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What Lockdown and Prohibition share The Roaring 20s have started with the pubs being shut — this time as a result of Covid

Last orders? Street drinking in Manchester. Credit: Pat Scaasi/MI News/NurPhoto/Getty

Last orders? Street drinking in Manchester. Credit: Pat Scaasi/MI News/NurPhoto/Getty

October 13, 2020   5 mins

According to Chinese legend, alcohol was invented by a fellow called Yi Di about 4,000 years ago. Yi Di presented his discovery to Yu, the very first Chinese Emperor. Yu drank it, loved it, and immediately banned it, for he foresaw that it would cause great and terrible calamities if the common people ever got their grubby little mitts on it. Yi Di was exiled for life.

This story isn’t true — most early Chinese history is unencumbered by truth — but it is illustrative of the way that rulers have (almost) always looked at booze. It’s always alcohol and those who provide it who get it in the neck.

Thus Scotland at the time of writing, and, for all I know and dread, most of England soon. All licensed premises in the Central Belt have been closed. Unlicensed premises — cafés, tea-shops, juice bars — are left open, because… well, here the becausery becomes a little indistinct. But it’s something about the behaviour of those in pubs. It’s the kind of people who go to pubs, and it’s the kind of things they do there. Hugging strangers all the time and kissing vague acquaintances.

I have been to pubs in Glasgow. The hugging of strangers is not a major problem there, even after 10pm. The only hugging of strangers I have ever seen in a pub is at the moment of a significant international football victory. This is a reasonably rare beast in both England and Scotland, yet we have this vague feeling that when Other People drink they behave abominably. When we drink, we’re simply lovely.

This was, in essence, the cause of Prohibition in the United States. Very few Americans were against alcohol per se. They were against saloons, and what they were sure people did there. The general idea was that saloons served men, almost exclusively (this was true) and that those men spent all their pay there and then went home drunk and angry and took out their frustrations on their family. Whether this actually happened much is debatable. But it is certain that Prohibition was the first great feminist movement in American politics, which is why it was enacted at the same time that women got the vote.

The cause was helped along, though, by a large section of the American population called the “Drinking Dries”. Where the “Wets” were proud drinkers, and the “Dries” were ferocious teetotallers; the “Drinking Dries” were those who liked a drink themselves, but were very, very concerned about the way that other people drank, especially those in saloons. It is a less ridiculous position than it sounds. If you want to stop football hooliganism once and for all, ban football; this wouldn’t mean a kickabout in your own garden, but the football that happens over there. So the idea was to stop the saloon louts drinking and thus save them from themselves.

Unfortunately, Prohibition was enacted in two stages: first, the 18th Amendment, which allowed the government to ban “intoxicating liquors”; and second, the Volstead Act which defined what “intoxicating liquors” were. It had been widely assumed that the act would only cover spirits, perhaps fortified wines, and just possibly normal wine; very few thought that it would include beer. But, of course, the act was drafted by the extremists — so the Drinking Dries discovered that it applied to them, too.

It’s splendid when other people are banned from drinking, but we are all other people.

Still, Prohibition wasn’t all bad. It meant women got to drink, too. The saloon was replaced with the speakeasy, and as the speakeasy was a brand new thing there was no tradition banning ladies from entering, and no agreed rules on how much they could drink once inside. One upmarket speakeasy in New York had a sign up saying “Through These Portals the Most Beautiful Girls in the World Pass OUT”. Some even installed powder rooms.

There were upmarket speakeasies, and downmarket ones too. A speakeasy could be anywhere and take any form, so long as it sold booze. One of the stranger consequences of Prohibition was that it made Italian food popular in America. This was because Italians with access to alcohol would simply open their apartments up as bars and make some extra money by serving their patrons some fine Italian home-cookery. Food Historians cite this as the great break-out moment for pizza and pasta in the USA.

But there were other unintended consequences of Prohibition. Obviously organised crime got a fillip, although this can be wildly exaggerated. The murder rate in Chicago is now more than double what it was under Al Capone’s homicidal sway. More insidious was the fact that everybody was breaking the law and nobody cared. In Boston there were four speakeasies on the same block as the police headquarters, partly because the policemen wanted somewhere to drink. A new word was invented: “scofflaw”, meaning a person who flouts the law because they know that almost every else is doing so.

You don’t need to be Albert Einstein to realise that scofflaws are bad for society, but Einstein was actually in America during Prohibition and observed that: “The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the Prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.”

And this brings us back to our current lockdown. For months everywhere I have gone has had a one-way system in place, and, for months, nowhere have I seen anybody obeying it. Shopkeepers sit smiling next to a sign saying that everybody must wear a mask. At an airport in Italy recently I found myself crushed up against a sign that told me to keep two metres away from everybody — yet none of us could escape. There was also a hand-sanitiser station that we were required to use. The bottle was empty.

When the rules forbid normal behaviour, it becomes normal behaviour to break the rules. Why do other people feel the need to behave like that? Because we are all other people. You can tell a chap’s politics these days simply by asking him which mass gatherings are bound to cause a Second Spike, and which ones are harmless and entirely justified anyway.

Lockdown forbids the little, unquantifiable actions that make a human tick. A drink with friends is an inessential luxury, touching is unnecessary, smiles are masked away. Nobody knows why other people persist in these irrational and unnecessary activities, but we continue with them, because we are certain that we aren’t other people. And so lockdown makes scofflaws of us all.

That won’t end lockdown, of course. Lockdown will be ended by the same thing that ended Prohibition: the economy. The Great Crash and the Great Depression meant that the USA could no longer afford to ban an industry that could provide employment to the destitute and tax to the treasury. It was not a yearning for beer and freedom that prevailed, but a yearning for economic growth that accidentally permitted freedom and beer.

Of course, these comparisons with America’s Prohibition (capital P) are imperfect. In America all alcoholic drinks were banned with the exception of communion wine, which I believe is also the personal rule of Mr Trump. In Glasgow and Edinburgh pubs are still allowed to serve drinks outside this October, but given the sadistic Scottish weather gods that is as close to a ban as can be, for now.

Before it goes too far, the government should, perhaps, remember another attempt at prohibition. In 1914 Tsar Nicholas II banned the sale of vodka in all Russia. It was a time of national emergency, there was a war on, everybody had to play their part, and alcohol is inessential and promotes undisciplined behaviour.

It didn’t end well.

Mark Forsyth’s ‘A Short History of Drunkenness: How, why, where and when humankind has got merry from the Stone Age to the present’ is published by Viking Penguin.

Mark Forsyth is the author of three books on the English language: The EtymologiconThe Horologicon and The Elements of Eloquence.

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Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
3 years ago

Pubs are banned serving alcohol outdoors, as well as indoors, in Edinburgh

Lindsay Gatward
Lindsay Gatward
3 years ago

Lockdown is pointless and even the WHO have said so – The Epidemic is so feeble that total deaths are average and most need to be tested to know they have it – But our Masters insist on FEAR maybe to keep up their destruction of the economy until the virus has faded away, as they all do, so they can claim it was them that ended it – Nice bonkers bonus is that the average age of death from Covid is 82 and the average age of death without Covid is 81 – And for the under 60’s the increase in suicides exceeds the Covid deaths.

jill dowling
jill dowling
3 years ago

An informative and interesting article, which also has the benefit of being reasonably short. Can we have more of this please?

3 years ago

An interesting juxtapose, with some quality insights. Perhaps a broader perspective on The Prohibition may be useful for readers? Prohibition – Did it Fail? https://www.dalgarnoinstitu… and Drug Policy – A History https://youtu.be/7UScdK82aA