Monday, 23 July 2018

The centre cannot mould

Rumours are circulating yet again of a new centre party that is about to be launched and will reshape British politics.

British political parties have always been broad coalitions, with people in them who could easily be in other parties, and would be except for some quirk of geography or their personal history. The first past the post electoral system forces politicians without much, if anything, in common into the same parties because, whilst it works in a two-party system,  it doesn't in one with three or more parties, hence those which get millions of votes at General Elections, but evenly distributed across all constituencies rather than concentrated in a few hundred (the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP), ending up with little or no parliamentary representation.

There are now three broad camps in British politics:

1. Socially conservative, anti-EU, pro-free market economics (the right-wing of the Conservative Party and UKIP);

2. Socially liberal, pro-EU, generally pro-free market economics ( the Lib Dems, the right-wing of the Labour Party, the left-wing of the Conservative Party);

3. Socially liberal, generally pro-EU, interventionist economics (Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, left-wing of the Labour Party)

So where would a new centre party draw its support from? The Lib Dems seem to be the main players in the project, with between a dozen and twenty right-wing Labour MP's also rumoured to be ready to join it. I can't see many, if any, pro-EU Tory MP's joining up given that they have far more influence in their own party, if they choose to stand up to the leadership. Some of the more maverick Labour MP's who oppose Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the party (Frank Field, John Mann, Kate Hoey) are also anti-EU, as well as having conservative views on other issues that already don't fit well in a mostly socially liberal party, and would do so even less in a new one.

I really can't see a new centre party becoming a reality, and if it did having any chance of taking off with the electorate. As well as the problem of the electoral system - and, at constituency level, simply splitting the left of centre vote to the benefit of the right - there's also the question of establishing brand loyalty/recognition, with all three major British political parties having stood for election under pretty much the same name since the early twentieth century.

We have of course been here before. The example of the Social Democratic Party in the early 80s, formed by twenty-eight right-wing Labour MP's and one Conservative with masses of publicity, an intial surge of support and some notable by-election victories, which later found itself forced to ally and then merge with the Liberals, is instructive here, and will no doubt be on the minds of those tempted to go down the same path.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Tanks of the Tyne

I'm reading So They Brewed Their Own Beer, a history of the Northern Clubs Federation Brewery, at the moment, having been tipped off about it by this post from Boak and Bailey.

The Fed, as it became popularly known, was established just after the First World War by social and working men's clubs  on Tyneside in North East England to brew beer of a better quality and at cheaper prices than that which they could get from the outside commercial breweries which had supplied them till then (it was also unusual in publicising the original gravity of the beers it brewed, thus indicating their approximate strength, in contrast to the big brewers who refused to divulge them to their drinkers until towards the end of the twentieth century). I'm up to the bit where the Fed switched from cask to tank beer in the sixties. You might think this would spark something of a backlash (my Dad who worked as a waiter in a Sam Smith's pub in Manchester in the early sixties remembers the furore amongst drinkers there when they went over from cask to keg beer) but apparently there wasn't much if any complaint from either drinkers or managers in the clubs it served.

"The efficiency of the tank system caused beer sales to increase and was more than beneficial to the transport department. With a cask wagon there were three men on board to manhandle the beer. With a beer tanker two men are needed. The drayman's work is so much easier that it has led to a noticeable reduction in staff-turnover at the Federation Brewery since tanks were introduced. The innovation also helped to speed up the disappearance of cellars, for centuries one of the main characteristics of any British public house. Modern refrigeration has enabled cold-rooms to be used for beer storage. The only point of digging a hole in the ground was to achieve lower temperatures. The Federation has long had the policy that beer should be kept and sold under temperature-controlled conditions, arguing that as beer is produced under controlled temperature if it is to reach the club members in a perfect state it must be stored at the club in the same way and not allowed to stand in cellars where the temperature fluctuates because of lack of adequate refrigeration."

Tank beer is of course not the same as keg beer, lying somewhere between it and cask beer in being unpasteurised, and in some cases unfiltered, in which case it would be closer to bright beer which is racked into casks without the sediment which would otherwise allow for a secondary fermentation in the cellar.

If the beer was kept under a fairly low blanket of carbon dioxide pressure, only roughly filtered, not overly chilled and drunk while still fresh (the clubs which owned the Fed had been turning over between thirty and seventy 36-gallon casks a week before tanks replaced them), it's possible that the drinkers supping Fed Pale Ale and Special in the working men's clubs of Tyneside didn't notice that much difference, especially since throughout its trading area of Northern England lots of draught beer, both cask and bright, was by the sixties already being dispensed by metered electric rather than tradtional hand-pumps.

Other beer writers of the period also noticed the changeover to tank beer, and generally seem to have approved of it. Andrew Campbell in his 1956 Book of Beer notes that "Some brewers are now delivering beer in bulk. Watney's barrel-shaped tanks are a familiar sight in London's streets. The beer is racked into measured tanks at the brewery, forced by CO² into road tanks, and then run by gravity at the public houses into cellar tanks which hold as much as one hundred gallons" while Richard Boston in his 1976 book Beer and Skittles says, "But fot the real draught Guinness you must go to Ireland where a glass of stout is poured with proper reverence. Draught Guinness in Ireland is still a naturally conditioned unpasteurized beer, and is sold in the living state, though it now arrives at the pub in a container known derogatarily as 'The Iron Lung'."

I've drunk and enjoyed bright/tank beer a few times myself, notably Augustiner Spezial, filtered and racked into the wooden barrels from which it's dispensed by gravity in the brewery's beer garden opposite Munich's central station, and Pilsner Urquell tankovna fresh from metal tanks above the bar of Manchester's Alberts Schloss.