One of the things many of us have missed most during the repeated lockdowns of the past year has been a visit to the pub. Raising a glass to a friend over a Zoom call is all very well but no substitute for an after-work natter in a welcoming boozer.
Unfortunately, when hibernation eventually ends, many of the pubs that were around when the first coronavirus lockdown was announced almost a year ago will no longer exist. Hospitality has been one of the sectors hardest hit by the restrictions imposed to reduce the spread of the virus, and many hostelries have not survived despite the furlough, the grants and the other financial support on offer from the government.
Pub closures are nothing new, of course. Even before Covid-19 arrived, the number of licensed premises was on a steady downward trend as a quick stroll around just about every town or city in Britain would testify.
But the pandemic has made matters a lot worse. Early estimates from the British Beer and Pub Association is that 2,500 pubs closed their doors for the last time in 2020. Running a pub is hard work and by no means a licence to print money. For many publicans, lockdown has been the final straw.
That’s not to say the public has struggled to get a drink because some pubs have been open for off-sales, while wine merchants and breweries have been selling direct to their customers online. Like many other parts of the economy, the drinks industry has found a way of adapting its business model to the new reality. Companies – including those in the hospitality sector – have learned how to live with Covid, and that partly explains why the economy shrank by more than 18% in the first full month of last year’s lockdown (April) but by less than 3% in January.
Even so, Rishi Sunak was worried enough about the likely impact on the hospitality sector of another long closure period to announce in the budget a £150m fund to help local communities buy pubs, theatres, shops or sports centres at risk of closure. A newly released paper by the King’s College London academic Diane Bolet suggests the chancellor is right to be worried.
The title of Bolet’s paper – Drinking Alone – refers to a book, Bowling Alone, by the US academic Robert Putnam just over two decades ago. Putnam said the number of Americans going ten-pin bowling had increased over the previous 20 years but the number participating in leagues had gone down. The tendency to go bowling alone rather than as part of a group, he said, symbolised a waning of civic engagement and a loss of social capital, both of which weakened US democracy.
Drinking Alone takes this analysis a step further and investigates whether the loss of community pubs between 2011 and 2016 had an impact on voting patterns. Bolet’s research found that there was a strong link between pub closures and support for what she calls parties of the radical right.
“One additional community pub closure relative to the number of pubs in the district increases an individual’s likelihood to support Ukip by around 4.3 percentage points. The impact is magnified under conditions of material deprivation,” the paper says.
Interestingly, the research showed the correlation between voting intentions and closures only held true for the loss of a community’s local pub. No effect was found for pub chains, pubs in city centres or gastro pubs.
No similar work has yet been undertaken on other parts of the local community infrastructure – such as banks, post offices, police stations and leisure centres – but it all fits together as part of a “left behind” narrative. The 2010s were a decade of weak growth and curbs on public spending. Businesses, local authorities, police forces all faced the same pressures to cut costs and tended to come to the same conclusion: to axe the part of the operation in the poorest communities that were the most distant from thriving urban centres. Those who have least need found they needed to travel further to get to a bank, the hospital or to go for a swim in a council-run pool. When the pub goes, too, the hollowing-out process was complete.
Bolet says there is evidence that radical-right voters tend to be social conservatives who live in areas experiencing large increases in migration and high levels of material deprivation. Her paper suggests, however, that this is not the full story and the loss of the pub as a social hub also matters. “The socio-cultural dimensions of white working class marginalisation should not be neglected in the overall understanding of the rise and success of radical-right parties,” the paper says. Deindustrialisation and globalisation have been important factors in shaping political views – in the UK as in other countries – but Bolet thinks Putnam was on to something.
In a sense, the paper is a bit out of date because Ukip is no longer the force it was. Instead, it is the Conservative party that has won support among disaffected voters by insisting that it will “level up” Britain.
Despite the government’s rhetoric, this process has got off to a slow start. The communities that are most likely to lose their local pub are also the communities that have experienced the highest number of Covid-19 deaths and taken the biggest pandemic hit. Highlighting what has gone wrong is the easy bit: solving problems that have been decades in the making will be hard and lengthy. If the government fails to deliver, and pubs continue to close in the most deprived areas, it should come as no surprise if parties of the hard right make a comeback.