Usually the passing of a major UK company into foreign ownership — and with it the ending of British pretensions to global leadership in another industry — is the cue for national soul-searching and recrimination. Not so the demise of Scottish & Newcastle, which finally agreed last month to be carved up by Denmark’s Carlsberg and its Dutch rival Heineken. Except perhaps in its native Edinburgh, the brewer of Fosters and John Smith’s bitter is likely to go unlamented — either by its shareholders or customers.
Nobody who remembers the shabby state of British pubs until just a few years ago — the grotty furniture, the limited choice of mass-produced beers, the appalling food and stinking urinals — will shed tears for the last of Britain’s big brewers. For decades, the beerage, as the brewing elite were known, were a cosseted bunch of arrogant monopolists — until their comeuppance arrived in 1989 in the form of the Thatcher government’s ‘Beer Orders’. That shake-up delivered a golden age for beer-drinkers and pub-goers, for which the demise of the big brewers has been a price worth paying.
Britain has always had an ambivalent attitude to brewers. ‘The beerage’ originally referred to the large number of brewers, including the Guinness and Bass families, represented among the peerage. Brewers used their enormous wealth to grease the political system, bankrolling the Conservatives who duly obliged by preserving the industry’s traditional privileges — including ownership of vast pub estates that sold only the brewers’ own beers. What the workers thought of the beerage was clear from the old song: ‘I’m the man, the very fat man, who waters the workers’ beer,/ And what do I care if it makes them ill,/ If it make them terribly queer,/ I’ve got a car and a yacht and an aeroplane,/ And I water the workers’ beer.