Two Pints of Non-Alcoholic Lager and a Packet of Fat-Free Crisps

How pointless regulations are ruining British pub life


If you want to buy a drink at a pub in Oldham, northern England, you must stand in an orderly "post-office-style" line. It must be a straight line, starting one meter from the bar, with barriers, signage, and a "supervisor." There must be no drinking while standing in line, and no drinking within one meter of the bar. Customers cannot order more than two drinks at one time. And if a pub wants to advertise discounted drinks, it must give the police and local council at least seven days' notice.

Pubs were once one of the most autonomous spaces in Britain; now they are one of the most regulated. The traditional pub was a law unto itself—frosted glass and thick smoke gave patrons privacy from the prying eyes of the street. Police officers entered only in extreme circumstances. A typical maze of pub rooms exhibited—as Charles Dickens put it in Oliver Twist—"cunning, ferocity, and drunkenness in all its stages." There was gaming, dancing, and fighting, as well as people doing business and having affairs. Communities were often centered on the pub, known as "the local," and several districts of London—Elephant & Castle, Angel, and Swiss Cottage—are named after their old pubs. Indeed, the very name—public house—indicates that this was a place for the public, not the authorities. Here it was the landlord who ruled and decided what went.

Now the landlord has lost his dominion, and pubs need a local authority license for almost every possible activity that goes on within their walls. One Staffordshire pub hurriedly axed its 25-year-old dominos team, when police discovered that it lacked a license for sporting activity. Once the landlady had acquired a license, though, she discovered that nobody would be allowed to watch the dominos, since this "would constitute a live sporting event" and require a further license. The pub was also missing other key licenses, she said: "I was told that I couldn't have music playing, I can have the TV on but with no sound. The regulars can't sing any songs."

Dancing also requires official paperwork. One unlicensed York pub was threatened with a £20,000 fine, after an "impromptu jig by pensioner Mavis Brogden." There is a license for live music—in addition to which London pubs must fill in a risk-assessment form, giving the names, addresses, aliases, and telephone numbers of all performers, as well as the style of music being performed and the target audience. There is even a "spoken word licence." One Cambridge pub had to cancel its monthly poetry readings because it lacked specific permission. When the landlord protested that they only wanted "a small number of people to talk quietly," the council's "environmental health officer" was firm: "Licences are there to be adhered to and we have them for all sorts of reasons—there need to be checks in place."

Traditionally pubs have been highly individualized places, distinguished by their eccentric furnishings, varied clientele, and the differing characters of their landlords. Some pubs went in for beer tankards, others for old photos. And while strict landlords kicked everyone out at 11:10 p.m., others let you stick around for an hour or offered "lock-ins." Now pubs are distinguished by their local council's brand of regulation. Preston Council banned "vertical drinking" (drinking standing up). Many other pubs have prohibited drinking outside, or will only allow drinking behind a line on the pavement. In a Home Office test-scheme in Yeovil, customers are fingerprinted and photographed at the pub door, and local pubs will "share information" on drinkers.

Indeed, police officers now have unprecedented legal powers over public houses. Under the Licensing Act 2003, police can confiscate drinks and even close down alcohol sales for entire neighborhoods. After young people used Facebook to promote a beach party last summer, officers threatened to ban all pubs in Torbay. Local landlords said that banning alcohol on a busy summer weekend would be "catastrophic." The police replied that the potential for "disruption and difficulty" was enough to justify blanket prohibition.

Sadly, U.K. politicians are inventing new ways to regulate all of the niceties of British pub life. One policy document suggested a 70-decibel limit on pub music, on the basis that "music speeds up drinking patterns by drowning out conversation and arousing the brain." The document also proposed warning signs about the dangers of alcohol and bans on cocktails with "suggestive names" such as "Sex on the Beach." There must be teams of officials working on the regulation of the dreaded "Happy Hour" and its deadly offers of "free drinks for ladies," "two for one," and—most notorious of all—"buy two glasses of wine and get the rest of the bottle free." As Home Secretary Jacqui Smith lamented, "It can't be right that you can still find promotions for 50p shots until midnight or 'all you can drink for a tenner' nights."

To put it another way: The state has replaced the traditional pub landlord. Yet the authorities meddle with the pub at their peril. While the government yearns for a British public that drinks nicely "like the French," it forgets the essential role played by voluntary association. The truth is that pubs have long had a civilizing influence, particularly on younger drinkers. Pub owners judged the right moment to say, "you've had enough, mate" and ban those who caused trouble. Underage drinkers were tolerated so long as they behaved themselves, and as a result young people learned to drink like adults—whereas now they behave like teenagers, drinking noisily and messily on park benches.

The commonsense authority of the pub landlord had more force than these rule-happy bureaucrats will ever enjoy. Meanwhile, the licensing system has chased out some of the more wholesome pub activities. Both the police and the politicians should keep their prying hands and peeping eyes away from pub doors.

Josie Appleton is director of the UK civil liberties group, Manifesto Club, which campaigns against the hyper-regulation of public life.