Work and wine don’t mix

Sadly, temperance is far better for the bottom line


This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It was the livery company dinner last night. The additional aperitif at El Vino was, with hindsight, a little unwise — so too was that third glass of port. To top it all, from the way the Master was coughing through the loyal toast, I probably got yet another dose of Covid from the loving cup.

Then, as I lay in bed, bilious with the booze and the beef shin, I realised that it was time, finally, to tackle the big issue of our time — the fickle influence of alcohol in western capitalism.

Surveying the chaos at the Confederation of British Industry, some commentators have highlighted a post-Brexit crisis of identity, while others blamed poor governance structures. Personally, I suspect that a little less boozing would have averted many of that organisation’s current woes.

Modern capitalism began when alcohol started to be supplanted by new non-intoxicating stimulants, caffeine — and, yes, nicotine

I will leave the proper authorities to investigate the specific criminal allegations, but, over many years, the CBI has always struck me as an odd combination of ruddy-faced Rotarians from the Midlands and earnest LSE graduates wittering on about fussy little policy ideas. With that younger generation opting more for ginseng than gin and tonic, big trouble was always a possibility.

More broadly, if we are to believe the surveys, the after-work tipple is now an endangered ritual. The Chartered Institute of Management recently found that 42 per cent of workers think work socialising should be organised around events that don’t involve alcohol. 

As a Critic columnist, I really should be railing against this new puritanism and ruminating wistfully about the delights of liquid lunches at the Savoy Grill before it got ruined in the Arab refurb. 

But the thing is, I am with the snowflakes on this one. Put simply, booze is an extremely poor lubricant for wealth creation.

Modern capitalism began when alcohol started to be supplanted by new non-intoxicating stimulants, caffeine — and, yes, nicotine. 

It was no surprise that the Lloyds insurance market was founded, not in a pub, but in a coffee shop. Have you tried asset-liability matching using stochastic models after three gimlets? Me neither.

The triumph of the great Quaker entrepreneurs — the Barclays, Clarks and the Cadburys — was a result probably of the simple fact that they were sharper in the mornings than their more hungover and befuddled competitors.

Across the Atlantic, they have always understood better than us the relationship between self-restraint and soaring riches. From John D. Rockefeller, to Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett, many of America’s most iconic billionaires have been teetotal.

And if, as a CEO, you can’t stay off the drink yourself, you can have the next best thing — a sober consiglieri. Mormon chiefs of staff have long been a kind of status symbol in US c-suites — a bit like eunuch bodyguards in Moorish harems. Brigham Young foreswore strong drink, and to this day his flock touch nothing stronger than cream soda.

It was, of course, the New York takeover of the City after the 1986 Big Bang reforms that led to the demise of the drinks trolleys and the stripping of the wine cellars in our great merchant banks.

Now, almost 40 years later, we are staring at the final rupture between work and drink. Very soon alcohol will become something — like pornography or Flashman novels — which can be enjoyed in the privacy of one’s home but should never be discussed in the office.

The Guardian, which recently fulminated against the “traditional male drinking culture … associated with power and misogyny”, will no doubt celebrate this development. Oddly, I too am rather relaxed about this elderflower-flavoured future. 

On the rare occasions I used to take my team to the wine bar, I have no recollection of oppressing anyone. If anything, it was I who was the put-upon party. As my noisy, halitotic underlings demanded I return to the bar to buy more shots and Chablis, I felt no power rush — only a sensation of exhausted ennui, as I checked my watch to see if I could still make the last fast train from Waterloo. 

Total temperance might also mean shorter, less tedious board dinners — or, better still, none at all. Without the crutch of booze, we would realise much quicker that we have nothing to say to each other and that no one wants to listen to the General Counsel drone on yet again about how his new home office at the bottom of his garden is an “absolute game-changer”.

Yes, when I next sup with the Guild, it’s going to be Buxton all the way for me. But then again, didn’t I say that last time? 

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