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.

NEXT: Jim the Realtor's Bad House Project, or, "I got an ice cream truck on every video."

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  1. England has become a land of pussies.

  2. Isn’t it true that British pubs are dens of underage binge drinking leading to rampant yob violence so that old people are virtual prisoners in their own homes? Isn’t venturing into town centers after dark a high risk ubdertaking? Or are the media and the tabloids lying to their audience? I mean, social emergencies need government to solve,no?

  3. How pointless regulations are ruining British pub life

    Isn’t that the point?

  4. > England has become a land of pussies.

    Uberfat, fish-n-chips-eating pussies, to boot.

  5. Unlike the Irish, where alcohol keeps them from rampaging across the world, alcohol keeps the Brits interesting.

  6. Elephant & Castle is not named after a pub. One folklore version has it derives from a vision that someone had on London Bridge when they saw an elephant with a castle on its back in the clouds folklore, but the explanation I prefer is that it is a corruption of ‘Infanta de Castilla’ and marks an area where the daughter of the King of Spain once stayed and was accorded diplomatic privileges before entering London itself.

  7. I wonder if anyone has studied the effects of the lack of gun ownership in that country? Imagine this kind of fighting and hooliganism in this country. Your ass’d just get shot. So it makes one wonder if the general fear that someone in the crowd might be packing actually causes Americans to behave better.

  8. “Paul” is right – American’s do behave better than British out of fear of getting shot.

    I once saw a young man in a knock down, drag out fight with two British cops while a crowd of bystanders stood around and cheered.

    That would never happen in the US.

  9. I always wanted to visit the UK. Now, not as much. Every day I read something on this site that makes me want to never go there and sure as hell never ever ever ever ever live there.

  10. Britain has become epic self-parody. I doubt I’ll ever take British critcism for anything American seriously ever again. Wow, they really do love ‘permissions’. Too bad treating adults like children only rewards irresponsible behavior.

  11. Government and government employees suck cock.

  12. Coming soon to an Obamanation near you.

  13. The sun has set on the British Empire.

  14. I’m amazed they still allow gambling there.

    Also, Jacqui Smith is the one public official in a democracy for whom I will cheer when she dies. The only other people I can think of like that are Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Kim Jong-Il, Mugabe, etc. etc.

  15. Goodbye England…the USA is going down the toilet right behind you. All hail Obama.

  16. This is the kind of thing I could see inflaming people into starting a revolution.

    After the old farts are dead, of course.

  17. I love big brother.

  18. I was trying to remember why we (the States) broke away from the mother country (the rest of you in the UK); then I read this article and I say to myself “Oh yeah, this kind of crap”. Timeliness! Red tape never looses its appeal!

  19. At the 3 bars for MPs in the houses of Parliament you can not only drink vertically (standing up), but you can still smoke as much as you like. Different rules for the rules makers it seems. Wonder if they put their bar bill through on their expenses…?

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

    Man of La Mancha: Part Dieux

    So it makes one wonder if the general fear that someone in the crowd might be packing actually causes Americans to behave better.

    Not quite. Treating Americans like adults encourages them to behave like adults. Concealed handgun licensees have far lower arrest rates than non-licensees.

  21. This insanity seems to depend on the region where you live. I live in Surrey and my local pubs have music (juke box or live), allow vertical drinking etc. In fact I’ve seen no evidence of any stupidity by the local authorities.

  22. When I was younger, I always wanted to retire in England, as I thought it was such a charming place. Now I am nearly old enough to retire, all I see going on in England is regulation, people being harassed by government, and stupid rules at every turn. England is now ruined, as far as I am concerned. I not be coming there every.

  23. I have no desire to ever go to London now. First the complete coverage of the whole country with video cameras, then this, no way I will go there. And to all of you Obama haters, do you really have such short term memories?

    Or do you have selective memory since it favors your Republicanism to bash Obama while Bush brought on unprecedented monitoring and intrusions into our lives.

  24. i haven’t seen or noticed any of the things mentioned in the article.
    i love how most of the posters will believe anything they read and are relly quick to make generalisations.

  25. I visited England in 2002 for a couple of weeks, where a friend took me to a play in London. We got out of the play crossed the street to a pub and had time a drink, before the pub closed. I said let’s go to another pub for another drink, when she explained to me that all pubs in London close at 11:00. During those weeks I saw so much drunkenness by people racing to the pubs at 5:00 to get in their drinking before 11:00. I can only think that this is due to the Government treating the citizens like children and sadly eventually the citizens behave like children.

  26. even in 2002 lots of bars were open after 11 pm especially in london even if the standard closing time for pubs was 11.

  27. i haven’t seen or noticed any of the things mentioned in the article.

    *closes eyes, puts fingers in ears*

  28. This is satire, right? The Onion? Because I’m sure you can’t be serious. Restrictions and regulations such as you describe are, obviously, too absurd to be real.

  29. Seriously people, have some common sense!

    This article is pointless sensationalism. No doubt you’ll find its *One* pub did this, *One* pub did that.

    This article is nonsense. If you HONESTLY think this is what Britain is like, then frankly you need to go, get your passport and actualy EXPERIENCE the world, as opposed to just believing bullshit you see online.

  30. Well, it’s too bad if it’s true. That’s just sad. Poor limeys.

  31. AAAAAaargh, its bloody not! Anyone actually LIVING in britain will say, pub culture is still here and always will be, if there’s one thing the British will put their foot down with, its pubs and drinking!

    One minute people comment about how terrible binge drinking is in britain, next they all fall over backwards believing one article that says we can’t drink….which do you want to believe?!? Oh I know, the one that makes your country appear better.

    I went to a bar once that only served bottles..OH NO! UK BANNING PINTS! BOTTLES ONLY!!!!

    *sigh* Think for yourselves people, not what an article tells you to, and yes, this is coming from a brain dead zombie living in 1984 UK…

  32. OK yeah, we do have a lot of problems in England with overregulation, however the headline instances mentioned in this article haven’t actually happened yet.

    The local council have threatened that they may introduce such measures, though it’s by no means certain that they actually have the powers to do so.

    Basically in Oldham a lot of people are concerned about the level of violence in Oldham town centre on Friday/Saturday night and they think it’s too some extent drink-fuelled. The whole furore about licensing in Oldham kicked off when one venue in the town ran an all you can drink night for ?5.99. Yeah, that’s right, pay ?5.99 to get through the door and you don’t have to pay for another drink all night. This made national news and as a result the council decided they had to do something.

    Personally I think they’d be better off having a few more policeman on the beat. The area where all the pubs and nightclubs are isn’t that large. I’ve been to some clubs in the states where there’s a police officer on the door paid for by the club management. That would probably be a better idea, actually punishing people who break the law rather than punishing everyone for a few people breaking the law.


  33. Sounds like the British need to recover their balls and throw some people out of office. This is a disgrace to human dignity. Whoever coined the term ‘vertical drinking’ needs to be tarred and feathered. It’s called standing up while you drink a goddamned beer.

  34. All round the western world… ever more reason for violent revolt against government… the kind which finds officials, major and petty, hanging from lamp posts and police hiding under their beds.

  35. To the extent that the stories in this article are true, I found this a very depressing read. But all you people bashing on Brits and calling them ‘pussies’ because of regulations in their country are retards. How many idiotic laws do we have in the states? Is it sound logic to look at the regulations and policies enacted here and assume that they represent the opinions and attitudes of every citizen?

  36. “When I was younger, I always wanted to retire in England, as I thought it was such a charming place.”

    Parts of the South East still are. Just stick to the market towns and rural areas.

  37. I absolutly hate the British socialist, New Lbaour Party. They are destroying civil liberties in the UK and want to rule everybodies, thoughts and actions.

    If I ever get a chance to meet that ridiculously dumb down, incompetant Jacqui Smith in person I will be throwing my size 10 boots at her head with full force!!

    The Labour Party should change the UK’s name to: The United Kingdom of Surveilance and Social Control.

  38. Stuck in a world where those who triumph liberty and freedom spend the majority of their time making rules for us to abide by.
    Also, fees and permits can suck my balls.

  39. “Nick | June 1, 2009, 4:20pm |
    I always wanted to visit the UK. Now, not as much. Every day I read something on this site that makes me want to never go there and sure as hell never ever ever ever ever live there.”

    I scratched that crappy little island off of my “give a shit” list last year. It is one of the only countries I absolutely refuse to live in. I don’t even want to see it. Ever.

    Tough call, but I would probably move to Cali before I moved to the UK (but only if I felt cold blue steel on my scalp).

  40. Living in this country is worse than living in Nazi Germany pre WW2
    Why young men by the million died to save us from the Nazis is beyond anyone.
    They needn’t have bothered and now it’s here without a bullet being fired. (except by the police at innocent people)
    A generation died and it was for nothing.
    The U.K. is ruled by Nazis.
    The lunatics have taken over the asylum.
    p.s. The article is real…believe me

  41. I think a lot of you need to wisen up. Half of what has been written is rubbish. Yes smoking isn’t allowed in pubs and that is good. Like anywhere else we have our problems with some people drinking too much. If you frequent the seamier areas anywhere you are going to meet unsavory people. What we don’t have unlike the USA is kids shooting half their class mates and we don’t want our police to be armed thank you. If you don’t like England then don’t visit, we have more than enough undesirable foreingers sponging off us already.

  42. Generally an unbalanced and sensationalised article with some grains of truth. Where, for instance, is mention of the anonymous and profit-hungry PubCos part in all this?

  43. I’m English and live in Newcastle. I’m also a hard line market anarchist. No friend of the state.

    There’s a kernel of truth in the article, but only that. It’s a bit hysterical. Not actually wrong, but if I was to take you for a night out in the toon you’d not recognise the picture of england given above.

    BTW – because of the levels of drunken violence that pervade english (actually norther european) are more to do with football than pubs.

  44. thank the lord i live in the states

  45. Excellent article Josie. Those in Britain who say this doesn’t correspond with their experience of going down the pub are right in a way, but it is still happening, it’s having an increasingly corrosive effect on our lives and should be opposed. Despite all they are trying to do, pubs can be great places and worth visiting because people get on with life and work around these things (or hopefully ignore them). I don’t agree that pubs are violent places, any more or less than they have ever been. I owned a pub in a pretty rough part of east london and never had a problem. Like Josie says, a good landlord can sort problems out, often before they kick off.
    By the way I’ve been to some great bars in the US but my first experience was really off putting. In the centre of Chicago I was refused a drink because I couldn’t prove my age. At the time I was 37 years old. I was stunned because that would never have happened here. But now I’m not so sure.
    Anyway, great article but don’t be put off from coming to see us, we’re not all New Labour ‘party poopers’. Some of us are really very nice.

  46. England: a stinking cesspit of megastatism. Really, it’s just plain sad.

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