Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking

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Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking


Fri, 26/08/2016 - 11:13


Jeremy Corbyn
25 August, 2016

IF Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn were to become prime minister the burning question would be: How on earth is he, a teetotaller, going to cope without booze in the nation’s highest office?

I needed to ask after reading Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking.

The book, by BBC political journalist Ben Wright, includes a classic quote from Denis Thatcher, husband of former PM Maggie. When asked by a woman Tory supporter if it was true that he had a drink problem, Denis replied: “Yes, madam, I have. There is never enough of it.”

Most PMs, at least in recent years, have needed the odd glass that cheers. 

Wright maintains that, while British politicians may not always deliver electoral promises, they bow to nobody in the consumption of alcohol stakes. 

Corbyn, it appears, didn’t need booze to celebrate winning the Labour leadership last year. At the Sanctuary Pub in Westminster he roused his comrades and baffled visiting tourists by holding up a Tony Benn tea towel for a rendition of The Red Flag. Labour’s first leader Keir Hardie, also a non-drinker, may well have approved – although perhaps not of the venue. 

In an interview with our sister publication, The Camden New Journal, Wright said: “Corbyn wouldn’t be the first PM to eschew drink. Jim Callaghan decided not to drink at all when he was in No 10, so there’s proof it’s possible to cope without booze. But it’s certainly a beneficial prop to most. And, as I argue, a symbol of sharing something in common with voters.”

Incidentally, Wright, whose study of the drinking habits of those we elect makes for a fascinating read, revealed that the Hollybush in Hampstead is one of his favourite watering holes. 

Mrs Thatcher, as is well known, liked a glass of Bell’s whisky, which helped to keep her relaxed, particularly during the Falklands war. 

Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock would occasionally enjoy a beer in the Press Bar of the Commons, where he might launch into a spirited rendition of  Land of My Fathers.

Sir Winston Churchill was a whisky and soda man... and a lot of other drinks besides.

Churchill not only led Britain in a victorious fight against the Nazis, but did so with a daily alcohol intake that included wine for breakfast, champagne and brandy at lunch, and iced whisky at tea time. Oh, and during the evening there would be whisky and soda.

In previous eras the drinks cabinet was a crucial piece of Whitehall furniture and its spirits would oil the cogs of government. Labour PM Harold Wilson thought his foreign secretary George Brown excellent until 4pm when he hit the drinks cabinet. Brown was known to pour slugs of whisky in his morning tea and coffee and drink heavily at lunchtimes.

The late great industrial journalist Geoffrey Goodman, a friend of the New Journal, remembers going to interview Brown for the BBC. “He was absolutely pissed,” Goodman is quoted in the book. “It was the peak of the incomes policy crisis... There he was at his desk, head in his hands on the desk. I said, ‘George, we’re going to do an interview, aren’t we?’ And he shouted ‘F*** off!’”

More recently Tony Blair confessed that his evenings in Downing Street were accompanied by a stiff G&T and half a bottle of wine. His drinking was modest by historic standards and nothing compared to former Labour leader, John Smith.

In his memoir Blair writes that “if there was an Olympic medal for drinking, John would have contended with such superiority that after a few rounds the rest of the field would have banished themselves from the track”.

Among the apparent victims of alcohol was the former LibDem leader Charles Kennedy, who died last year. He struggled with alcoholism throughout his political career. A popular figure – but would Kennedy have been a better leader sober? Wright suggests that Kennedy might have had a sharper interest in policy detail and been less lackadaisical, a common complaint among critics in his party.

In 1994, former Conservative PM John Major took the visiting Russian President Boris Yeltsin for a drink at a pub near Chequers in the village of Great Kimble. The pub appeared closed and so they knocked on the door. Suddenly a voice from behind the door asked who was there. “I am the President of Russia,” Yeltsin said. To which the landlord replied: “If that is true then I’m the Kaiser of Germany.”

No book on political drinking could be complete without mention of Ukip’s Nigel Farage. With his big smile, fag-rattle laugh, pinstripe suit, and omnipresent pint, he cuts a character even if you may disagree with his politics.

A regular at the Marquis of Granby pub in Westminster, Farage is quoted: “I adore the pub. I think every pub’s a parliament. We discuss the England football manager, the council, and the left-wing local vicar. The other thing I love about the pub is the sheer classlessness of it. Every walk of life is there.”

Political journalist Peter Oborne, a Highbury resident until recently, remembers taking former Labour Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson, out for lunch at the Savoy Grill in 1998. “We had several bottles of wine. I thought I could just about get it through on expenses. I went to the loo, came back, and Geoffrey had bought a bottle of wine that cost about £350. I said: ‘Geoffrey, I can’t possibly pay for that!’”  

Damian McBride, former press chief to former Labour PM Gordon Brown, described Westminster in his memoirs as the “binge-drinking capital of Britain”.

In an interview with Wright he described himself as a “highly functioning alcoholic”. McBride remembers waking up at a hotel and getting a phone call from an aide to PM Gordon Brown calling him upstairs to help organise a meeting with the editor of the Sunday Times.

“But I looked at the lift and realised it wasn’t my hotel. I went outside and saw I was in a Travelodge 20 miles outside Manchester. No idea what I was doing there.”

• Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking. By Ben Wright, Duckworth, £16.99

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