When it comes to the "public health" licensing objective, the lesson of history is that education is the most effective way to change social attitudes to drinking

Most of us involved in liquor licensing have struggled with the fifth licensing objective, relating to the protection of public health. In his report, Nicholson clearly did too, devoting a few short pages to the topic and saying nothing of substance. Slowly the health agenda has risen. 

Quite rightly too, given the appalling statistics relating to the costs associated with Scotland’s “bevvy culture” (the Justice Secretary’s words, not mine).

Future columns will consider in more detail some of the views being expounded in the name of public health. Astonishingly, there has yet to be published one of the reports which featured in the press recently, which attracted comment from the health lobby, and was discussed at the recent Alcohol Focus Scotland conference. That does raise some concerns about the standards of the debate.

Let us travel back instead to the 19th century. Alcohol abuse was commonplace then, as now. The misery and squalor of post-Industrial Revolution urbanisation is seen by many as one of the root causes of the problem. Then, as now, rightminded people were concerned. Those who knew their history were aware of the folly of the attempt at prohibition in south west England in the previous century. It had spawned smuggling, violence and organised crime. Familiar to anyone? What other options were there?

Trade with the Baltic countries had opened eyes to continental models, in particular one from Sweden. Thus the Gothenburg movement was formed. Recognising that working men would continue to drink regardless of social controls, the proponents of this model suggested combining the supply of alcohol with other, community based, activities. The societies were non-profit-making co-operatives. Their buildings (often custom built and ornate) would incorporate meeting rooms and libraries. They were a focus for sporting and social activities, not just for drinking.

Those of you who look round towns and villages and speculate why so many pubs are called “The Goth” can abandon the search for bizarrely dressed teenagers. Many places had more than one. If your local is known as Number One, the likelihood is that its roots are in Sweden. Sometimes the Swedish word was used. Brechin used to boast of a hostelry called the “Brechin Bolag”, bolag being the Swedish word for pub.

Because of the trade links, these were mostly to be found on the east coast, particularly in Fife. The very first was in Hill of Beath, home to the famously intemperate Jim Baxter. It fell into private ownership, latterly named, no doubt by an exasperated owner, “The White Elephant”. Many survived well into the 20th century, latterly incorporated as guarantee companies and known as public house societies. The very last was in the Fife village of Bowhill, disbanded in the 1990s. The clock tower remains.

Can we learn anything from this interesting social experiment? Probably not. We had no academics to chart their progress or to come up with a few sets of statistics to be trotted out as hard fact by the gullible or by those with an agenda. What is perhaps worth bearing in mind is that even 200 years ago, people realised that education was the means to social change, not preventing a supermarket from adding another two layers of shelving.

The Author
Tom Johnston, managing partner, Young & Partners LLP, Glasgow & Dunfermline
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