Welcome to the second installment of guest blogger Henry Yeomans’ new series here on Points. Henry, a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leed’s School of Law, has already provided us with an excellent article on Britain’s World War I-era teetotaler movement. Today, Henry discusses debates over alcohol regulation in the Swinging ‘Sixties.
On 25th April 1961, an odd rhetorical weapon was brandished in the House of Commons. Members of the House debated whether or not to amend a piece of legislation passing through Parliament so as to enable proprietors to sell (alcoholic) chocolate liqueurs without a licence. Conservative William Clark MP argued that “spirits enclosed in confectionary” should not be regarded as “intoxicating liquor” and so be freed from licensing restrictions. Another Conservative MP, Sir Cyril Black, countered this perspective by producing a large chocolate egg. Black was a colourful parliamentarian, having notably campaigned against the decriminalisation of homosexuality and for the suppression of gambling, strip clubs and ‘obscene publications’ such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But he was not an eccentric maverick whose influence was confined to reactionary politics; he was chairman of the Moral Law Defence Association, president of the Band of Hope temperance society and member of the All-Party Temperance Group. Black’s views, moreover, encapsulate a significant and influential position within discourse on alcohol in England and Wales in the swinging sixties. He was not alone in his outrage that the egg, which reportedly measured 15 inches across, “could contain enough liquor to intoxicate a considerable number of members.”
Throughout the mid-twentieth century, British debates over behavioural regulation were less focused on the morality of particular forms of conduct and increasingly targeted the consequences or harms associated with these behaviours. 1957’s Wolfenden Report exemplified this new approach, taking a libertarian view of sexual behaviour and arguing that homosexuality and prostitution should only be matters of public concern and legal intervention when they entail one person being involuntarily harmed by the actions of another. When no interpersonal harm is apparent, it is “not the law’s business” to intervene and individual freedom of action should prevail. This more permissive context coincided with the first significant relaxation of alcohol regulation in England and Wales for a century. The Licensing Act of 1961 allowed restaurants to apply for licences to sell alcohol for the first time, extended open hours for licensed premises, and scrapped the statutory Sunday closure of public houses in Wales. Within these shifting governmental sands, debates about alcohol came to be typified less by a Victorian preoccupation with the immorality of drinking as individuals were, to a certain extent, given greater autonomy over their own consumption.