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Issue 79 - Taking the pledge

Whisky Extras

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Whisky Magazine Issue 79
April 2009

 

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Taking the pledge

Ian Mitchell charts the rise and fall of the Temperance movement in Scotland.

Current debates on “responsible drinking” and on the cost and availability of alcohol have a long pedigree. Scotland, the birthplace of the whisky industry, also saw the birth of the first temperance and teetotalism movements, and an examination of their rise and fall might be of use in informing the present discussion.

The beginnings of large-scale whisky commercial distilling in 1824 also saw the reduction of the duty on spirits from seven shillings to two shillings and sixpence a gallon- and a consequent reduction in the price of whisky. Consumption of “the craitur” in Scotland increased from about two million gallons in 1822 to approaching seven millions in 1829, accompanied by a consequent increase in drunkenness. For example in Glasgow from 1871-4 125,000 people were arrested as “drunk and incapable”.

Many people felt something had to be done.

Intemperance was an accepted part of upper class Scottish society, but it had generally been conducted behind domestic doors or in private drinking clubs.

The new urban working class drunkenness on the other hand was manifested in public. Many early reformers were motivated by humanitarian impulses, but also by the fact that they felt the increasing industrial society would be put at risk by workmens’ drinking, and that the middle classes would be taxed to pay the poor rates necessary to maintain the indigent drunken populace. From the outset the alcohol reformers target was the drink of the working man – and especially, their target was whisky. One sceptic commented that the rage against drunkenness was an “artful combination of the upper classes against the toiling portion of the community by keeping back whisky from the common people”.

The first temperance society in the world was set up in Maryhill just outside Glasgow by James Dunlop. This movement’s target was whisky (and other spirits), and not the wine drunk domestically by the middle and upper classes, which was assumed to be “nutritious”. Dunlop was aided in his work by the millionaire Glasgow printer and biblepublisher William Collins, who did not endear himself to working men by arguing that they should only drink water.

Collins’ money funded millions of tracts and the Temperance Society Record. Collins was an evangelical Christian who believed that drink was the cause of poverty, and of irreligion.

The early temperance movement was heavily religiously inspired. In 1842 an Irish priest Theobald Mathew led a procession of 50,000 people to Glasgow Green, where an estimated 80 per cent of them signed a pledge to abstain from alcohol (though presumably not communion wine). Soon a whole range of societies burst into existance some advocating temperance (ie a selective and moderate alcohol consumption) others increasingly becoming supporters of teetotalism, that is abstaining from all alcohol consumption, and still others going as far as prohibitionism, that is the banning of all production and sale of alcoholic drink.

In the Victorian period and well into the 20th century this now almost-forgotten crusade against alcohol was a mass movement which had a great influence on politics. Christian groups continued to wage the campaign against the ‘demon drink’, greatly strengthened when the Salvation Army arrived in Scotland in 1879, with its lively open-air meetings and anti alcohol message. But many other organisations rejected the simplistic view of drink causing poverty and argued rather that it was the other way round. The exploited working man had no hope and no escape except into drunkenness, and tackling poverty would lead to more success.

Movements such as the Independent Order of Rechabites waged temperance campaigns accompanied by the whole paraphernalia of uniforms and regalia that would provide colour in dull lives. The Rechabites were also a Friendly Society in the pre-welfare state days, offering sickness and other benefits to those who practised temperance, and the loss of these if members lapsed. The Good Templars was another organisation which combined Friendly Society benefits with the rituals and colour, often inspired by Freemasonry, along with social activities and outings. It soon had a Scottish membership of 80,000, including a branch in Airdrie of 4,000 people. The Band of Hope was an abstinence organisation, this time aimed at children and set up by William Quarrier, who established orphan homes.

The combined pressure of all these organisations began to bear legislative fruit.

In 1853 a Licensing Act closed pubs on Sundays and at 11pm on weekdays, and the increasing power of the anti drink lobby meant that it became difficult to get new licenses. Women and children were also selectively banned from public houses. In Glasgow by the later 19th century under a succession of Provosts including William Collins Jr. alcohol was forbidden on council premises, a ban that lasted till 1960, and Collins made it clear that had the law of the land allowed, he would have introduced prohibition in Glasgow. This pressure reached its culmination when in 1913 the Temperance (Scotland) Act became law, allowing for local plebiscites on the sale of alcohol. In the 1920s more than 40 areas in Scotland voted to become “dry”, but as these were mainly middle class residential areas, the effect was limited.

Initially many working class reformers and trades unionists opposed the temperance movement as middle class busybodies. But as the 19th century progressed the labour movement more and more adopted the crusaders’ message against drink, which its leaders saw, not as the cause of working class poverty, but as something which made it worse – and whose effects made working men less able to hear the socialist message of hope. Thus many of the early leaders of the labour movement in Scotland such as Keir Hardie and John Maclean, were teetotalers. The Co-operative movement – where working-class womens’ influence was strong, was especially down on drink.

This alliance between Labour and Temperance had a dramatic outcome in Dundee, where the radical socialist and prohibitionist Edwin Scrymgeour was elected to Parliament in 1922 – beating Winston Churchill.

While the men of Dundee might have been voting for Scrymgeour’s firebrand socialism the women were supporting him for his plans to outlaw the manufacture of alcohol altogether; and alcohol for the working man still meant largely whisky in those days. Scrymgeour introduced his prohibitionist bill in 1923 where it was lost by 335 to 14.

The failure of this one attempt to introduce prohibition into Britain was soon followed by its introduction into the United States of America. The disastrous consequences of this measure, with its massive increase in racketeering and its limited effect on alcohol consumption, meant that the ideas of prohibition were discredited, and the issue dropped from the political agenda.

Trying to prohibit the production of alcohol is today seen as a hopeless cause, and while individuals might themselves take the pledge, few of them nowadays would hope to persuade the majority of their fellows to do the same.

Ironically though, today’s “sensible drinking” mantra is quite close to that of the early temperance reformers, before they moved towards their less tolerant teetotalist and prohibitionist positions.

 

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