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How drunk do we want our MPs?

Order! Order!, Ben Wright's history of political drinking, seems surprisingly unsure

9 July 2016

9:00 AM

9 July 2016

9:00 AM

Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking Ben Wright

Duckworth Overlook, pp.361, £16.99

In 1964, a newly elected Labour MP was put in charge of the House of Commons kitchen committee. (An unpromising start to a review, I appreciate, but bear with me.) His idea of selling off the House’s rather splendid wine cellar duly appalled some MPs, but was accepted as a useful money-making scheme. Only later did it emerge that he’d bought/ripped off a collection of the best bottles for himself at a bargain price, and that this was not untypical behaviour — because the Labour MP was Robert
Maxwell.

Order, Order! is packed with memorable tales like this. Ben Wright does give us all the old drinking-story classics, as George Brown once again propositions the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima (sadly, we’re told, unlikely to be true) and Winston Churchill amusingly informs Bessie Braddock how ugly she is. But he’s also dug out scores of unfamiliar gems — largely, it seems, through the simple method of having read every conceivably relevant book, article and diary entry of the past 300 years.

Thus, The Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliott, Volume I (London, 1874) is the source for a 18th-century Scottish MP writing home to his wife that ‘the men of all ages drink abominably… but it is a much more gentleman-like way than our Scottish drunkards’. More straightforwardly, there’s the 1983 Hansard report of a long and wildly incoherent speech by Labour’s Edwin Wainwright — a report which reads in full, ‘Mr Wainwright made a number of observations.’


And, as a BBC political correspondent, Wright is also well placed to add some observations of his own, including one of the great backhanded compliments of recent times: ‘Nigel Farage’s drinking is not a political affectation. He’s been boozing heavily for years.’

The trouble is that, having assembled all this terrific material, Wright never seems sure either how to structure it or what it all means. In theory, the book comprises eight chapters with different themes (Commons bars, drunken cabinet members, drunken prime ministers and so on). In practice, there are so many overlaps that the same stories are often repeated, sometimes in rather different form. Tony Blair’s admission, for instance, that his stiff G&T and half-bottle of wine a night became ‘a prop’ gets several mentions: usually to demonstrate how comparatively little today’s politicians drink, but once to show that he was ‘something of a lush’.

The more serious contradictions, though, come when Wright analyses his own findings. As the subtitle suggests, his over-
arching hypothesis is that the days of serious political drinking are long gone — thanks to a combination of 24-hour news, increased health-consciousness, more women MPs and the disappearance of those post-dinner Commons sessions, where, as David Owen recalls, ‘at least a third of the House… were pissed’. Yet interspersed with this are
plenty of assertions such as that ‘drink is the
metronome of Westminster life’ or that, under New Labour, Westminster remained ‘the binge-drinking capital of Britain’. A section on how party conferences have dried out since they left the seaside opens with people still drinking in the bar of Manchester’s Midland hotel as breakfast is served.

Nor can Wright decide whether the decline (if there has been one) is a good thing or not. At times, he laments the loss of characters, colour and fun. At others, he takes a stern line on all that irresponsible boozing. ‘Drink has been an essential balm… in the lives of politicians for centuries and, just like most of their voters, will continue to be,’ he writes on the last page (although I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean that voters are a politicians’ balm). Two paragraphs later, he concludes the whole book sounding almost like a temperance campaigner: ‘Having sobered up themselves, politicians now have to help the rest of us do the same.’

Order, Order! enjoyably confirms the truth of its opening declaration that ‘The past three centuries of British politics is, in no small part, a story of sippers, swiggers and bon viveurs.’ Nonetheless, it does end up feeling less than the sum of its parts. Given the equivocal attitude to drink that most of us share, a degree of ambivalence was perhaps unavoidable. Yet, for all the riches he brings us along the way, Wright’s wider analysis doesn’t seem a great advance on Homer Simpson’s celebrated toast: ‘To alcohol! The cause of — and solution to — all of life’s problems.’


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