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Saturday, 20 February 2021

The Eternal Whipping Boy


So here we are, 11 months in, and a few days before the UK government’s announcement of their “roadmap” out of lockdown. Amidst the mountains of speculation, one thing is pretty much agreed upon by all observers, pubs will be at the back of the queue for reopening. What is also widely acknowledged is that such a decision has no scientific basis. But that doesn’t matter to politicians, academics, journalists, social media commentators and all the other influencers, large and small. That the licensed trade and night-time economy occupy the lowest rung is more about worthiness than rates of transmission.

Going to the pub is frivolous, they say, and we must prioritise other sectors before we can even consider bars and nightclubs. So non-essential shops will be back first, followed by every other business you can think of and then pubs, maybe, and probably with restrictions for months, even when most of the population are vaccinated. Because going to the pub is just a luxury, they tell us. Completely ignoring the benefits socialising brings to all of society; relaxation, improved mental health, combatting loneliness and isolation, community spirit, spending time with strangers, old-fashioned fraternity.

In comparison to pubs and clubs, restaurants and coffee shops will be treated far more favourably. These activities, eating and mainlining caffeine, are respectable. You can be productive on coffee, you see. This is to be encouraged in the brave new world of work and achievement. Popping into a bar for a few drinks, just to see what happens or who you might meet, is such an alien concept to our rulers (official and unofficial) that the arguments over a substantial meal with a drink went right over their heads. And an extra bonus is that subversion – social and political – is a phenomenon rarely seen in cafes.

The roadmap of Monday 22nd February is likely to be guided by all the above “considerations” and hospitality – Britain’s vice, don’t you know? – will have to stomach the gruel it is served. Pubs in Scotland will face an even less palatable menu, with Nicola Sturgeon set to look at the schedule set out by Boris Johnson and mirror most of it, particularly its sequencing, but add on five or six weeks for Scotland.

That’s because the SNP has an unwritten motto, as do a chunk of the population, “never knowingly less righteous (ie authoritarian) than the next country”. Seemingly more in thrall to public health experts here than in any other part of the UK, if not Europe – without seeing any actual improvements in population health.

 We have academics such as Professor Niamh Fitzgerald of the University of Stirling whose team recently produced a piece of research regarding conduct within licensed premises across central Scotland during the time they were actually allowed to open and sell alcohol. I mentioned this research team and its intentions way back in my last blog. According to the researchers, there was not 100% compliance with the required social-distancing and other measures. When I suggested online that this survey was commissioned by the Scottish Government, she replied that it was not commissioned by the government, rather the CSO (Chief Scientific Officer) had solicited for research and then accepted their proposal. I thanked her for the information but it took a few more messages on Twitter before she actually admitted the research was funded by the Scottish Government. Quite a crucial fact, one could say.

The professor has made a career out of demonising alcohol, so doubt must be raised about the impartiality of her and her team of researchers. They visited 29 premises and spent around 2 hours in each. With all due respect to their skills and commitment, I visited far more than that amount of pubs across Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales in the period July to October and found a remarkable level of industry adherence to the rules, not to mention a serious and probably crippling amount of money spent on screens, PPE, outdoor seating etc

In those many licensed premises I can recall only one joint which did not take my name and address. In comparison, in the same three months, I visited a similar amount of different coffee shops, and in at least 10% of those premises there was no recording of my name and address. But as we know, coffee shops, cafes and restaurants, supermarkets etc are not put under the scrutiny experienced by pubs.

As if to add to our joy north of the border, Sturgeon and colleagues appear to now be intent on following the advice of zero-Covid zealots like media darling Professor Devi Sridhar. One of the main outcomes of this tack will be the banning of all foreign travel from Scotland for an indefinite period. That this may be accepted by a sizeable amount of the Scottish electorate is perhaps down to the quite extraordinary (in peacetime, anyway) amount of psych-ops employed by all UK governments, a task which has been taken up with glee by psychologists such as Professor Stephen Reicher of St Andrews University (yes, another Scottish-based professor).

When one observes this panoply of concerted action by many professions, one does wonder if lockdown has presented an opportunity for the professional and laptop classes to once again examine and dismantle the lives and passions of the lower-middle and working classes. And perhaps even exact some revenge for Brexit (I speak as a Remainer, btw).

“So you voted for Brexit, eh? Well, because you have jeopardised the chances of students undertaking an Erasmus, you can forget about that cheap week in the sun in Benidorm. And see those few quiet pints in your local midweek, or a booze-up in the social club or nightclub come Saturday, that won’t be allowed until at least summer 2022. And, by the way, keep delivering those Amazon packages and serving me at Waitrose. That’s your place, and don’t forget it.”

Yes, eventually the pubs and social clubs will re-emerge in the UK, maybe even nightclubs and casinos. But the landscape will have changed dramatically, independent operators even more an endangered species, chains such as Wetherspoons ever more dominant. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is the inevitable outcome of the UK establishment once again casting the licensed trade as the whipping boy.


  1. Excellent post - I've tweeted the link to get it to a wider audience.

  2. Cheers, mate. Keep up your great work.

  3. A superb read. Thanks to Mudgie for spreading it further.

    I'm ignorant of the science but like you I used pubs extensively after 4 July (300 pub visits through to the November Lockdown) and only noted one minor breach of Guidelines. Pubs and customers did a magnificent job.

    I see the Stirling report was accompanied by photos of 2 of Glasgow's most boisterous pubs, the Alpen Lodge and Park Lane. I'd love to know which 29 pubs they visited to find those mostly minor infringements.