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Blog Post

The Power of the Humble Pub


July 24, 2023

My AEI colleague, Charles Murray, recently shared a figure showing that beer drinking in the United Kingdom shifted from the pub to the home, noting that the graph was a “Great brilliant indirect indicator. Of what, precisely, has yet to be determined.” The data from the British Beer and Pub Association revealed that 2014 beer sales in UK shops and supermarkets surpassed beer bought in pubs, bars, and clubs. Since 2014, the gap between drinking in pubs and drinking at home has widened, but the trend of drinking at home has been increasing since long before.

The UK Beer and Pub Association also found that since 2000, a significant number of pubs have disappeared. The decline has been especially noticeable in London, where the number of pubs and bars fell in 31 of the city’s 32 boroughs, from 4,835 in 2001 to just 3,615 in 2016. The association documented that barely 30 percent of all beer sold in 2022 was purchased in pubs, compared to 70 percent in supermarkets. In 2000, 75 percent of beer sales occurred in pubs. Such stark numbers serve as a strong indicator of the troubled state of communal health in the UK as social capital is in deep decline across the British Isles.

Pubs are critical third spaces in the United Kingdom and have been for centuries. It is hard to overstate their import to community life as they have historically been an integral part of a place’s history and identity. These third places—cafes, community centers, and other public places—as sociologist Ray Oldenburg observed, often increase communal ties by hosting “the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” Pubs have long played a powerful role in anchoring and sustaining community. Ample research shows that places of eating and drinking are essential in creating social capital and community strength. As a professor in Dublin recently noted, pubs offer “an opportunity to connect, socialise and express yourself. . . . They are also critical for people’s mental health and wellbeing.”

Looking at recent pop culture focused on the UK makes the centrality of pubs in social life quite clear. From popular British theater like Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, set in a pub in Northern England, to the Garrison Pub in Peaky Blinders, pubs as meeting spaces are ubiquitous. The Crown and Anchor Pub played a huge role in Ted Lasso as the central community meeting point in Richmond, London. In each, the pub is where members of different socio-economic circles met and mingled—a site of potent conflicts and moments of real joy as well.

As pub culture continues to decline, so too does the social fabric of communities. As UK cultural observer Paul Kingsnorth sadly declares, “every time one goes, another connection with our past is lost. Communities are lost, too. A village without a focal point becomes a collection of dwellings—a location, but no longer a place.” The implications are significant and being felt across the UK.

Research and surveys show intense atomization and loneliness across Britain. Eleanor Rees, head of the social well-being analysis team at the Office of National Statistics summarizes that “Our social capital findings show that we are engaging less with our neighbours but more with social media. We also note that we feel safer walking alone after dark in our neighbourhoods but more recently fewer of us feel like we belong to them.” Another recent survey found a marked decline in community connection and sense of kinship with their local area even before the pandemic; since 2014, the proportion of people who said they felt a sense of belonging in their neighborhood has gone down from 72 percent to just 47 percent at the start of 2020. In 2022, another study found that over two-fifths (43 percent) of residents do not feel part of the community in which they live, and nearly a tenth (8 percent) are on the fence about it. To address the dangerous levels of loneliness, the UK established a Minister of Loneliness.

The trends all line up here: As pubs disappear and drinking at home continues to rise, more UK residents will feel disconnected from their communities, and levels of isolation will continue to rise. There are certainly other factors at play in the loneliness epidemic—social media being one. But pubs have long been third places that anchor and connect communities with their neighbors and their environs. If pubs continue to decline, the question for the UK, like the US and many other places, is what third-place institutions can be built or will emerge to foster connections to promote social capital. Regardless of that answer, pubs serve—to answer Charles Murray—as proxies to measure civic health, and the UK could be doing better.