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Paint It Black

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Welcome to the second installment of guest blogger Henry Yeomans’ new series here on Points. Henry, a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leed’s School of Law, has already provided us with an excellent article on Britain’s World War I-era teetotaler movement.  TodayHenry discusses debates over alcohol regulation in the Swinging ‘Sixties.

Chocolate egg, or alcohol vessel?

On 25th April 1961, an odd rhetorical weapon was brandished in the House of Commons. Members of the House debated whether or not to amend a piece of legislation passing through Parliament so as to enable proprietors to sell (alcoholic) chocolate liqueurs without a licence. Conservative William Clark MP argued that “spirits enclosed in confectionary” should not be regarded as “intoxicating liquor” and so be freed from licensing restrictions. Another Conservative MP, Sir Cyril Black, countered this perspective by producing a large chocolate egg. Black was a colourful parliamentarian, having notably campaigned against the decriminalisation of homosexuality and for the suppression of gambling, strip clubs and ‘obscene publications’ such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But he was not an eccentric maverick whose influence was confined to reactionary politics; he was chairman of the Moral Law Defence Association, president of the Band of Hope temperance society and member of the All-Party Temperance Group. Black’s views, moreover, encapsulate a significant and influential position within discourse on alcohol in England and Wales in the swinging sixties.  He was not alone in his outrage that the egg, which reportedly measured 15 inches across, “could contain enough liquor to intoxicate a considerable number of members.”

Lord Wolfenden

Throughout the mid-twentieth century, British debates over behavioural regulation were less focused on the morality of particular forms of conduct and increasingly targeted the consequences or harms associated with these behaviours. 1957’s Wolfenden Report exemplified this new approach, taking a libertarian view of sexual behaviour and arguing that homosexuality and prostitution should only be matters of public concern and legal intervention when they entail one person being involuntarily harmed by the actions of another. When no interpersonal harm is apparent, it is “not the law’s business” to intervene and individual freedom of action should prevail. This more permissive context coincided with the first significant relaxation of alcohol regulation in England and Wales for a century. The Licensing Act of 1961 allowed restaurants to apply for licences to sell alcohol for the first time, extended open hours for licensed premises, and scrapped the statutory Sunday closure of public houses in Wales. Within these shifting governmental sands, debates about alcohol came to be typified less by a Victorian preoccupation with the immorality of drinking as individuals were, to a certain extent, given greater autonomy over their own consumption. 

This slight lessening of statutory restrictions, however, coincided with an intensified concern for three central drink-related problems. The first of these specific problems was youth drinking. Youth behaviour was the source of acute public anxiety in the early 1960s and the press featured regular warnings about apparent increases in pre-marital sex, drug use, gambling and drunkenness. Despite some doubts about whether young people were drinking more than previously, it was common at the time to refer to “the disturbing increase in drunkenness among young people.” Furthermore, this trend was usually associated with violence and disorder (for example). Although the age threshold for purchasing alcohol for on-premises consumption had been fixed at 18 in 1923, children aged 5-17 could still purchase alcohol for off-premises consumption at the beginning of the 1960s. But in the context of this unease about youth drinking, the threshold of 18 was extended to off-licence sales in 1961 and has remained there since. Significantly, the revision to statutory age limits for purchasing alcohol was not the work of the Government but, instead, it was the result of an amendment to the 1961 Licensing Act, tabled by legal moralist and temperance leader Cyril Black.

Drunk driving: a major social problem of the age.

The second central drink problem in this era was drunk driving. Many people regarded drunk driving in a fairly light-hearted way; it was not widely viewed as dangerous and juries were notoriously reluctant to convict those accused of drink-driving offences. But the stance of authority figures was hardening; the National Temperance Federation claimed that the 1961 reforms would lead to “MORE road accidents and LESS safety” and Black and others successfully lobbied for the Licensing Act 1961 to include restrictions on alcohol sales in the proximity of motorways. The Government became increasingly alert to this issue and launched a campaign, in 1964, which insisted that individuals “Don’t ask a man to drink and drive.” Further restrictions followed when the Road Safety Act 1967 created a fixed statutory limit of intoxication, 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, above which driving constituted a criminal offence. This new fixed limit, which still exists today, was enforced with the use of newly-approved breathalysers. Temperance activism was intimately connected to the increasing stringency of drunk driving regulation in the 1960s.

As with youth drinking and drunk driving, regulation of the third major alcohol problem of the day, addiction, also bore the fingerprints of temperance activists. 1961 estimates placed the number of British alcoholics between 200,000 and 350,000. Responding to the growing recognition of a problem, the Department of Health began opening new treatment facilities for alcoholics in 1963. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) also expanded their UK operations and the newly-formed National Council on Alcoholism (NCA) established advice centres across the country. Despite being generally based on a classification of alcoholism as a disease, a medical rather than moral condition, these new initiatives did not entail a significant break with the past. As Mariana Valverde (1998) has shown, the repeated references to God in AA’s 12 Steps Programme demonstrate the religious inspiration of the group. The NCA, moreover, was an initiative of the Church of England Temperance Society and worked closely with AA as well as local churches. In the 1960s, temperance groups and other, older moralising agents were thus firmly involved in efforts to tackle the main social problems associated with drinking.

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