The Decline of British Pubs

The pub is a British institution under threat. With a handful of pubs closing every single day, will it not be long before we hear last orders called on one of our great historical and social traditions?

A British Way of Life Under Threat

Loved and envied the world over, the pub is a recognisably British institution that has long formed a cornerstone of our community life. Nowhere else can you relax in cosy surroundings that are part homely living room and part rustic farm building, and share a beer with people from all walks of life. The stresses and strains of everyday life, and the steely British reserve, all fall away at the utterance of the immortal phrase, “fancy a pint?”

But like other beacons of Britishness recognised the world over – the red telephone box, the Routemaster bus, the black cab – it is an institution that has become outdated, and has struggled to adapt to modern tastes and lifestyles. The pub is fast disappearing and with it our national drink, beer – one of our great, but much overlooked, contributions to the world of food and drink.

Every month as many as 100 pubs have been calling last orders for the final time and bolting their doors for good. This is the strongest sign yet that one of Britain’s oldest and most hardy industries is in a dire state. According to figures released by the British Beer and Pubs Association (BBPA) in 2008, beer sales in pubs were down by 14m pints a day – or 49% – from 1979 levels.

Factors in Their Decline

Exactly why British pubs are in rapid decline, and beer sales at their lowest since the Great Depression in the 1930s, is a very complex issue with numerous factors interwoven. The smoking ban, sharp increases in beer duties, cheap supermarket lager, increasingly sophisticated home entertainment, high operating costs – all these issues have taken their toll on Britain’s beloved boozer.

To relieve some of these pressures on the pub industry, ministers have rallied against the government to try to ban supermarkets from selling cheap alcohol – at the time Asda was charging 90p for a four pack of Skol lager – and also curtail the beer duty rises. But if efforts to save that other threatened, and arguably more crucial, crux of British community life – the post office – have made no headway, what hope has the pub got?

Outdated Institution

However, these external factors distract from the fact that the pub industry and beer sales – the key source of pub profit – have been undergoing a slow and steady decline for many years now. The traditional pub and its chief refreshment have simply become outdated.

Many people may recognise the historical and national significance of the British pub, and would bemoan its demise, but that doesn’t mean they want to spend their evenings there. After all the pub was designed to cater for a male dominated society, to slake the thirst of the working man – it now has to consider women, children and the more sophisticated tastes and appetites of the modern punter.

Hope for the Future?

Pubs may be struggling but they are far from facing extinction. Like all long-standing industries they have evolved over time and will likely continue to do so. Pubs have been in existence since at least the 11th century, when many households welcomed in people passing through and offered refreshment in the form of a tankard of the local ale.

The ones that survive will likely be those that recognise embrace modern tastes and innovations – such as air conditioning, better food and wine – whilst at the same time retaining their traditional British pub charms, and a loyalty to Britain’s historic and prized brewing industry.

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