LONDON -- Nothing can stay the same forever although Britain is one country where they try like the Dickens to fight that basic truth. The lyric of an old World War I song said it best:
There'll always be an England
While there's a country lane,
Wherever there's a cottage small
Beside a field of grain.
And down the lane from that cottage beside the field of grain there will always be a pub serving imperial pints (20 ounces) of beer. Well, that is changing rapidly. (Although you can still find some authentic pubs.)
Rural life is unrecognizable from 20 years ago and British drinking habits have undergone a sea change, as well. Both of these factors have led to a crisis for British pubs. Thirty-nine a week are going out of business forever.
And the bad news is accelerating. The numbers were awful before the recession kicked in, but now they are brutal. In the last quarter of 2008 sales of beer were off by almost 10 percent in pubs, according to figures from the British Beer and Pub Association. Now politicians are becoming alarmed about the future of an industry that employs upwards of half a million people.
In Parliament, the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group has 400-plus members -- only the British-American Parliamentary Group is bigger -- and lobbies the government on behalf of the pub trade. It was set up in 1992, according to Vice Chairman Nigel Evans, "to recognize the iconic status of real British ale."
Little did the founders realize that a group whose main purpose was playing the heritage card, a no-brainer in British politics, would have to actively lobby for preservation of a major industry. According to CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) 2,000 pubs closed last year with a loss of 20,000 jobs. A further 75,000 are at risk over the next five years if current trends continue.
Evans' greatest concern is the impact of pub closures on rural life. The majority of pubs going out of business are in country villages. "The local pub is more than a watering hole, it is the center of community life," the MP explained. That is true. A good pub at its heart is an open living room for a village. It is not just a place to have a beer, but it is the place to organize activities, everything from outings for teenagers to the schedule of the local cricket team.
In many places, Evans pointed out, the pub is the last meeting place left for rural communities. Post offices are closing, rural bus networks never survived privatization, churches are closing for lack of worshipers, and schools are consolidating. Once the pub goes that's the end for most communities.
But the flip side of this loss is that rural life has changed dramatically. In southern England within a few hours drive of London, villages are empty for much of the week as the houses are mostly owned by professionals living in the big city who only come out for the weekend. Up and down the country, the automobile has liberated people from cities and suburbs and they can live in architecturally nostalgic havens a 45-minute drive from the office.
Drinking habits have changed along with the shift in population. A stop at the village boozer is not an every day requirement for the newcomers. They prefer to go to a gastro-pub: basically a restaurant in an olde pub setting with a chef who has been mentioned in the newspapers and a wine list to die for.
Similarly, drinking habits in the cities have changed as well. For a decade and a half cheap flights to New York have introduced a generation to the pleasures of Lower East Side lounge life. Hip, young Brits would just as soon go to a bar, flop onto a beat-up sofa and order a mojito or caiparinha as a pint of beer.
Finally, supermarkets have begun pricing beer so low it makes going to a pub both an extravagance and for young people intent on getting drunk a waste of time. Some places are selling an eight-pack for 5 pounds (a little over $7), according to Evans. Compare that to the price of a pint, more than 3 pounds ($4.30) in many cities, and you can see what pubs are up against.
Throw in the recent ban on smoking in pubs, which also encourages people to drink at home, mix it with an explosion in unemployment, meaning fewer folks can afford to go out every night, and the rate of pub closures is expected to continue to rise.
Evans' group is pushing for changes in the tax code to help pubs be competitive on pricing. Currently one-third of the price of a pint is tax. As drinkers stay home, the tax take has diminished, so the government may reduce last year's double digit duty on the price of a pint in the hopes of luring people back to pubs.
But even Evans acknowledges that there may be something aside from cost driving pubs to extinction -- lifestyle changes among Britons themselves. An evening in with friends or alone, watching a video or hanging out in chatrooms online, with a can of beer in hand, is an increasingly popular way to spend time in this country. As Evans lamented: "We're heading for a world where people will stare at each other on Skype and hold up a can of chemicals for the camera and call that socializing. "