Figures at the Door of an Inn. Oil on canvas, c1795-1800, by George Morland

Postliberal pubs

Putting pints into public hands

Artillery Row

There are few who have written more ably, or more lovingly, about pubs than architecture critic Ian Nairn.

A pint of bitter can be just so much alcohol, and a bar can be just a bare room in which you knock it back,” he wrote in his famous essay for Architectural Review on the Crown and Sceptre in Marylebone. “But the drink can be as subtle and as exciting as you wish, if you choose your brewery; and the room, as these pages try to show, can become a powerful spatial parable.”

You don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone

Nairn frequently wrote in pubs, and his work is often punctuated by recommendations of them. Pubs were much more than mere spatial parable for him; they were bound up with his love for the distinct uniqueness of everyday, ordinary local and regional spaces. 

Many of us, like Nairn, consider the pub much more than just a bare room in which you knock it back. The concern for pubs’ future is no longer limited to the real ale brigade. That’s why there is such concern at the absolute brutalising of pubs now underway, with the latest reports showing fifty a month closing. 

Energy, ingredient and labour costs are causing pub prices to rise. Faced with the same pressures, households are also cutting back on discretionary spending — like going out to their local. Pubs are still labouring to recover from the effects of covid, with many consumers now used to drinking supermarket alcohol at home. It’s enough to drive you to drink, if you can find anywhere to get one.

It’s often said that you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone. As more and more pubs ring their final last orders, more and more people are realising what an integral, irreplaceable part of Britain’s cultural heritage they are. The portrait of the nation Orwell conjured in “England Your England” wouldn’t have been believable, never mind complete, without “the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs”. Each one is as different as the forty-six million souls that comprised the England Orwell wrote of, a fragment — but a characteristic fragment — of the English scene. 

For hundreds of years, Britain’s pubs have provided a vital service as both a venue in which to establish relationships and an institution that provides a sense of belonging. Their collapse means an impoverishment of what Michael Sandel calls “our common life”. That common life ensures stable, cooperative and contented communities through relationships and institutions that provide a sense of belonging. 

The pub isn’t an official space in which relationships form — a grandiose claim councils would no doubt make for community centres — nor an official institution which gives us a sense of belonging, as membership of a trade union would. That is why they are so integral a part of English belonging. As Orwell continued in “England Your England”: “All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.” 

Britain is fractured as never before because of the hollowing out of this common life. This is the primary challenge postliberals face: how to reverse social fragmentation and address community breakdown. “In an age of deep division and humiliation,” writes Adrien Pabst, “post liberals agree that the task is to rebuild a common life by repairing relationships and renewing institutions that command our attachment and affection.” It is noticeable that in the list of institutions that follow, pubs are cited first.

What does that mean in practice for the local boozer?

Spennithorne’s looks like a very postliberal solution to saving a pub

Perhaps we can look to a little-known village in Lower Wensleydale for an answer. In places like Spennithorne, which I’m lucky enough to represent, threats to common life are felt particularly keenly. The isolated nature of rural life means community and social cohesion are all the more important. The loss of a pub presents a more acute threat to the common life in a small village like Spennithorne because community spaces in villages like this are few and far between; there’s the village green, the church and the Old Horn.

When a planning application to turn the Old Horn into two homes was submitted, the truth of that “you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone” saying was once again realised. Shocked into thinking about the future of its village, the community came together. Rather than engaging in NIMBYism, it decided to try to buy the pub as a community asset.

North Yorkshire has a recent but rich tradition of communities buying their pubs. The first community pub in the country was in Hudswell, ten miles away. There are another four in a ten mile radius — the Countryman’s Inn, in Hunton, means the Old Horn won’t even be the first in my division. They’re all in villages similar to Spennithorne: a few hundred people, rural, isolated, with little by way of services or community facilities but a thirst like a dredger for a sense of belonging. 

Buying a pub as a community involves a huge amount of work — raising funds, applying for Asset of Community Value status, holding public meetings, getting in surveyors and valuations and negotiating with landlords — which last week finally came to an end. With the offer for the pub now accepted, the only remaining stage is a successful bid for match funding to the Community Ownership Fund, a fund set up by Rishi Sunak (whilst Chancellor) to allow communities to buy and protect the precious few community assets they still have.

This all requires energetic, organic community leadership. It requires people to stand up for themselves and take a real civic pride in where they live, what their community looks like and, of course, in the improvement of their common life.

In order to improve that common life, postliberalism will need to redress the balance between polity and economy. It involves creating a more plural, decentralised democracy that devolves both power and resources to local communities. One way those local communities can wield their new power is through self-governing voluntary associations and mutual groups — like the Old Horn Community Group

Spennithorne’s looks like a very postliberal solution to saving a pub. A self-organised association, based on the principle of mutual dependency, works to improve community attachment and affection by taking on the rights and responsibilities of protecting its own assets, with the government stepping in to enable it to protect its common life from the ravages of a market that measures the value of vital community assets like pubs in solely economic terms.

Describing pubs as a place “to shake off loneliness without being in anyone’s company”, Nairn found them a kind of refuge — one which he sought increasingly often in his later years as his depression-fuelled alcoholism overcame him. They are much more than refuges, much more than a bare room and much more than businesses, too. Pubs are essential vehicles for the common life of the nation. The market can’t sustain a sense of belonging. A postliberal future for pubs, then, involves putting pints before profit.

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