Sunday, February 12, 2006

If a tree don't fall on me

Apparently I'm up to blogpost #100, a little short of the blog's first anniversary. How about some beer?

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations - Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. But they're variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington's, there's been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style - but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well); I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I've ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they're all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There's a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars' favourite guests keep coming back - and the way their names keep including words like 'white' or 'golden'. I'm in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The local with the pale, hoppy ales I'll call Old Local. It's not particularly old - it's six or seven years old, in fact - but it looks it; the decor is classic Pub Basic. It's a small pub, tied to a small local brewery; on an average night they have four or five of the brewery's ales on, plus a couple of guests and a real cider (from a one-gallon barrel, kept in the fridge). It's less than ten minutes' walk away and handy for a good Chinese takeaway.

Then there's New Local, which was opened a little more than a year ago and looks it. It's less than ten minutes' walk away (in the other direction) and handy for a good Indian; it's a Thwaites' pub, usually serving Bomber and Thoroughbred plus a couple of guests. New Local doesn't serve real cider, and they serve the bitter a couple of degrees too cold. But it's good ale - their Thoroughbred in particular is a very nice pint, without the slightly curdled caramel heaviness of the Bomber. New Local also has a bar snacks menu consisting mainly of things like miniature salamis and Japanese rice crackers. (Old Local, to be fair, serves Kettle Chips and Bombay mix, so it's not that stark a contrast; I'm not sure where you'd go round here for pork scratchings.) Another difference between the two is that you don't hear many local accents in New Local; from what I've overheard I get the impression that most of the clientele are incomers (like me), working in the social services or education (like me).

Can you guess which of the two has a no-smoking policy?

Last October I wrote (in comments here)
I could approve of a complete smoking ban if we were arguing about the effects on pub staff, whose exposure to smoke in pubs is much more extensive than any(?) of their customers’. If we’re talking about the punters (as people discussing a ban generally are) the case is much less clear. You express puzzlement that market forces have failed to create choice between smoking and non-smoking pubs, but actually this was entirely predictable for as long as smoke actively repelled a lower proportion of pub customers than the absence of smoke. Since smokers have historically been either a majority or a large minority among pub-goers, and since non-smokers aren’t likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of clean air, these conditions haven’t obtained; the balance has also had an added level of ’stickiness’ owing to the lack of anywhere for non-smokers to actually go. What’s happened recently is that smokers have dwindled to a small enough proportion of the population that some pub managers can afford to disregard their preferences; there’s also been a decrease in the tolerance of the non-smoking population, although I don’t think this is anything like so significant a factor. Consequently non-smoking pubs have become a reality (one opened from scratch a year ago, just down the road from me in Manchester, & is now doing a roaring trade) - which in turn makes competitive pressures that much freer to operate.

So what worries me most about the proposed smoking ban - and almost equally draconian half-measures such as the creation of airtight(!) smoking rooms - is that this nannyish attack on the pleasures of the working class* will take place precisely when it’s no longer necessary.

*Pardon my Johnreidism, but this does seem like the most class-correlated proposal I’ve seen in a very long time - and not in a good way, either.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the pending smoking ban is that it won't come into force for another eighteen months. I imagine that the imminent threat of a ban will give market forces another nudge, so that by the time the ban actually takes effect it will look even less necessary than it does now. (But then, 'market forces' only ever make sense within a given framework of law, custom and expectation.)

But it's not just clean air that the ban will promote - or rather, it'll promote clean air by promoting a broader shift of values. And that's what worries me. I'm a middle-class incomer, with an incomer's accent, an incomer's taste in beer and an incomer's habit of taking the LRB to the pub and sitting on my own reading it (or sometimes, particularly in Old Local, standing on my own reading it). Or maybe that last one's just me. But anyway - middle-class incomer I am. But I like Old Local because I can feel at home there without being entirely surrounded by other middle-class incomers; conversely, I like New Local, but I'd like it more if it wasn't quite so full of people like me. I'm settled here - I've been in Manchester for 23 years and in this specific area for 18 - but I still feel like an incomer, and I think that's appropriate: I like the fact that I share a local with people who are actually from around here, and I don't object to being reminded that I'm not. At some deep level, the opening of New Local and places like it feels like a different kind of middle-class influx - not so much immigration, more colonisation. And the smoking ban seems like a big vote of confidence to New Local, and a big 'up yours' to the Old Local crowd.

I wonder if Chris goes far enough:
To New Labour, health egalitarianism is a strong enough principle to justify restricting freedom, but not strong enough to justify seriously attacking inequality.
I think we can simplify: to New Labour managerialists, just about any principle is good enough to justify restricting working class freedoms, and just about any principle is more important than seriously improving working class life chances. (And no, the smoking ban isn't about doing just that - or if it is, it's a peculiarly limited and indirect way of achieving that goal. See Chris's post for more.)

Update A friend challenged me today to specify less coercive means of effectively protecting bar staff from passive smoking. I don't think it's that difficult. Firstly (and symbolically), you'd give legal status to smoking bans imposed by the management of pubs and clubs: you light up and it's not just the management you're taking on, there's a chance you could actually be fined. (Or at least have a fee extorted - but that's another rant.) This in itself wouldn't do much more than make it easier to non-smoking establishments to open. Secondly, you'd legislate so that the continued tolerance of smoking, in a smoking establishment, rested on the consent of the people who work there: you'd enable bar staff to hold binding ballots on converting to (or, to keep it fair, from) non-smoking status and encourage pubs and clubs to hold such ballots regularly - starting now. If there is any groundswell of support for a smoking ban, among pub customers or pub workers, this should be enough to turn it into reality. And if not, what are we doing imposing one?

Updated update: Brian's post reminds me that, with the exception of the clause about balloting the staff, I've just reinvented the 2005 Labour manifesto position on smoking. Since the Blairite takeover there have been numerous cases of people and policies moving from respectable centre to extreme left without actually changing; it usually takes a bit longer than this, though.

10 Comments:

Anonymous jamie said...

Holts pub, eh? Me I like it, but I grew up drinking Pedigree before it was made into a heritage beer and so destroyed. I still think the ideal piont should leave your mouth slightly drier than before you started.

re: your substantive point. I've always suspected that there's a strong streakof loathing in New Labour for their traditional voters simply because they blame them for keeping them out of power for so long. They were sustained by Old Labour votes when they were going through their new left/rainbow coalition phase and once beleived that this meant they could take power nationally on this kind of platform.

Since they found out they were wrong, they've blamed the voters who indulged this illusion for the illusion itself.

15/2/06 16:44  
Blogger Phil said...

Holt's? No, it's this bunch. Is Holt's bitter pale? I had it filed mentally in a category of its own, headed 'cheap and dark but tastes of furniture polish'.

I'm coming to the conclusion that there's something really nasty about New Labour's attitude to Old ditto - something both vindictive and compulsive. Hey, we can stop being nice to those people! In fact we need to stop being nice to those people! We couldn't afford to be nice to them even if we wanted to!

15/2/06 19:37  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

I'm not sure about balloting workers. Generally, workers' control of the places they worked would be, undeniably, a good thing, but a piecemeal approach strikes me as worse than legislative control. Giving the power to control one part of an environment is not likely to be very useful if the power to control other parts of the environment is missing. Workers would be liable to intimidation of both more and less subtle forms. Think of the asbestos comparison. No-one would think the best way of protecting those potentially working with asbestos from the risks associated with it would have been to allow them to refuse to do so en masse, most obviously since they could have done that under market conditions anyway.

18/2/06 16:21  
Blogger Phil said...

Robert - 'market conditions' generally only give workers the right to leave an unsuitable employer, if they can find something better to go to. The ballot idea is rather more empowering than that. I'm not sure I see the force of your 'intimidation' argument: you seem to be saying that, because some workers would be coerced into making choices against what they judged to be their interest, the choice should be taken away from all workers and made in what the government judges to be their interest.

19/2/06 00:22  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

Alright, the 'market conditions' jibe was a bit cheap, and certainly giving workers the power to vote to alter the conditions under which they work is better than having the hardly uniformly distributed power to refuse work. But. But. That doesn't mean that having the power to vote to alter the conditions under which one works would be better than central legislative control exercised over those conditions. Bar staff do not tend to have much market power, I'd guess, which would make them vulnerable to threats that, for example, in the event that smoking was banned the pub would close or new staff would be hired. I take it that it is axiomatic that the solution you should would have been deeply unsuitable for asbestos, and if the medical evidence supports the claim that passive smoking is a serious risk to health, then the situation should be analogous.

19/2/06 09:52  
Blogger Phil said...

the solution you should would have been deeply unsuitable for asbestos

Workers were exposed to asbestos because their employers chose to use it as a raw material. Workers are exposed to tobacco smoke because their employers choose not to prevent customers from choosing to smoke on their premises. Pub landlords aren't simply being deprived of a choice, as in the asbestos analogy - they're being deprived of the choice not to deprive their customers of a choice. It's not nannying (that would be ordering pub landlords to display anti-smoking literature) - it's policing. (Which is where the (bad) class-correlation comes in: being deprived of a choice you've already forsworn is easy to bear.)

20/2/06 12:19  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

"Pub landlords aren't simply being deprived of a choice, as in the asbestos analogy - they're being deprived of the choice not to deprive their customers of a choice"

That is, in the politest sense possible, a rubbish attempt at a distinction, because removal of choice can be regressed like that all over the shop. For example, building contractors were being deprived of the choice of whether or not to allow architects to design structures with asbestos. In both the asbestos case and the smoking case, people are, in the course of their employment, being exposed to a serious health risk, one they would presumably prefer not to be exposed to. If regulation in one case is acceptable, then it is in another.

20/2/06 17:37  
Blogger Phil said...

removal of choice can be regressed like that all over the shop

Maybe, but I wasn't 'regressing' it; the examples aren't directly comparable. The new law is binding on pub landlords (et al), and what it binds them to do is deprive their customers of a choice. And, er, that's it.

In both the asbestos case and the smoking case, people are, in the course of their employment, being exposed to a serious health risk, one they would presumably prefer not to be exposed to

Which is why I think that their expressed preferences should be binding on their employer (and on their employer's customers). I don't think the third parties who are causing the putative health risk should have a veto. But, since there are third parties whose freedom of action is being restricted, I think it's reasonable to have a point in the process where a trade-off can be made between my protection from health risks and their freedom of action. If a pub employee would rather keep a smoky atmosphere than have socially-engineered clean air, I think she should be able to express that preference.

20/2/06 21:44  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

I realise I am now risking becoming slightly trollish, but I don't see why you don't think the analogy between asbestos and smoking runs. Skepticism about the medical evidence, or about the parity of the degree of risk, are the only grounds which I can see for denying the analogy, since the stuff about third-party choice seems to me to obviously apply to both (landlords must stop their customers from smoking; building contractors had to stop architects from designing buildings with asbestos in). Given that the analogy holds, would you have advocated allowing builders to choose whether or not to work with asbestos?

21/2/06 12:30  
Blogger Phil said...

I still don't think the analogy holds. The person who is bound by anti-asbestos legislation is, in the first instance, anyone who wants to use asbestos; it has secondary, knock-on effects for anyone who wants to use the services of the would-be asbestos user. The anti-smoking legislation we're talking about isn't binding on people who use tobacco - and, of course, there's no upstream user-of-services-of-smoker-of-tobacco to take the role of the architect in your analogy. The act of using a noxious substance isn't directly comparable with the act of permitting a third party to choose to use such a substance.

21/2/06 14:35  

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