Should politicians tell people what and how much to drink? Recent government decisions to try and impose a minimum price for alcohol sales in England and Wales have taken the campaign against what is seen as excessive consumption into intriguing new territory. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have been having their own debates about how far the law can intervene). The focus now is not only on places where people go out to drink but also on domestic consumption. And middle-class consumption of wine is receiving much more attention too.


Ironically it has been attempts to increase rather than decrease wine consumption in Britain that have figured more prominently in the past – at least since the 19th century. Prior to that, wine, as the imported tipple of the mainly well-to-do, had seen some regulation and had at times been caught up in trade disputes, especially with France. Increased duties were imposed on imported French wine to try and harm French commerce. Spanish and Portuguese wines, by contrast, were generally favoured as these countries were more consistently allies of Britain.

But by the mid-19th century, British champions of free trade challenged such use of tariffs as diplomatic weapons. Good trade relations – sealed amicably, no doubt, over bottles of good vintage – helped prevent future wars, it was argued.

James Nicholls of Bath Spa University, a specialist on the history of alcohol consumption, hails the 1860 Treaty of Commerce – in which import duties were reduced on all wine – as a turning point. William Gladstone, the treaty’s chief architect, spoke openly of what he hoped would be a change in British drinking habits – away from an obsession with beer – so that wine would no longer be a “rich man’s luxury”.

At the same time he was sensitive to the fears of Victorian temperance campaigners that cheaper wine would encourage drunkenness. More wine drinking was meant to civilise British drinkers, claimed Gladstone. His measures were intended for the “promotion of temperance and sobriety as opposed to drunken and demoralised habits”. Other changes – forerunners of the modern ‘off licence’ system – allowed grocers and restaurateurs, rather than just pubs, to sell alcohol. They were intended to weaken the “unnatural divorce between eating and drinking”.

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Behind all this lay cultural assumptions about alcohol consumption that always lurk in these debates. We have tended, says James Nicholls, to “imbue different drinks with different ethical values”. Whereas some have been linked to the bad habits of the lower orders – think of Hogarth’s image of social catastrophe in Gin Lane, or modern debates about lager louts – wine was never associated with boorish drunkenness in this way.

Though there was an initial increase in wine drinking (what’s been called ‘the era of cheap Gladstone claret’), British café society, combining wine-drinking with eating, never took off as Gladstone might have hoped. It was only in the 1960s that there was, as Nicholls puts it, a “greater democratisation of wine drinking”. More wines became available from around the world, and supermarkets added competition. As a result, wine sales have steadily increased, while beer consumption has declined.

So Gladstone might have been pleased by today’s spread of wine into British drinking culture. It is no longer the reserve of the rich. But he would have worried about the evidence that consumption – for some individuals – is rising rapidly. Health professionals, today’s equivalent of 19th‑century temperance campaigners, no longer seem to share the old assumption that wine-drinking is inherently less harmful than other kinds of alcohol.

But reversing this trend will not be easy. Policing what goes on in pubs has been far easier than controlling what people do in their own homes. The long contest between political and moral control and Britain’s ‘drinking culture’ is entering a fascinating new phase.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history

This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at


This article was first published in April 2011