Only Here for the Beer?
What has CAMRA achieved in its lifetime, and what does the future hold?
Success or Failure?
CAMRA – the Campaign for Real Ale – was founded in 1971, and in the first ten years of its existence it succeeded in making the major breweries do an abrupt U-turn of policy, and won the accolade of “the most successful consumer movement in Europe”. The initial flush of success inevitably brought teething troubles, but CAMRA overcame these to become a professional and well-respected organisation which now has a record membership, an annual turnover running into seven figures and a substantial paid staff. We are on the point of seeing the implementation of something for which CAMRA has long campaigned, namely flexible licensing hours, and in the past few years it has scored an arguably even more significant victory in winning the introduction of a sliding scale of beer duty which has transformed the prospect of Britain’s smaller brewers, who are now thriving as never before.
On the face of it, this sounds like an impressive record of success. Yet there is less real ale drunk in Britain now than at any time during CAMRA’s existence, and certainly far fewer pubs serving it than there were fifteen years ago, although possibly still more than in 1971. We are also seeing pubs, both urban and rural, closing at an alarming rate, leaving vast swathes of the country as pub deserts. And there is a wave of concern about the effects of excessive drinking which leaves the licensed trade feeling extremely exposed to new legislative restrictions. So should CAMRA’s record, over the years, be regarded as one of success or failure?
A False Premise?
The first point that needs to be made is that CAMRA’s whole campaign is based on something of a false premise. In the early 1970s, the definition of “real ale” as cask-conditioned beer was a convenient shorthand for separating good from bad draught ale in Britain. But the definition only relates to the means of storing and serving beer – it makes no reference whatsoever to brewing methods. It has never been the case that real ale was brewed from traditional materials in small craft breweries, while keg beer is made from chemicals in factories looking as though they should belong to ICI. It is perfectly possible to brew a poor-quality, bland real ale from inferior ingredients, and some brewers large and small have certainly succeeded in doing this over the years. It is equally possible to serve intrinsically high-quality beers in keg form; although this is less common now, in the past, many of the independent brewers, most notably Fullers, did this.
The “real ale” definition is of very limited relevance to beers in other countries with different brewing traditions. Lager beers, in particular, are stabilised by a lengthy maturation period, and so, even though they may be served unfiltered and unpasteurised, are not going to undergo a secondary fermentation in the serving vessel. In 1971, there were only a tiny handful of bottle-conditioned beers which were something of a hangover from a bygone age, and so CAMRA could give them a sort of equivalence with cask-conditioned draught without worrying too much about it. But bottle-conditioning provides no worthwhile benefit for beers of everyday strength, and has serious drawbacks in terms of quality control and ease of serving. There are also (unlike the situation with draught) many very high quality beers from independent brewers that are not bottle-conditioned. So CAMRA has erected a kind of shibboleth in saying that bottle-conditioned beers are in all circumstances much better than their brewery-conditioned equivalents, which doesn’t really reflect people’s day-to-day drinking experience.
Even now there are many CAMRA members who will refuse to drink anything that isn’t cask- or bottle-conditioned, or even recognise any worth in any such products. This seems to be a particularly blinkered viewpoint, especially since the definition is something that was drawn up as an expediency a generation ago, and is the kind of thing that gives the organisation its sometimes deserved reputation for pedantry and obscurantism.
When CAMRA was first founded, its members would have had no idea what they might achieve, and probably regarded themselves as doing no more than fighting a doomed rearguard action in the face of the inevitable tide of “progress”. In their wildest dreams they would never have imagined that they would bring about such a reversal of policy from the major brewers, with real ale restored to thousands of pubs, and whole estates repainted in the traditional liveries of defunct breweries.
In many pubs, of course, this proved to be a short-lived phenomenon, but there has been another development which again would never been been foreseen in the early days of CAMRA, but which looks likely to be far longer lasting, namely the incredible growth of the micro-brewery sector. There are now over four hundred new breweries in the UK, producing beers across an enormous range of styles and flavours, some indifferent, to be sure, but very often of extremely high quality. Micro-breweries are also able to take more risks than their bigger brethren and to brew beers of more distinctive and even uncompromising character that would be not be suitable for a mass market. This has been accompanied by the rise of specialist beer pubs offering drinkers the chance to sample these beers, and it is hard to imagine the many beer festivals run by CAMRA being anywhere near as successful if all they had to offer was the regular products of the established brewers.
In terms of the overall beer market, the micro-breweries are insignificant, accounting for only about 2% of the beer drunk in the UK. It is unlikely that any executives of the major brewers have lost any sleep over them. But they have created an “alternative beer network” which means that the beer enthusiast can pursue his hobby without ever needing to touch any big brewery beers. The ultimate expression of this tendency is of course the “beer ticking” phenomenon (which, to be blunt, is just another anoraky hobby that has little to do with CAMRA or campaigning for real ale). But, in a more general sense, it means that those with an interest in beer no longer have to engage with the wider issues that CAMRA was originally formed to confront.
A Shot in the Foot?
When CAMRA has addressed wider world issues that go beyond encouraging an interest in beer, it has had a distinctly mixed record, and indeed it could be argued that sometimes it has poked its nose into inappropriate areas, whereas on others it has remained disappointingly silent. It has always seen itself as a “consumer movement” but arguably the interests of consumers of pubs in general may well be different to those who are enthusiasts for a particular product. Should CAMRA, for example, get involved in actively championing improved facilities for families in pubs, when many of its members might prefer to drink in an adult environment? I would say not.
An obvious area of consumer interest is of course full measures, something which CAMRA has consistently supported for many years. It cannot be denied that short measures of beer are endemic, and have got worse as the fashion for tight Yorkshire-style heads on beer spread across the country. But CAMRA has in effect shot itself in the foot on this issue. In the early days of CAMRA, probably at least a third of the real ale in the country was served into oversize glasses, thus ensuring full measures. However, the problem was that it was served using electric metered pumps. CAMRA has always championed handpumps as the preferred method of serving real ale, as they gave a clear symbol of its availability. But unfortunately, when electric meters were replaced by handpumps, inevitably the oversize glasses were replaced by brim measures. Despite this, many CAMRA branches over the years have actively encouraged pubs and breweries to install handpumps, even in the knowledge that it would set back the cause of full measures. The result is now that electric metered dispense is very rare – and so are oversize glasses. There is still a realistic chance of government action on full measures, but if CAMRA had taken up the cause when they were more widespread in pubs, and unequivocally championed the pubs that served them, without sneering at their second-rate dispense method, it might have had a better chance of bringing about a change in the law.
A much greater example of a campaign backfiring was that over the Beer Orders. CAMRA had for long demonised the “Big Six” breweries who held sway over the British beer market during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the fact that most other industries are significantly more concentrated (compared with, say, food retailing, six companies combined holding an 80% market share suggests a situation of healthy competition), CAMRA and others managed to persuade the government of the day that this constituted a “complex monopoly” and that measures should be taken to curb it. This led to the Beer Orders, which stated that no company could have a beer tie in over 2,000 pubs, and that any tenants of companies owning over 2,000 pubs could have a guest cask beer. On the face of it, this may have sounded like a good deal for the consumer, but in practice what happened is that the major brewers over time disposed of their pub estates to separate pub companies (which were not bound by the Beer Orders), and eventually all except Scottish & Newcastle disposed of their brewing interests too.
The result has been a beer market now dominated by only four major brewers, not six, three of which are foreign-owned, and half the nation’s pubs now in the hands of faceless pub companies. The pub companies still exercise a tie over their tenants and leaseholders, but present a much more diffuse target for CAMRA to attack, particularly as they don’t tend to brand their outlets with their own name. It’s almost certain that the spread of pub companies has accelerated the removal of real ale from many pubs as a pub company does not have a vested interest in selling the products of a particular brewery. The situation now is much less competitive, and gives a worse deal to the consumer, than it was in the late 1980s before the Beer Orders. There can be little doubt that if the Big Six had been allowed to die a natural death we would now have more diversity and choice in the mainstream beer market. In fact, as there are now no companies to which the Beer Orders would apply, they were quietly scrapped in 2002.
Another key campaigning issue which goes beyond consumer interest to wider questions of alcohol policy is licensing hours reform, something that again CAMRA has always supported. In the 1980s CAMRA had considerable success on this front, with all-day opening being permitted from 1988, and most licensing districts abandoning 10.30 pm closing from Monday to Thursday and letting pubs open until 11 six days a week. However, the bigger issue of opening after 11 pm remained unaddressed.
The current Labour government has at last decided to do something about this, but it has combined it with a thoroughgoing revamp of the whole of licensing law which in particular involves transferring the responsibility for licensing from magistrates to local authorities. Although pubs will, subject to permission, be allowed to open after 11 pm, they will overall be subject to a much more expensive and bureaucratic form of regulation. The current concerns about “binge-drinking” are likely to further increase the costs and the level of control wielded by local authorities. Arguably the interests of the kind of traditional pubs CAMRA favours would have been better served by leaving the previous system alone, but simply allowing pubs to stay open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and standardising Sunday hours with the rest of the week. Again CAMRA has campaigned for something that has turned out not to have quite the expected outcome.
Stay Silent or Speak Out?
CAMRA chose, however, to remain silent over what was undoubtedly by far the biggest threat to the British pub in its lifetime – the cut in the drink-driving limit which was proposed in the late 1990s, but fortunately not carried through. Obviously this is a sensitive issue on which any organisation must tread carefully if it does not wish to appear irresponsible, but CAMRA’s eagerness to wash its hands of it, and indeed to stifle discussion, was unseemly. Without declaring any kind of outright opposition, they could easily have provided members with resources to campaign on the issue, and made a submission to the government consultation regarding the potential effect on the pub trade – something on which they would be well qualified to speak. The fact that the cut was not implemented owes no thanks to CAMRA, and the organisation’s pointed silence on the issue will have left a sour taste in the mouths of many of its members.
But, in contrast, CAMRA has seen fit to set up a “Public Transport Campaign Group”. Now this doesn’t simply advise people how to reach pubs by public transport – which is entirely reasonable – but aims to promote public transport in general. Surely this is a political objective which, regardless of its rights or wrongs, is outside the objectives of CAMRA and, should be regarded as ultra vires.
Similar objections can be raised to CAMRA’s support for the “Sustainable Communities Bill” which has recently been put before Parliament. On the fact of it, this seems like entirely reasonable support for local enterprise, but when you look into it more deeply it is a piece of legislation that seeks to undermine the whole principle of increased local specialisation, and long-distance trade, which has underpinned the prosperity of the developed world for over two centuries. Is it necessarily a bad thing that people are enjoying beers brewed in California or Australia rather than at the end of their street? Many members will also feel distinctly uneasy about having such campaign groups as Friends of the Earth and Transport2000 as bedfellows.
One would hope that CAMRA never gets round to setting up a “Climate Change Campaign Group”!
An issue of general public policy where CAMRA does have a legitimate interest – and is to be congratulated for speaking out – is that of smoking. Whether smoking per se is dangerous, and whether it should be banned, restricted or taxed to death, is not really relevant to CAMRA. But it is a fact of life that many pub customers smoke, and any precipitate move to ban smoking in pubs would have a very serious effect on the licensed trade, as it has in Ireland. So CAMRA was quite right to say that, while it accepted that there would be further restrictions, the government’s proposals were ill thought-out and damaging, and that a compromise could and should be reached which would protect the interests of those who did not wish to be exposed to tobacco fumes, while still allowing smoking in designated areas within pubs. And, while there are obvious differences between the two issues, only those of the most unregenerate ostrich-like tendencies would deny that no parallels whatsoever can be drawn between the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol.
This leads on to the broader issue of alcohol policy. Of course CAMRA doesn’t exist to defend the interests of those who enjoy drinking Carling Black Label or Bacardi Breezers, but real ale cannot be completely divorced from the wider question of alcohol in society. We may have the highest levels of alcohol consumption and drunkenness for many years, but there is also (to some extent as a direct result) an increasingly negative view taken of alcohol in politics and the media. The idea that a “binge” consists of drinking eight or more units of alcohol in one session – that is, three pints of a premium beer – is the most obvious manifestation of that. CAMRA has always stood up for moderate drinking in a controlled environment, but there is a real danger that if it becomes generally accepted that responsible people don’t drink three pints in the pub (when not driving, of course), much of what it has fought for over the years will be at risk. Therefore I would suggest CAMRA needs to be considerably more vocal in defending the interests of the responsible drinker, and standing up for pubs as opposed to take-home consumption is a major part of that. In the future, the threat to real ale and pubs is likely to come increasingly from government action rather than from the major drinks companies.
When it has campaigned on issues that are very close to its core values, CAMRA has in some cases been extremely successful. A prime example of this is its work on pub preservation. It quickly became apparent to CAMRA members in the early days that there was a very close link between real ale and traditional pub interiors, and both were at risk from the modernising tendencies of the major breweries. Many members would also have been interested in heritage and conservation through organisations such as the National Trust and railway and canal preservation groups. Through the creation of the “National Inventory” of historic pub interiors of architectural importance, and associated regional listings, CAMRA has done much to raise to profile of pub conservation, and has also been able to obtain listed building status for some pub interiors which has sometimes saved them from destruction. The place of pubs in the overall history of British architecture and design has also been made much more prominent, and pub owners’ refurbishment schemes are usually done much more sensitively than would have been the case thirty years ago.
In the past few years CAMRA has also scored a major and underrated achievement in gaining the introduction of Progressive Beer Duty, which allows a lower duty rate for small brewers. This has been extended to encompass the smaller regional brewers as well as micros. In general, the brewers have not used this to cut prices, but to expand their businesses and invest in new plant, thus giving them a firmer footing for long-term success. This will serve to underpin the vast increase in the choice and diversity of craft-brewed beer in the UK which has been one of CAMRA’s major achievements.
The Local Dimension
Of course an important part of CAMRA is the local branches and all the events they organise, in particular beer festivals. Branch activities form an important social network for many members, and in a lot of cases they’re not really interested in the wider campaigning side. I’m a life member of CAMRA and am involved in my local branch in a number of ways both socially and in organising things. I’m fortunate in that my branch has an active social calendar and in general contains people who have a sense of proportion and don’t take dogmatic stances. Although I am deeply sceptical about some of CAMRA’s wider campaigns, there’s little done by the local branch that isn’t entirely positive. There are one or two touchstone national issues over which I might conceivably consider resigning from CAMRA if it took a particular stance, but on balance I regard my membership as both enjoyable and making a worthwhile contribution to supporting and advancing things that matter to me – namely real beer and real pubs.
Stick to the Knitting
In conclusion, if we take the view that CAMRA has not managed to curb the power of the major breweries, increase the amount of real ale sold in Britain, or stem the tide of pub closures, then it must be judged a failure. Many of the campaigns it has mounted on wider issues have been damp squibs, or have spectacularly backfired. But, to my mind, its lasting achievement has been to greatly raise the profile of beer in the UK, and to encourage the creation a network of producers, outlets and consumers where beer is appreciated in a way that was scarcely imaginable in 1971. Real ale undeniably has to an extent become a niche product, but it occupies a large and thriving niche. And it is the positive promotion of real ale – in all its forms – and the establishments that sell it, that should form the core of its activities in the future. If that means CAMRA drawing in its horns a little, then that would be no bad thing.