The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 12
The London "Times" on the Licensing Bill, October 30th, 1871
The London "Times" on the Licensing Bill, October 30th, 1871.
If the topics of a future session can be taken as prefigured by the topics of a recess, we might certainly anticipate a new Licensing Bill next February. Indeed, we have only to look at Sir George Grey's words last week, and we shall be led to think that of all Ministeral measures a Licensing Bill should come first. He observed that it was impossible to address an audience like that before him "without adverting to what was now on all hands admitted to be the great obstacle to moral, social, and intellectual improvement." Arguing from that statement of the case, we may certainly assume that the removal of an obstacle thus characterised ought to be one of the first objects of any Government. It cannot, for instance, be said of open voting that it is any such recognised impediment to the well-being of the people, nor is it allowed "on all hands" that a Ballot Bill will make us morally, socially, and intellectually better than we are. A Local Government Bill, again, may do the country some good if properly framed, but the want of such a scheme is certainly not the "great obstacle" to the general welfare of the community. That obstacle Sir George Grey defines as "the vice of intemperance"—in other words, the excessive consumption of spirituous liquors, and it would seem to follow, therefore, that the restriction of this consumption should be the earliest work of a Ministry in legislating for the benefit of the country. There were many objections to Mr. Bruce's Bill, but the objection made to it by the representatives of the Liquor Trade amounted simply to this—that it would page 26 do what it was intended to do. The people of this country spend in drink, we are told, £100,000,000 a year. It seems impossible to say within ten millions or so what the amount really is, but it is, at any rate, not below the figures we have given. Since Mr. Bruce's Bill was withdrawn it has been asserted that it would, if it had become law, have cut that expenditure down to £50,000,000 It was against this prospective curtailment that the Licensed Victuallers and their friends so loudly, and not unnaturally, protested. They said it was "confiscation," and so beyond doubt it; was, to the extent, in fact, of 50 per cent. A trade losing half its custom must lose half its profits, and all the capital invested in it, no matter in what shape, must be depreciated some how or other in like proportion. What the great brewers, the great distillers, the owners of public-houses, and the other members of the Liquor Trade alleged on the subject was perfectly true. What they forgot was that the result they thus deprecated was necessarily the very object of the legislation proposed. Nine out of every ten reasoning men would be prepared to say that if any measure could really reduce the national expenditure upon drink to half its present amount it would be nothing short of a national blessing. This is what any Licensing Bill must aim at, and it will be successful only in proportion as its end is attained. Yet, the attainment of the end, however devised, will practically be equivalent to the "confiscation" denounced with such vehemence last spring. There is no escaping from this difficulty, as we have said more than once, and as we now—for the whole question hinges on the point—say again. If the drink trade is to be protected against "confiscation"—in other words, against the loss of custom and profit which would attend an increase of national sobriety, it follows that "the great obstacle to moral, social, and intellectual improvement" must be left as it is. It matters nothing to the question what form the promotion of this sobriety by legislative means may take. To the same end, as regards the interests of the liquor trade, we must come at last. Diminished intemperance, however brought about can never mean anything but diminished expenditure upon drink, and diminished expenditure upon drink can never mean anything but that indentical reduction of profits which the dealers in drink have been taught to consider "confiscation."
We insist upon this topic because it includes and expresses all the grounds of that opposition which proved fatal to the last Licensing Bill, and which, it may be confidently assumed, any new Licensing Bill will encounter in its turn. One party, represented by the framers and supporters of the measure, will be attempting to reduce the dimensions of the Liquor Trade, the other will be fighting desperately for the preservation of that Trade, with its attendant profits, in undiminished proportions. That must be page 27 the real issue, and there is no disguising it. Whether the principal adopted be that of prohibition or that of control,—whether the requisite machinery be lodged with the ratepayers or left with the magistrates,—is, as far as the substantial purpose of legislation goes, of no consequence whatever. Once effect or promise to effect that purpose, and the protests of the trade will be as strong and, from its own point of view, as justifiable as ever. Every movement or meeting on behalf of temperance, every suggestion proposed in these" columns, every contribution, in short, to the question before us, has this "confiscation" for its end, and nothing else. Sir George Grey, for example, thinks prohibition would never, in this country, be either practicable or effectual, but when he proceeded to say that a "great improvement" might be made in the present licensing system he was but moving in the same direction by a different road. His proposals for increasing the stringency of control over the Trade would either be prejudicial to its profits, or they would be worthless. Nothing in the way of legislation would be effectual unless it accomplished the object deprecated by the Liquor Sellers. Every shilling diverted from the profits of the Publicans is so much loss to the trade. The diversion may be effected by teaching, preaching, influence, example, or force, but, however effected, it will come to precisely the same thing.
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