol and Politics in Muslim Culture: Pre-Text, Text, and Context’ and drew upon his book The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500-1900 (Princeton University Press, 2005) (Download Paper [pdf]).

Panel 3: Cultures of Intoxication

Cultural practices of intoxication may either underlay or undercut the actions of those who seek to control the production and consumption of intoxicants. Our third panel, and the musical event that followed it, focussed on the practices of intoxication within the world of politics. The first two papers explored the ways in which historians can explore cultural practices of intoxication in the past while the final paper demonstrated how social scientists are developing methods of acquiring cultural data that can usefully contribute towards more successful public policy in the future.

The first speaker was Robin Eagles (History of Parliament), from the History of Parliament team. His research specialism is the development of opposition politics in the period 1688-1788. His topic was ‘Parliamentary Intoxication: The Uses and Abuses of Alcohol from the Restoration to the Death of Anne’ (Download Paper [pdf]).

The second speaker, Kate Davison (University of Oxford), was recently awarded her doctorate at the University of Sheffield. Her thesis focuses on the social life and works of the satirist-tavern-keeper Ned Ward (1666-1731). Her topic was ‘Clubs, Pubs, and Intoxicating Humour’ (Download Paper [pdf]/Download Slides [pdf]).

The final speaker, John Holmes (University of Sheffield), is a Senior Research Fellow in the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group. His research focuses on the analysis of alcohol policy options and alcohol consumption behaviours using simulation modelling and epidemiological techniques. His topic was ‘A Typology of British Drinking Culture 2009-2011: Implications for Alcohol Policy’ and drew upon a jointly authored article published in the journal Addiction (Download Paper [pdf]/Download Slides [pdf]).

Musical Reception

Formal papers were followed by a musical reception led by Angela McShane (University of Sheffield/V&A), a Senior Research and External Engagement Fellow who specialises in popular political cultures, especially drink and song. The reception was generously sponsored by the AHRC project Hit Songs and their Significance in Seventeenth-Century England, and the musical programme was performed by members of The Carnival Band, Andy Watts and Steno Vitale, and featured folk singer John Kirkpatrick .

The song programme explored the close relationship between drink, song, and politics, from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries (Download Programme [pdf]). The pleasure that resulted from the outstanding performance of the musicians only serves to highlight the significance of the link between music and alcohol for policy makers up to the twenty-first century. These links were highlighted in a special edition of Popular Music published in May 2016 (Download Special Edition [pdf]).