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Something political brewing?

by Roger Protz, 05/05

Government documents from 1975, released under the "30-year rule" recently, reveal a plan by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson to save small breweries from takeover by taking them into public ownership. As 2005 saw Gales, Jennings and Ridleys lose their independence, Wilson's proposals are worthy of consideration.

The documents report that the prime minister was keen to launch a programme called "Little Things Mean a Lot" that would have saved the traditional pint measure and nationalised breweries under threat of takeover.

In words that still strike a chord today, Wilson (right, pic courtesy labour.org.uk) said: "Much resentment is caused when a local brewery is taken over by one of the anonymous national breweries, thus reducing choice. It is our intention to use our powers to make sure that local breweries do not disappear."

Wilson had created a new ministry, the Department for Prices and Consumer Protection, to act as a watchdog over such issues as monopolies and price fixing. But the prime minister's plan to take threatened breweries in to public ownership never got off the ground as a result of opposition from the civil service.

A Treasury spokesmen said: "I think it would be extremely difficult to justify the use of public money for this purpose". The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in perhaps one of the most absurd statements ever made by a government department, declared, "The information available to us suggests the risk of takeovers of local breweries are likely to be slight over the next year or two."

In fact, the late 1970s and 1980s saw a rapid increase in brewery takeovers and closures. The problem did not go away. In the 1990s 44 breweries closed, many of them independent concerns. And the problem has continued into the 21st century.

Could Wilson's plans have worked? First, it is important to dismiss the notion that public ownership or nationalisation is a course of action taken only by left-wing governments. It was, after all, a Conservative government that carried out one of the most far-reaching example of public ownership in recent history.

The government of Ted Heath in the early 1970s nationalised Rolls-Royce when the car company collapsed. Public ownership lasted until a satisfactory new owner was found. But for Heath's action, the most famous name in British car production would have disappeared.

I am not suggesting that breweries similarly taken into public ownership should stay in state hands in perpetuity. As with Rolls-Royce, suitable new owners or partners from the private sector should be found.

But if Wilson's proposals had been given the go-ahead, it is possible that such famous and well-loved breweries as Matthew Brown, Buckley, Darley, Davenports, Devenish, Higsons, Hull, Oldham, Shipstone, Simpkiss and even Wilson's (no relation) might have survived.

   Simpkiss, a revered Black Country brewery, was an especially grotesque example of what Ted Heath, in a different context, called "the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism". It brewed delicious and popular beers that were sold in some 15 pubs in the Black Country. Nobody wanted Simpkiss to close, save for the giant regional brewery Greenall Whitley of Warrington, which, in the mid 1980s, wanted to add the Simpkiss estate to its own and force its keg beers on drinkers. In an act of pure vandalism, Greenalls poured the last batch of Simpkiss beer down the drain rather than let it reach drinkers' lips.

So bad was Greenall's legacy in the Midlands - it had previously taken over and closed Davenports and Shipstone - that the assault on Simpkiss should have led to government action.

In the 21st century, we urgently need a strategy to save breweries and safeguard consumer choice. Public ownership is only one option. Other proposals could include government funds for management buy-outs, co-operatives of workers and consumers, or stakes by county or local authorities in threatened breweries until new owners can be found.

Unless such proposals are discussed seriously, there is a real risk that the regional brewery sector, once responsible for a quarter of beer production but now reduced to around 10 per cent, will continue its decline.

One thing is certain: Tony Blair will reject such radical suggestions out of hand. Perhaps I should have a word with David Cameron...


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