Book Review: Government Intervention in the Brewing Industry

Worthington E Keg Beer

Government Intervention in the Brewing Industry (cover)Sooner or later in our journey through British brewing in the last half century, we knew we were going to have to look into that most thrilling of topics: the effects of government legislation on the industry. This book, originally published under the title Intervention in the Modern UK Brewing Industry in 2011, was recommended to us by several people as something of a definitive account.

The first point to note is that it is written by people associated with the big brewers: two of the writers, John Spicer and Simon Ward, worked for Whitbread; Chris Thurman was a longstanding employee of the Brewers’ Society (dominated by the Big Six); and John Walters was a stockbroker ‘specialising in the drinks and pubs industries’. This has obvious advantages, and disadvantages: their impressive inside knowledge of the processes, papers and committees is possibly offset by more than a few unsubtle attempts to direct the reader to conclude that the ‘unintended consequences’ of the Beer Orders were A Bad Thing, and sometimes without convincingly demonstrating cause-and-effect.

We don’t want to understate the good points. This is an extremely readable book considering the potentially dry subject matter. It makes extensive use of primary sources and is well-referenced, and yet still has a driving narrative, with good use made of recapping and summaries to structure the story and keep the reader afloat. The book manages to summarise the 1989 Supply of Beer report (three years in the writing; takes about the same to read) in a few efficient pages. There are lots of solid facts and tables of statistics. It is indeed, authoritative, and lives up to its aim of demonstrating wider lessons about the unintended consequences of government intervention.

A succinct history of enquiries since the mid-sixties makes the point that both Labour and Conservative governments kept coming back to the question of the beer tie, usually in the context of discussions about pricing (these were the days when prices for virtually everything were set by Government boards, and brewers had to apply to put prices up).  But we don’t feel the authors really explain why successive governments were increasingly obsessed with the issue. Could it be that they were reflecting a groundswell of popular opinion that something was wrong with the industry? Tellingly, the Campaign for Real Ale doesn’t get a mention until the story reaches 1985, and, even then, it is as if they appeared from nowhere. SIBA isn’t mentioned until the post-Beer Orders analysis and in the brief discussion of progressive beer duty.

There is a tension in the pre-Beer Orders part of the book between, on the one hand, the tendency to downplay accusations that the big brewers acted as a cartel, and, on the other, the depiction of a united front of brewers battling a succession of pesky interfering governments. This is a history that is centred on the big brewers as represented by the Brewers’ Society, at least in the main part of the book.

These may be churlish criticisms, given the background of the writers, and that their aim was to look at government intervention, not consumer or producer revolution. To us, the the rights and wrongs of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) report is an interesting debate, but the question we’re really interested in is why was there (initially at least) such popular and official support for its conclusions. How had things got to a stage where absolutely no one had a good word to say for household names such as Watney’s and Whitbread?

The book has given us a very fresh perspective on the history, and emphasised areas that can be lost in some versions of the history. For example, the role of Guinness (a major player but without a tied pub Estate) in lobbying for reform, and in undermining the Brewers’ Society during negotiations with the Department for Trade & Industry (DTI) prior to the Beer Orders being passed. There are plenty of other nuggets that may provide food for future blog posts, such as the ongoing debate on lager pricing and whether it does cost more to produce.

Some of the details in Government Intervention have prompted a fair bit of discussion in Boak and Bailey Towers. Why, for example, did some big regionals such as Vaux give up on brewing, while others, such as Greene King, stuck at it? Incidentally, the book doesn’t make the case that the Beer Orders hastened the demise of Vaux, and in fact points out that the former Chief Executive of Boddingtons said that the company had decided to abandon brewing before the MMC report.

The book’s final analysis of the impacts of the Beer Orders is nuanced, and explores various angles, but does ultimately tend to the conclusion that harmful trends in the industry during the last twenty years (decline in numbers of pubs, increases in the price of beer) are due to the Beer Orders.

Now, having read their not-entirely objective analysis, we’d love to speak to the authors as actors in the drama.

We bought the recently printed paperback (print-on-demand?) edition at a very reasonable £18 from Amazon. The 2011 hardback will set you back something like £65. Some of it is available to preview at Google Books.