George Walford: Liberal Restrictions

Systematic ideology posits a range of ‘major’ ideologies, each of them (except the first, which is non-political) finding political expression through one of the main-sequence parties. In moving along the range from non-political through conservatism towards anarchism, economic collectivism strengthens and freedom of action in economics comes under heavier repression. This is not always self-evident, and the following article takes up one apparent discrepancy.

Each political movement claims to be in favour of freedom and each of them turns out, on examination, to favour a particular combination of freedoms and limitations. IC has discussed this as it appears in anarchism [1] but anarchism is perhaps a specialised interest; liberalism [2] arouses a wider response and it makes, in its title, a particular claim to stand for freedom. That title turns out on examination to be one of the more successful pieces of political misdirection: A major part of the activity of the “liberal” movement has long consisted of attempts to impose limitations upon freedoms highly valued by a great many people, and here we take up the “liberal” attitude towards restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol. It is not being suggested that such restrictions are to be automatically condemned, or that were it not for this movement everybody would have unrestricted access to liquor; the point to be made is that the record shows liberalism to have favoured the imposition of restrictions not supported by some other movements, conservatism in particular. The information to be presented comes from Drink & the Victorians; the temperance question in England 1815-72, by Brian Harrison (London: Faber & Faber 1971). The amount of detail in this book makes it difficult to work with when one is looking for general tendencies, (and its style seems to have infected this article) but the main outline of the movements described does come through.

It was around 1815 that organised social movements seeking to reduce drunkenness and its consequences began to appear. These first took the form of agitation for free trade in drink, in the belief that the problem arose from privileges enjoyed by the established suppliers, but these attempts were soon discredited. Up to the early 1870s conservatives and liberals alike recognised a need for legislative control of the trade without either agreeing on methods or dividing along party lines between regulators and prohibitionists. After that time the tendency became, increasingly, for liberalism to support prohibition and conservatism regulation. Given the impracticality, under the prevailing conditions, of completely removing all control, the regulation movement came as close as was practical to claiming freedom for the drink trade to operate, while prohibition, or movements towards it (these came to be known as ‘temperance’ movements), tended towards elimination of that freedom.

The differing inclinations of the two parties began to show clearly after 1871, when H. A. Bruce, Gladstone’s Home Secretary, introduced his Licensing Bill, intended to reduce the number of public houses while improving their quality. (Many liberals came to blame him for imposing on their party the burden of an association with temperance restrictions, but none the less it was liberalism, not toryism, that shouldered this load). The Bill was part of the reaction, among liberals of this period, against the free trade principles with which their party had been associated since 1830 [3]. To British people of today, accustomed from 1914 until recent years to restricted drinking hours and limited availability of alcohol in shops and restaurants, the proposals made would hardly seem severe, but the Victorian drink trade, accustomed to greater latitude, reacted vigorously to defend “‘the collective or individual social rights and liberties of the public.'” The proposals were “despotic,” the proposed inspectorate a “French spy system” and the restrictions “confiscatory.” There were some exceptions, but their voices got lost in the general clamour. Only 45 petitions, with 3,601 signatures, were presented in support of Bruce’s Bill; 1,160 with 822,965 signatures against it. “A formidable machine was being created which, like the contemporary Church Defence Institution, was to nourish the impending ‘Conservative reaction.'” The uproar, together with opposition from temperance organisations who felt the Bill did not go far enough, defeated Bruce and his Bill did not get a second reading, although a modified version was passed in 1872. By comparison with the later development within the Liberal Party of prohibitionist influences the controls proposed in Bruce’s bills came to appear moderate and reasonable.

From this point on polarization developed, G. O. Trevelyan for example declaring that the Liberal Party must soon become a temperance party. The main temperance organization, the United Kingdom Alliance, had been dominated by liberals since its foundation, and now the attempt was made to link it with the official liberal organization. On the other side stood, among other institutions, the Tory-inclined Church Times, supporting “fresh air, good beer and innocent recreation” against “puritanism and political selfishness.” By 1874 the Tory Party had come to champion the drink interest, and the greater success of Toryism in the forty years after 1871 was ascribed by R. C. K. Ensor to financial support from the trade. By the 1890s something approaching a clear party division on the temperance question was appearing, an affinity between the Liberal Party and the temperance movement becoming unquestionable; Lloyd George said in 1898 that temperance men were the best fighters in the liberal army.

To sum up, as modern liberalism developed so it came to be associated with tendencies to maximise rather than minimise the restrictions imposed upon the drink trade, and this exemplifies a pervading tendency in liberalism. In the name of the common good this movement seeks to impose, upon individual freedom of action in economic affairs, limitations more severe than those favoured by conservatism. In the supply and consumption of drink, as in economic affairs generally, it has been conservatism rather than liberalism that has stood for freedom of action.

[1] See The Two-Sided Anarchist in IC 47. If you doubt whether anarchism does favour limitations, ask yourself: In an anarchist society, would people be free to behave in non-anarchist ways?
[2] ‘Liberalism’ is used here in its English sense, to mean the movement of which the formerly Liberal, now Liberal-Democratic, Party forms the organised centre.
[3] Harrison expresses himself in this way, but those free-trade predecessors were rather Whigs; liberalism .in the modern sense only took shape as an organised movement around and after 1870, and its strengthening association with prohibitionist tendencies was a part of that development.

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“the anarchist historiographers fall into the error of assuming that the primitive or medieval folk community, based on mutual aid and roughly egalitarian by nature, is also individualistic; most frequently, of course, it is the reverse, inclined towards a traditional pattern in which conformity is expected and the exceptional resented.” (Woodcock G. 1963. Anarchism; a history of libertarian ideas and movements Harmondsworth. Penguin, 40).

from Ideological Commentary 50, March 1991.