Pints, patriotism and precarity

Oli Carter-Esdale explores the weaponisation of the pint and asks: where next for the hospitality sector?

October 14, 2020 · 8 min read
Prime Minister Boris Johnson with owner of the Wetherspoons pub chain, Tim Martin 

After three months of nostalgic memes and taunting dreams of the familiarity of our locals, pubs re-opened on 4 July. With patriotic fervour, Conservative MPs and figureheads of the hospitality industry rushed to congratulate the prime minister on his decision to free the pub from the gloom and financial ruin of lockdown. As the announcement was made, a cry of ‘Hallelujah’ was heard from the Tory backbenches. Meanwhile, for those of us on the frontlines of the hospitality sector, alarm bells were ringing.

From George Osbourne’s annual budget motif announcing a ‘penny off the pint’ to Nigel Farage’s innumerable photoshoots holding aloft a full tankard, right-wing mobilisations of the pub as a patriotic symbol are tried and tested, pivoting on the archetype of the John Bull everyman. The Tory imaginary, enmeshed within the ruddy jowls of antiquated white patriarchy, fashions itself around the jovial pub landlord pulling the pumps for his locals, followed moments later with a hand clasping a brimming jug – a caricature of the working man, rewarding himself with a well-earned pint after an honest day’s work.

The evocation of this national symbology hinges on the particular mythology of the pub as a specifically and designated national territory, both belonging to quintessentially British people and the concomitant values and traditions of which the Tories see themselves as natural guardians.

‘Super Saturday’ and the preceding months’ rhetoric have once again cast the public house as a national idyll. In this new ‘post-Covid’ pastoral, it is our patriotic duty to fill its neighbouring pavements, car parks and newly pedestrianised streets. Little England’s architectural jingoism designates pubs as liberated territory, and their reopening as a triumphant victory over our perilous viral foe. Their emancipation is painted as concurrent with our national deliverance, regardless of the ongoing crisis. Johnson’s hope is that the public, in the throes of revelry and a mildly drunken stupor, will forget that the virus’s harrowing death toll still remains the highest in Europe.

Business as usual

Pub workers, who potentially come into contact with hundreds of people a week, did not forget. With high rates of transmission and death set to continue, we were always among the most likely to be exposed to the virus. The reduction of social distancing from two metres to ‘one metre plus’ was a deliberate ambiguity, enabling the government to distance itself from accountability and place the blame for any future wave firmly on the public.

Pubs can offer a natural space for inclusive and universal hospitality: there must be room at the bar for everyone

While many operators have done their utmost to protect their staff and customers, others – particularly larger chains – instead focused on getting back to business-as-usual. There are many in power, both in government and at the heads of the industry, who are more than willing to endanger the public for the sake of capital through the premature reopening of the economy, eager to refill their pockets through renewed exploitation and remain ‘competitive’ with our European counterparts.

Precarity and picket lines

Hospitality industry workers have long faced uncertainty and distinct precarity in employment, from zero-hours contracts to a reliance on tips to top up low wages. With many independent and tenanted pubs running on razor-thin margins pushed to the brink by landlords’ rent hikes and exploitative rental agreements tied to fickle trading figures, workers’ wages represent one of few negotiable costs. For many of us on zero-hours contracts who face our hours being cut, with shifts cancelled or reduced in length, our job security – and with it personal stability – are under constant threat.

For those of us who keep our jobs, questions remain. First and foremost, how are workers meant to effectively create an environment that promotes customer enjoyment and safety while protecting our own? Whether at large chains or small independent locals, many of us remain at the dual mercy of clientele and our bosses – as we have been long before Covid-19.

Photo: Alex McIntyre

Despite employing almost half a million people, workers’ collective bargaining power remains limited in a sector where union density is woefully low. But as workers organising in large national chains such as Wetherspoons, smaller regional chains and independent venues such as London’s Ivy House have proven, when strike action and boycotts are coordinated and led by workers in collaboration with community support, improvements in pay and working conditions are achievable.

These victories prove that pubs still have potential to be sites of class contest and consciousness raising, not only for workers but also for the communities who use and rely on them. As the heart of the public domain, pubs are not only natural settings for workplace organising, but arenas of struggle in their own right. The vast majority of pub workers are low paid with precarious hours: if we can take on the bosses and are seen to win, we can inspire others to take up and support the struggle.

A public house for public good

Whether it’s as the lingering survivor in the wasteland of devastated high streets, or the site of our personal and collective memories, pubs can and do play multiple roles within communities. The 2017 PubAid survey showed that the average pub raised over £2,700 per year for charity. More recently, many have already proven their capacity to provide essential services of care and solidarity to those in need, acting as hubs for mutual aid groups, distributing fresh food parcels and running community kitchens to feed hungry school children and key workers during lockdown. We must ensure that these are not treated as isolated acts in response to crisis but as catalysts for the long-term centring of community respite and collective action.

Through enabling community action, providing locally sourced and produced food and drink, platforming and supporting the work of local organising groups, musicians and artists, we can build greater networks and economies of intercommunal solidarity. If this crisis has taught us anything, it is the power of communities to come together and and look after one another. Recent mutual aid programmes run in and by pubs follow in the footsteps of 19th-century friendly societies and dispensaries, which raised funds and paid for healthcare not provided by Poor Law entitlements. These became popular during industrialisation in urbanising areas such as Bristol and Dudley, where their members met in inns and taverns. Their formulation, actions and success were rooted in their demonstration of working-class, intercommunal solidarity rather than the creeping embourgeoisement of charitable groups set up by external, wealthy benefactors.

Today, local groups focused on similar mutuality will form the basis for local campaigns to ensure our pubs and communities survive what comes next. We must call time on inhospitable nationalism and its territorial privation of the public domain which so often seeks to divide and exclude. We see this manifested in the unsafe spaces for women; discriminatory and sometimes violent attitudes towards people of colour, queer and trans people; and the proliferation of the ‘customer is always right’ mentality that forces bartenders to smile amiably at rape jokes and xenophobia.

But this isn’t true of every venue – which shows it doesn’t have to be of any. Pubs can offer a natural space for inclusive and universal hospitality: there must be room at the bar for everyone. Together, we can strengthen community ties and forge new alliances to share in the joy and kinship that such community creates. Now, more than ever we must fight to prove that the public house can be used for public good.

Oli Carter-Esdale is a Bristol-based bartender, researcher and workers’ rights advocate in the beer industry

This article originally appeared in issue #229 ‘No Return to Normal’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media

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