Moral panics, Tim Martin and motorways

Did you see the news? It was in all the papers last week, and on TV and radio too. Apparently someone’s opened a pub within less than 750 yards of a road.

Journalists, I’m sorry to say, love a moral panic. If we can get someone to be vocally outraged, our day is made. And there were plenty of people delighted to be vocally outraged over the opening of a Wetherspoon’s pub at a motorway service station. You would think Tim Martin, Wetherspoon’s bemulleted founder and chairman, had set up a stall on the hard shoulder of the M40 and was handing out free tequila shots and pints of wine.

A pub by a road

The Old Crown, Highgate, Middlesex, a pub alongside a road

Now, the point about this particular motorway service station is that it’s not actually ON the motorway – it is, indeed, all of 750 yards away, as the roadkill-sated crow flies. You have to pull off at Junction 2 and drive for a couple more minutes before you finally get to the Hope and Champion pub. It is because the pub is also accessible from the A355 that it was allowed to be built. Places serving alcohol at service stations only accessible from a motorway are still banned.

But the substantive point is, of course, that the Hope and Champion is no different from almost every other pub in Britain, in being by, near or actually on a road of some sort. Even mainland Britain’s most isolated pub, the Old Forge at Inverie, has a road running past the front door, though it doesn’t actually connect up to the rest of the country’s road system. Pubs have been opened alongside roads since Anglo-Saxon alewives stuck bushes on poles outside their hovels to indicate that a fresh brew was available inside. Plenty of pubs – hundreds, if not thousands – are still open alongside fast main roads, like the famous Ram Jam Inn near Oakham, a landmark on the A1 for generations of motorists. You can (or could – apparently it’s boarded up right now) drive out of the Ram Jam Inn’s car park straight into the A1’s northbound carriageway, where the speed limit is just the same (for cars, at least) as on a motorway: if you’re not paying attention, a 38-ton artic may leave its imprint on your boot. It’s a lot more dangerous than joining the M40 after leaving the Hope and Champion.

So where is the recognition that if you have hundreds of pubs like the Ram Jam Inn, then you can’t create a fuss about the Hope and Champion? Swamped in a sea of illogical spit-and-fury. The RAC declared that with a pub now open at a motorway service station, “the temptation to drink and drive can only be increased by easier access to alcohol,” without, apparently, considering that there is already easy access to alcohol for drivers in roadside pubs north and south, east and west. The safety campaign group Brake declared: “The opening of a pub on a motorway is deeply concerning, and presents a potentially deadly temptation to drivers,” without saying how the Hope and Champion is any more of a potentially deadly temptation than the Ram Jam Inn was to drivers on the A1, or the old Bull at Stanborough, near Welwyn Garden City, whose visibility from the A1(M) saw it featured in a 1980s TV ad, or the Royal Oak, Farnham, a Chef & Brewer pub about three minutes’ drive down the A355 from M40 Junction 2 and thus barely more inconvenient for motorway drivers tempted to get lashed than the Hope and Champion is.

The stupidest, most crazed response came from Sky News presenter Eamonn Holmes (well, the man’s an idiot anyway), who managed to call Wetherspoon’s PR spokesman, Eddie Gershon (very nice man, Eddie) the “devil in disguise” in a rant on TV, proclaiming that a pub would change a “perfectly nice” motorway services into “a scenario of hell”. It’s probably too cheap to say that for any rational human being, a motorway service area already IS a scenario of hell, but Holmes’s argument, apparently, was that coaches would pull up full of revellers from stag or hen’s parties, or football supporters. “One coach will pull in with a load of football fans, then a second coach will pull in with rival fans. What will happen then? You’re putting temptation in people’s way. You’re the devil in disguise – aren’t you? You’re offering a scenario of hell – are you not?” he frothed at Eddie G, who was far calmer than I would have been, and failed to call Holmes out for being an idiot who had apparently forgotten that coach parties of football supporters (1) have hundreds of other pubs with large car parks to meet their rivals in, and (2) won’t necessarily require alcohol for it all to kick off anyway.

The Spaniards, Hampstead

The Spaniards, Hampstead, another pub by a road

What is even more frustrating than the illogicality of these arguments, and the willingness of newspapers, TV and radio programmes to give people space to promote these ridiculous claims, instead of slapping them about the head and telling them not to react as if drivers are like toddlers at a supermarket check-out, who can’t resist grabbing for the bad-for-you goods on display, is the framing of the debate about the availability of drink once again as an argument solely about intoxication and its evils. It’s something the whole drinks industry, from producers to retailers, colludes in, and it’s why personally I believe setting up the Portman Group was an extremely bad idea, because its existence plays to the anti-alcohol lobby’s agenda-setting. By banging on about “responsible” drinking, the drinks industry’s own warrior in the “alcohol awareness” wars destroys the main argument for drinking: that it’s fun. No one is ever allowed to say that drinking is fun, because fun and responsibility don’t mix.

Which means that another recent news item, one that ought to have been a powerful weapon in the fight against the sort of wowsers who rage against pubs being opened near roads, has been largely ignored, because it doesn’t fit the anti-drink message, and the pro-drink lobby seems too frightened of the puritans to pick it up out of fear that they’ll be accused of encouraging drinking whose primary purpose is other than being “responsible”. I’m talking about the discovery by the Medical Research Council in Scotland, reported two weeks ago, that a pint in the pub with friends is good for a man’s mental health. Well, of course, you are saying, that’s obvious. But having a proper study point up the positive sides of drinking is such a change from the torrent of negativity about alcohol normally corroding the public debate that the industry really should be making much more of it.

The researcher behind the study, Dr Carol Emslie, said: “We have to understand drinking is pleasurable, it’s sociable, it’s central to friendships. If you ignore that part of it then you are not understanding the context in which people drink. You’re drinking together, you’re laughing and joking and it’s uplifting. It helps you to open up and relax. It was very much the idea that alcohol or drinking in these communal groups had this positive effect on your mental health.” Exactly. But could we ever see an ad campaign that said: “A pint with your pals – it’s good for your mental health”? It may be true, but nobody seems to want to say so.

Of course, the anti-alcohol army, unable to dismiss a properly conducted piece of research completely, still tried to sneer. Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, told The Scotsman newspaper: “Drinking together in the pub may be a positive way for men to build relationships and seek support from each other, as long as this isn’t at the expense of a damaged liver or other health problems.” Please, Evelyn, lighten up. Have a drink.

Still, at least the public are generally more sensible than Sky TV presenters. A survey by the local newspaper in Bucks asked people: “Should the Wetherspoon’s M40 pub at Beaconsfield be allowed?” At the last looking, the response was 83 per cent saying “yes”, with just 17 per cent saying “no”.

A slightly shorter version of this rant appeared on the Friday Opinion page of the Propel Info websire on Friday January 24 2014.

19 thoughts on “Moral panics, Tim Martin and motorways

  1. What often strikes me is that the mood of the people, as e.g., shown by this poll, seems so often at odds with “official” reaction and responses to things, whether at the level of the media (much, not all of it), judiciary (ditto), or Academy (ditto). I am not sure why this is. Perhaps there was always a zeitgeist, a societal direction that operates to some degree independently of what the average person wants. If so, I find myself more in tune with one of an earlier era, say, 1950-1990.

    Gary

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  2. Sorry, I’d like to restate my comment because it didn’t say what I really meant. I meant, I think in the immediate past, the zeitgeist and public opinion were more in tune than they are today. They will never be completely aligned and that is probably not desirable from a public policy standpoint, but I think the gap is wider today than in the past, not sure why.

    Gary

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  3. Do *all* the German autobahn service stations sell beer? All the ones I ever stopped at did (and that was quite a few). I bet a large percentage of UK service stations sell mobile phone accessories too, despite it being “worse” than drink driving (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-106321/Using-mobile-wheel-worse-drunk.html).

    But who am I to bring logic into a purely emotional debate.

    As for Dr Evelyn Gillan ~ the problem with doctors, is they only see sick people. The billions of people who don’t suffer from alcoholism aren’t seen by her. This impairs her judgement.

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  4. I think the main reason for genuine worry, rather than media hype in search of a story, is that motorway accidents tend to be worse because of the speed and potential involvement of other motorists, rather than someone who is going home after closing time on smaller, quieter road. The talk of coach loads of football fans getting drunk and fighting is ridiculous. There’s plenty of opportunities for that to happen at a number of places, ‘A’ roads, pubs, services stations alcohol or not.

    The question in my mind is: are members of the driving public strong enough to choose not to have a drink when they have the choice? I hope only passengers are the drinkers. One solution (although imperfect) might be to have a lower legal alcohol limit on Motorways than other roads. This would keep the safety conscious worried about these pubs happy and ensure choice for other travellers

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  5. My mum brought this up in conversation the other day: she thinks opening a pub at a service station is an appalling idea.

    The patronising explanation for her viewpoint would be that she has been brainwashed by the media, or that she is anti-drink (believe me — she really isn’t…), but I think it’s actually that gut instinct says there’s something a bit wrong about this.

    Logically, you’re right — there’s no reason why this is any different to many other pubs — but the juxtaposition of motorway and boozer just rings alarm bells.

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  6. Brilliant post, Martyn. Also agree with Gary about how the current anti-drink zeitgeist is seriously out of tune with what people actually do.

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  7. Hah. Yep, good rant.

    Anyway, isn’t the greatest encouragment of irresponsible drinking coming from supermarkets, and their cheapo booze? And aren’t supermarket’s entirely reliant on road, carpark and car-based infrastructure? Don’t booze and cars already go hand-in-hand already in modern society?

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  8. It’s a Wetherspoons so I’d be driving past anyway unless I was desperate for some warmed up 3663. Presumably there will be a couple of decent proper pubs serving decent food and drink not too far away, also beside a road.

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  9. Well, we agree on this one Martyn! But, as Bailey points out above, I don’t think the uproar against this is from considered thought or deeply embedded in our culture, I think it really is just knee-jerk reactions to a gut instinct that whispers in people’s heads (without any conscious thought) “motorway+pub = bad idea”.
    The fact it’s a Wetherspoon, with their perception of being the ‘pile em high, sell em cheap’ operator of the pub industry probably doesn’t help either…

    PS. Nice to see you’re presenting evidence to support my other arguments now too! Ref. the story on yesterday’s propel about the guys from the Snowdrop, shafted by Greene King on their rent in a previous pub so got out and now running a very successful pub with another to come. Now why would Greene King do that to a brilliant operator? They must have been numpties eh? :o)

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    • Steve, I have a simple response to stories that don’t, on the face of it, make sense: it’s clear we don’t have all the facts. Without actually knowing what Greene King’s agenda was, “numpties” is too easy a conclusion, because “numpties” doesn’t make sense either.

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      • Some of us do have the facts Martyn, I know Tony. Just one of the many examples of where I may have more facts than those who have the strongest ‘opinions’ :o)
        By the way, I’m deferring any meet-up until Punch inevitably go pop, as the Pubco landscape may change somewhat and hence many opinions too, including mine…

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  10. Pingback: MR | First Edition, February 2014 | Drunken Speculation

  11. Martyn. you’re right about the football supporters. It’s my understanding that a small group (three or possibly four) wild and crazed supporters of the once mighty Wycombe Wanderers piled into the Hope and Champion on its first night of trading, thirsty and enraged after seeing their beloved team thrashed in the quarter finals of the Berks and Bucks Cup by the wily and skilful Beaconsfield SYCOB, who ground is just acress the road from the service area. What, a football ground opposite a motorway service area? Now that’s asking for real trouble…..

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  12. Storm in an ale glass?
    yup, shouldn’t have a pub on a motorway but then pubs in rural areas wouldn’t work without roads would they? It’s a driver responsibility to not be under the influence so maybe what you need instead of knee jerk prohibitionist reactions, is some hard-hitting campaigns that change cultural attitudes to drinking and driving. Like this one targeted at rural kiwi lads who have no choice but drive to get to the Local which can be 20 miles away. It’s taken a few years but having a designated driver is quite accepted now.

    And for something with a bit of humour: drink driving but not pubs

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