In 1988 the British government faced a now forgotten domestic crisis.
Previously placid towns, villages and suburbs up and down the country were suddenly awash with mob violence – the kind of thing people expected in forsaken inner cities but which seemed newly terrifying as it spread to provincial market squares and high streets.
The police panicked, the public fretted, and politicians were pressed to take action.
What was causing this rash of insanity? Who or what was to blame for this descent into madness?
In September 1988 at an informal press briefing John Patten MP, Minister for Home Affairs, pointed the finger: the chaos was a result of ‘the Saturday night lager cult’ and ‘lager louts’.
Lager. Lager was to blame. A type of beer that had arrived in earnest in Britain only thirty years before as the upmarket, sophisticated, sharp-suited Continental cousin of the traditional pint of wallop.
Where did it all go wrong?
In the Beginning
Lager was first brewed in Britain as far back as the 1830s and had its first boom in popularity, primarily as a hip, high-price imported product, from the 1860s until World War I. (See Gambrinus Waltz for more on that.) For the next 40 years or so it sat in the background, very much a minority interest, represented by imports from the Continent and the occasional attempt by British brewers such as Barclay Perkins. In the 1950s it had a less than 2 per cent share of the total UK beer market.
The 1950s were an unsettling time for British breweries. They could no longer rely on armies of industrial workers tramping to the pub on a regular basis to drink ale in substantial quantities. Young people seemed less interested in pubs and beer and drawn rather more to burger bars, coffee shops, Coca Cola and pop music. Mild was definitely passé – a relic of the slum era – and though sales of bitter were surging, it too lacked glamour. Bitter drinkers wore blazers and smoked pipes. The tiny handful of Lager drinkers, on the other hand…
Lager was chic. Lager was beer’s answer to Swedish cutlery, Danish chairs, and Italian scooters. There was no suggestion of soot or grit in lager, which spoke of clean living and the cool grey north. Lager was smart. And so were lager drinkers.
The problem for British brewers was that lager sophisticates were drinking imports. Ind Coope had a British lager in its roster, Graham’s, but it was Carlsberg that had the credibility. In 1959, though, Graham’s was relaunched and rebranded, as explained by Martyn Cornell in this 2012 blog post:
Ind Coope… spent £1 million over four years from 1955 rebuilding its two lager plants, Arrol’s in Alloa (which received a new Swedish-made brewery) and Wrexham in North Wales (acquired in 1949), and in 1959 it launched a new brand: Graham’s Skol Lager… The ‘Skol’ part was supposed to be derived from the Danish/Norwegian/Swedish toast word ‘skål’, equivalent to ‘cheers’… The ‘Graham’s’ bit was soon sidelined, with ‘Skol pilsner lager’ being promoted in what Ind Coope called ‘the biggest advertising campaign Britain has ever seen for any lager’, which was deliberately pitched at young people in a way that would not be allowed today.
At around the same time Guinness was in the process of launching its own lager brand in Ireland. In a recollection published in The Guinness Book of Guinness in 1988, Guinness executive Arthur Hughes recalled that brewing in Ireland was always a test for roll-out into the UK market. And if Skol was brewed on Scandinavian kit, Guinness’s new lager was to be brewed by an imported German, Hermann Münder, for reasons Hughes explains:
No British lager had the cachet of Danish, German, Dutch or Czech lagers. We decided on Germany, as the ancient home of lager… S.H. Benson, our advertising agent, went to work and produced some thirty names and draft labels for some of them… I recall Atlas, Alpine, Alpha, Cresta, Dolphin and Lancer… None seemed to suit.
Eventually they settled on the name ‘Harp’ which used an image associated with Guinness but would avoid confusion with the draught stout. No expense was spared in the equipping of the brewery, the marketing, or the distribution network, and it was an immediate success in Ireland. It was launched in England in 1961, in the North West exclusively at first, and soon other major British brewers, including Courage and Scottish & Newcastle, had bought into the brand as partners.
The third of the new national lager brands was a Canadian import, Carling Black Label, inserted forcefully into the UK market by entrepreneur Eddie Taylor. To push Carling he took over several British breweries until his firm, United Breweries, eventually became part of the colossus that was Bass Charrington.
By 1967 those three – Skol, Harp and Bass (Carling/Tennents) – had the bulk of the rapidly swelling UK lager market carved up between them.
You might think this is when lager started to lose its cool or slide downmarket but apparently not. It remained about as expensive as in its import-only days and retained an air of Continental exclusivity, despite domestic mass production. But perhaps this was an illusion, the damage already done below the waterline. Writing in the Times on 9 December 1967 John Graham suggested that publicans were maintaining the premium because they enjoyed ‘fantastic margins’. A bottle of Harp, Graham said, cost about the same for a publican to buy as bottled bitter but sold in the lounge bar for almost twice the price.
In the following decade, though lager’s share of the market continued to rise (4 per cent in 1968, 10 per cent in 1971, 20 per cent by 1975), competition grew with it. More brands emerged – genuine imports, foreign brands brewed under licence in the UK (Carlsberg, Holsten), and home-grown ‘faux’ lagers such as Greenall Whitley’s Grünhalle.
Draught lager became more common after 1966. Harp was supplied in bulk to regional brewers who packaged it on their own lines, increasing its reach but surely diminishing its stature, and perhaps its quality.
At the same time lager’s image began to change in line with a general cultural shift which saw the first wave of ‘new man’-ism – only subtly sexist and knowing his way round an omelette pan – give way to the hairy-chested, unrepentant machismo of the 1970s. Instead of the Scandinavia of walnut coffee tables and Ibsen, lager adopted Viking imagery — Hagar the Horrible for Skol, Norseman from Vaux.
As Edward Guinness put it in The Guinness Book of Guinness…
[Lager] became a man’s drink; in the words of one observer, ‘the “cissy” connotations of lager became a thing of the past’… For, almost overnight, it became possible for the customer to order a pint, which was always cooled, rather than fiddle around with half-pint bottles, which invariably were not.
And the Australians arrived, too. Foster’s Lager was an import brand throughout the 1970s associated in British eyes with a particular kind of larrikin stereotype, as depicted in a 1975 episode of gritty crime drama The Sweeney starring Patrick Mower and George Layton as two Australian armed robbers who swig Foster’s from cans throughout the episode in lieu of convincing accents.
And when Watney’s launched UK-brewed draught Foster’s in 1982 the attendant advertising campaign was fronted by comedian Paul Hogan, swaggering and frank, in T-shirt and jeans — the ultimate Australian male.
The message by now was explicit: lager was unpretentious, laddish, good fun.
But perhaps it was also more (or less) than that, because the word ‘lager’ had begun to crop up in a certain type of news story, like this from the Guardian for 11 May 1984:
John Foreman is a postman and, on the face of it, not much to write home about. He is light, slight, with neat blond hair and a downy moustache. He seems meek — and each Saturday afternoon on the streets of some football town, he inherits the earth… In his terrace tribe there is a ritual and a sort of code. Each ‘good day out’ follows a similar pattern; invariably the violence is fuelled by a mixture of lager and cider. Fist fights are acceptable, knife fights are not.
A similar pen portrait from The Times for 22 July 1981, of an 18-year-old east London skinhead called John O’Leary, mentions his habit of drinking lager from the can in the very first line. When England football fans returned home after an outbreak of violence at a match in Copenhagen in September 1982 journalists felt the need to mention that they arrived at Heathrow ‘drinking lager from cans’. Lager’s symbolism had become potent, the mere word a shortcut for a certain type of troubled, troublesome youth.
But that was just the beginning of lager’s growing image problem.
This Is England
One night in March 1987 it all kicked off in Witney.
A small town in Oxfordshire with a population then of c.18,000, Witney was the unlikely setting for a battle between 70 drunk youths and police. This, by some people’s reckoning, was among the first incidents in what came to be regarded as a wave of ‘rural violence’ that seized headlines in the following years.
It just so happened that the Member of Parliament for Witney was the Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd. That perhaps meant that he was paying particular attention when similar violence fired up in places like Gloucester, Milton Keynes, Berwick-upon-Tweed, High Wycombe, and Lincoln where 170 young people rioted in November that year. And on New Year’s Eve 1987, the Lincoln mob did it again, this time 300-strong, smashing windows and looting as they went.
Television presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk, formerly a Labour MP on Merseyside, captured the hysteria when in August 1987 he wrote a rather hysterical op-ed for the Times entitled ‘Riots That Go Unremarked’:
Let us be clear what we are referring to. We’re talking about gangs of hundreds of drunken white youths, often wielding knives and machetes, rampaging through otherwise peaceful towns and deliberately seeking battle with the police.
In 1988 the problem only seemed to escalate and the baiting and assault of police officers attending such incidents seemed to intensify, as reported by David Leppard in the Sunday Times on 27 March that year.
In January, Leppard wrote, PC Paul Seymour was attending an incident in the village of Kingfield near Woking at 11:45pm on he was set upon by a pack of 30 teenagers. His commanding officer heard his screams over the radio. Seymour survived, just, and was awarded a special commendation. Leppard also told the story of 26-year-old WPC Elain Gostelow who was repeatedly kicked in the face and had her hands crushed as she attempted to help a fellow officer outside a pub in the village of Somercotes, Derbyshire. She was permanently disabled in the attack and had to leave the police force.
The police, understandably, did not like this trend, and so the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) commissioned a report which they summarised in a press release in June 1988. It contained some scary statistics: more than 2,000 people had been arrested in 250 separate ‘serious public order disturbances’ in the preceding year. The anecdotal evidence was scarier still, as in this piece from the Guardian for 10 June 1988:
One of the most ferocious incidents occurred in Crowborough, East Sussex, last weekend. More than 100 youths rioted after police tried to close a wine bar… Youths began pelting police with beer glasses while chanting ‘Kill the Bill’. One officer was pushed through a shop window cutting both tendons in his right wrist.
The ACPO report itself wasn’t made public – they thought a list of towns where violence was a regular occurrence and the police were struggling might act as a kind of catalogue for mobile yobs – so we can’t know if it mentioned lager. Certainly the attendant newspaper coverage based on the press release does not seem to have flagged lager as a particular problem, and wine, as in wine bars, got mentioned more often.
In the months that followed, though, the phrase ‘lager lout’ began to crop up frequently in quotes from senior police officers and politicians. With its alliterative lilt it had a certain snappy quoteability that rendered its accuracy irrelevant.
Lager Lads, Lager Louts
The phrase ‘lager lout’ almost appeared in print in a strange centre-spread feature in What’s Brewing, the monthly newspaper of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), in December 1987. It was credited to ‘Chris Thompson’, actually a pseudonym for left-wing activist and pub designer George Williamson. The article amounts to a manifesto in the Travis Bickle mode. In a section entitled ‘Chasing the sloanes and clones’ he wrote:
It is the image of lager, exuding its message, ‘Stay young; stay with the herd’, which is so malign. It is the content and colour of the product which allows it to be used this way – uniformly banal in taste and texture, and brewed as a lowest common denominator mass product. But then herds are all given the same feed… When the lager lad says that beer is an old man’s drink, the reply is to ask if they have ever thought of growing up?… Lager is a candle to the moth for these people. It lubricates the louts as they lurch to the football terraces…
Lager lads, who are louts… So close. At any rate, this, we suspect is the ultimate source of the phrase as it began to appear during 1988. (John Patten, the Home Office minister, was known to be a real ale drinker.)
What did people think a ‘lager lout’ was in 1988? The ACPO report suggested that the majority of the troublemakers were not poor, unemployed or socially excluded disaffected but white, well-off and in work. Douglas Hurd, the Home Secretary, called them ‘young people with too much money in their pockets, too many pints inside them, but too little self-discipline’. And in a parliamentary debate in November 1988 Robin Corbett, MP for Birmingham Erdington, described them as ‘loadsamoney lager louts’.
The character referenced by Corbett, played by comedian and impressionist Harry Enfield and written by Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, was the breakout hit from Saturday Live, the UK’s own short-lived answer to Saturday Night Live. It was a parody (rather snobbish with hindsight) of the vulgar nouveau riche – a charmless working class man with little education, no manners, and the frightfully vulgar habit of mentioning how much he had earned through the dreadfully menial business of painting and decorating. What the character captured, however, was the class confusion of the time, which meant that money and purchasing habits had ceased to be reliable barometers of social class. As one contemporary commentator put it, ‘all the surface indicators have gone to hell’.
By October 1988 suited officer workers in the City of London were also being described as ‘lager louts’, accused of terrorising fellow commuters at Liverpool Street Station.
The perception that middle and even upper class youths were forgetting their manners under the influence of lager seems to have been particularly alarming, suggesting perhaps that the inner-city rot was spreading outwards, and upwards through the very timbers of the social order.
Observe and Report
The Government had to do something, or at least be seen to do something, so it commissioned Mary Tuck of the Home Office Research and Planning Unit to conduct an investigation into ‘rural violence’. She and her team chose three areas identified by the ACPO as being particularly prone to post-pub violence, and then for each one a control area of similar profile but where no such trouble had been reported. Then they went out on the streets to observe what was really going on.
Like the Mass Observation team in Bolton 50 years earlier they must have stood out. Though the report is dry there is one brief telling moment when the fieldworkers report being heckled by drunks: ‘One little group of five males… made fun of everyone walking past, including us, calling one of us “Jeremy”!’ Elsewhere they describe, in cold officialese, running away from trouble and hiding in their parked car.
Nonetheless, they did get stuck in, and what they reported rings true to anyone who has been out town centre drinking in Britain. They saw groups of young people (very young, often underage) getting drunk (eight or more pints in a session starting at around 9pm) in pubs with loud music. They got hyped in each other’s company before being suddenly turfed out of the pubs at bang on 11pm, made all the more angry by the rudeness of their ejection. They then hung about in large groups in the street or in and around late night take away restaurants, too excited to go home, but with nothing particular to do. They flirted, squared off, shouted and sung. It did not always turn violent. In the troubled towns, though, it did sometimes escalate:
At 12.15 am there was a loud noise and shouting coming from the Hamlet Road direction, and people ran from the Chinese towards the noise… As we rounded the corner into Hamlet Road we were confronted with a group of approximately 200 people moving towards us… The group walked up to the Chinese take-away and re-gathered outside the Job Centre. At this point the large police van arrived… The mass divided into smaller group and some made their way home. Two remaining large groups were herded towards the Wimpy and the Pightle, with one police officer on each side of the road, walking slowly behind them. This took another 15 minutes, and involved a lot of jeering and baiting of the police officers.
The arrival of the police, the observers noted, was sometimes greeted with cheers from crowds simply excited that something was happening.
They also interviewed young men actively involved in street disorder, some on the street at night, and others in their homes. They found that most of them did have jobs but only (this sounds rather snooty) ‘of a very basic kind – postman, caretaker, labourer, forecourt attendant’. They tended to feel hopeless and take a short term view, daydreaming about great wealth and idolising or envying public figures who (remember, this was 1988) were successful:
Prince Charles (attractive wife, lots of money), Don Johnson (star of Miami Vice, cars, pretty girls, expensive clothes, money), Rod Stewart and Peter Stringfellow (for the same reasons).
A second group of youths — those who stood around adding bulk to the intimidating mobs but simply watching while their harder peers actually put the boot in — were quite different: smarter, more articulate, actively pursuing careers, and sometimes even public school educated.
Though the report was sensible and far from fearmongering it made clear that the problem was real and that something worrying was going on Britain’s towns on Friday and Saturday nights.
What was really happening, we can see from 30 years on, is that a whole lot of unconnected social problems, most of which had nothing in particular to do with lager, were being lumped together.
One so-called ‘lager lout’ riot, for example, actually involved 600 middle-aged line dancers scrapping with local gypsies in the foyer of a village hall.
Others were the kind of town centre scuffles that have been happening since long before lager came on the scene, and will probably continue for as long as young men get bored, drunk and randy.
It’s hard not to think that it simply suited police authorities, lobbying for funding increases and greater power, to present all this as a surging, terrifying trend.
And of course others with their own agendas leapt on the bandwagon. Anti-drink campaigners, for example, saw an opportunity to protest newly extended pub opening hours, to call for tighter restrictions on pubs, and to argue for regulation of alcohol advertising.
The Campaign for Real Ale, of course, had a field day. For some time it had been re-orienting its guns from keg bitter, the great scourge of the 1970s, towards lager, and in an article for What’s Brewing in December 1988 Tony Millns gloated over lager’s new image problem:
Blitz magazine, the stylesheet for the image-conscious, summed up the reversal: ‘Lager is the official drink of Yob Britain’… The hype which has promoted Britain’s lager boom now looks to have boomeranged on the brewers… Suddenly, order a pint of lager and you’re socially badged as a lager lout, not as a trendy style-setter… The anti-lager PR campaign is being managed, free of charge, by CAMRA, by Home Office Ministers, the media, and Crown Court judges.
Andrea Gillies, the new bright young editor of Campaign’s annual Good Beer Guide, spoke yet more harshly of lager brewers at the launch of the 1989 edition of the book, as quoted in the Guardian for 25 October 1988:
They must take a lot of blame for the promotion of lager and its violent consequences… My argument is not with lager itself, but with the big boys who are marketing ruthlessly to the wrong people… You can make even more [money] if you convince boys that drinking 10 pints makes them even more macho, but this results in the violence we have seen in the shires.
Rob Walker, CAMRA chair from 1988 to 1989, reflecting on this time told us in an email that
the lager lout phenomenon did, over time, work in CAMRA’s favour in that it provided an opportunity for us to make a clear distinction between the discerning cask ale drinker in the pub environment versus the loutish ‘down-market’ behaviour of those fuelled by strong, cheap lagers.
In the long-term this opportunism probably did CAMRA more harm than good, making it seem snobbish and puritanical, and perhaps alienating those who enjoyed lager and ale.
But this moment passed. Woking, one of the towns worst hit by town centre mass scrapping during 1987, declared the problem solved in early 1989.
Lager retreated from the scary pint and back into its dainty bottles, re-emerging as designer lager, boutique lager, even craft lager. Tarnished, sure, and Skol and Harp were to all intents and purposes dead brands in the UK, but the once Canadian Carling reinvented itself as a solidly British standard, while Stella Artois surged with adverts that resembled French films, reassuringly expensive once again. (Well, for a few more years at least.)
The hysteria in the papers died down and the police moved on to fretting over ecstasy and illegal raves, and then alco-pops, and then happy-slapping and then…
None of this was really lager’s fault – it just happened to be the drink of the day. Although perhaps it was, and is, just a touch too easy to drink – crisp, sparkling, cool, light on the palate. The most eight-pintable of all beer styles.
IPA Idiots? Craft Clods? Hop Hooligans?
Reflecting on moral panics and the need for scapegoats in government and the media as we worked on this piece we got an uneasy feeling. Surely craft beer will get its turn in the doghouse, won’t it? There is, after all, a cycle new beer styles or market segments seem to go through:
- Upmarket, exclusive
- Mass-market, everyman’s
- Down-market, cheap
(Further reading: Pete Brown is particularly brilliant on this subject, with Stella Artois as his case study, in 2003’s Man Walks into a Pub.)
Craft beer is currently in the process of moving from the first stage to the second, from specialist bars to mass-market venues, from boutiques to supermarkets. Punk IPA is a 5.6% ABV beer marketed more or less explicitly at young people — to punks, no less. It is available in high-street Tesco mini-marts for less than £2 a bottle, and in Wetherspoon’s for not much more. We keep seeing empty BrewDog bottles lying in the street on Sunday mornings, or among the lager tins in the park — a sure sign, we think, that the drift has begun.
We’re not saying that’s a bad thing — again, remember, lager didn’t really do anything wrong. It’s just that it’s only a matter of time before someone works out an alliterative name for mischievous young people who prefer India pale ale to lager and, when they do, the panic will begin all over again.