Monday, 19 October 2015

Has CAMRA had its day?

We found little to smile about in
Greenall Whitley pubs in the 70s.
Does CAMRA have a purpose any more? It seems that I've been reading articles and blog posts on this theme almost since I first joined CAMRA in 1985. At their least contentious, they say that there are now loads of different real ales from a record number of breweries, so it's job done. Others, often written with a 'more in sorrow than in anger' tone, prefer to twist the knife. They went to a CAMRA meeting once, and found a load of bearded weirdos who were loud about their likes and dislikes, while ignoring outsiders, which is usually interpreted as a deliberate snub. Everyone else in the pub was apparently annoyed by the CAMRA types, and the writer concludes by shaking the dust from their feet and swearing never to attend a meeting again. This attitude has recently been astutely parodied in the Seeing The Lizards blog. Another group of detractors are a vocal minority from the 'craft' beer tendency who don't like the Campaign because it won't endorse a beer type that doesn't fit CAMRA's definition of real ale. This is a bit like ranting against the Cat's Protection League because it won't take in dogs.

Beer font? Or the headstone
over many lost breweries?
I am not an undiscerning member of CAMRA, and I have criticised the organisation quite a few times here. I do, however, take issue with suggestions that the Campaign is now redundant, or even that it's insular and exclusive. CAMRA members are not all of a type, no more than the members of any other voluntary mass membership organisation, although there are always those who do fit the stereotype. To present an analogy: Lefties often stereotype Tories, but in my years of local political activity on the Left, I have come across local Conservatives who are likeable people who, in their own way, want to do the best for the local community. From my perspective they're misguided, of course, but the point remains. Reality is always much more multi-layered and complicated than simplistic generalisations suggest - it's also much more interesting. CAMRA is no exception to this. Most CAMRA members don't go round boorishly taking over pubs, insulting lager drinkers and demanding privileges from licensees. Even more shockingly, most male CAMRA members I know don't even have beards. But recycling these myths provides sufficient excuse for some of these writers to feel justified in not playing a more active role in the Campaign. If you don't want to be involved, fine, but don't justify that by peddling hackneyed misconceptions.

The mainstay of
1970's parties
Is the Campaign's work done? We have a record number of breweries and most pubs not only sell real ale, but many have a good selection on offer. We've become so accustomed to this that people sometimes turn their noses up at selections of 'the usual suspects', forgetting that in the 70s and 80s we would have been delighted with such offerings. The snobby attitude to Wetherspoons is a good example of this: when I was a student in 1970s Warrington, we would have thought we'd gone to heaven if we'd come across a pub like Wetherspoons. I recall in the 1980s finding myself in a pub in Hampshire which had six real ales on handpump, mostly from the Gales range. I thought it was wonderful, but today there are some who would turn up their noses because of the lack of variety. 

This is all good, isn't it? Yes, of course, but in the long term there can be little room for complacency. The number of brewers is constantly increasing, but the market is shrinking: pubs continue to close, and beer consumption overall is going down. At some point, these two contradictory pressures must collide, resulting in many small brewers closing, though a few may be taken over by bigger concerns. In ten or twenty years' time, we may look back on the present situation as a golden age. Campaigning to save pubs is a logical response to this problem, because fewer pubs will mean less cask beer, the growth of micro-pubs notwithstanding. Those who short-sightedly argue that CAMRA has no business campaigning for pubs should bear that in mind.

In general, no advances can ever be taken for granted: what was hard fought for can be lost again. The current attacks on workers' rights, the trade union movement, the NHS and the benefit system bear testament to that. Whether or not you agree with such measures is irrelevant: the point is that nothing can be seen as safely in the bag. Progress is not inevitable. In the case of real ale, there are many threats that I've covered many times before, so here is a brief reminder of some of them in no particular order:
  • Attacks by the anti-alcohol brigade, aka the health lobby.
  • Predatory property companies buying up pubs for redevelopment.
  • Debt-ridden pub companies overcharging tenants and redeveloping sites to offset debts.
  • Punitive tax levels.
The Plough, Southport, in the
process of being demolished.
There is also the fact that multinational beer corporations want to move in on the market that is currently dominated by micro and regional breweries. I can see nothing that would prevent a repeat of the infamous Whitbread Tour of Destruction which swallowed up so many local brews, replacing them with Whitbread 'Big Head' Trophy Bitter, the deluded pint that thought it was a quart. Sharps and Meantime have already been hoovered up, and I have no doubt that other breweries are currently being eyed up for takeover. A proliferation of new small breweries suggests our beer scene is healthy but it can do little to combat such threats, whereas a campaign of 174,690 members has more of a chance.

The Sir Henry Segrave (JDW), Southport.
If only we'd had pubs like this in the 70s.
CAMRA is often dismissed as just a drinking club. This may be true for some members, and the Wetherspoons vouchers are often cited as proof of this, but most members that I know did not join for the vouchers. Another shocking fact: quite a lot of members don't use their tokens. In addition, I've known even 'drinking club' members become activated when faced with a threat to something dear to them, such as a local brewery or much-loved pub. If there's nothing local to campaign on, they are keeping a network of local branches going so that if a campaign is needed at any time, the structures are already in place. Okay, it might take a bomb to get some people moving, but it's massively better than trying to build a campaign from scratch in the future, should one be needed.

CAMRA's list of some of its successes can be found here - link provided to save me just repeating what they say - and some of these are recent, which refutes the suggestion that the Campaign no longer has a purpose. Many attempts to rubbish CAMRA are motivated by people who are hostile, often with agenda of their own, such as talking up 'craft' beer, and decrying real ale as old hat. CAMRA is not perfect, but then neither is any other mass membership organisation. I should know: I've belonged to quite a few over the years. Despite the fact that I sometimes get impatient or annoyed with certain things in the Campaign, I'll stick with it. People who sit around waiting for the perfect organisation that suits them in absolutely every respect will end up belonging to nothing. For me, this one is still worth belonging to.

References to craft beer advocates in this article refer to a partisan vocal minority. Most drinkers, whether of real ale, craft beers or both, are tolerant and don't mind what others choose to drink.


  1. Great piece - agree entirely.

    Would just add, at risk if repetition, without CAMRA branches there's no Beer Guide, and differentiating the good from the OK or poor more important than ever.

    1. I view the Good Beer Guide, local and national CAMRA festivals, and the What Pub website as important campaigning tools.

  2. Much to agree with there. It does annoy me when some people proclaim from inside their "beer bubble" that it has never been a better time to be a beer drinker in the UK. When you look at the vast numbers of pub closures, and the cask beer deserts in less well-off areas (which often had loads of the stuff forty years ago) comments like that verge on the delusional.

    As I've argued before, though, CAMRA does need to define more clearly what it is actually in favour of. Quality, choice and widespread availability can be mutually exclusive.

  3. Dunno, Mudgie. The question about Estate Pubs and their cask ale sales 40 years ago is did the punters drink cask because that was what was available? As soon as Lager became available and promoted, the working classes pretty much ditched cask. Now they've realised you can get the same Lager in the shop for less than what the pub charges. What do you think will happen?

    The whole Real Ale/ Craft thing is basically a middle class generational disagreement.

    1. That's not true M. At least in my neck of the woods the brewers went to great effort to eliminate cask entirely, without waiting for drinkers to ditch it. In the year Glasgow CAMRA was founded, there was not a single pub in the city serving real ale. The choice was made in the boardrooms of the breweries, not by drinkers in the pubs.

    2. But in other parts of the country, the brewers - including divisions of the Big Six - chose to retain cask beer. Maybe that was through inertia or lack of funds rather than any kind of positive policy, but I would say, before the advent of CAMRA, whether or not pubs served cask beer had little to do with consumer demand. The same argument cuts both ways.

      And don't forget that the 1960s were a period of steadily increasing beer sales.

  4. The craft/real ale debate, if it can be called that, is a load of irrelevant nonsense and a complete waste of time and energy. And I've just spent more time on it writing this comment than it deserves.

  5. An interesting post and from it I understand that CAMRA is still very relevant to you, if not to anyone under 40.

    1. Apart from the 19,000+ CAMRA members aged 30 or under, of course. I have no figures for the 30 to 40 age group.

    2. don't be confusing us retail customers for supporters or activists, now, fella

    3. Fair point, but in turn you shouldn't be assuming that every young member has joined purely as retail customers. Activism versus Spoons vouchers doesn't cover all the reasons why people join.

  6. Good post. Cooking Lager's comment worth thinking about too, though.


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