In Hamlet, the Prince, who for a recent student is surprisingly priggish, deplores the noisy drinking at his Uncle Claudius’s Court. Hamlet concedes that it is a custom, but one that would be ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance.’ Over the next few centuries, there would be plenty of observance in exalted British circles, and few breaches. In the reign of King William 111, courts martial were forbidden to try capital cases – those which could lead to the death penalty – after lunch. There were fears that the judges might be too severe, too lenient, or simply too erratic. This was generally understood to be a wise precaution.
A hundred years later, William Pitt the Younger regularly addressed the House of Commons after he had consumed three bottles of Port. Admittedly, Port was weaker in those days and most of those in his audience had drunk at least two themselves. Even so, it was a feat, but at a cost. Pitt died at forty-six, his health destroyed, and drink had played a part.
A few decades into the Nineteenth Century, Gladstone seemed to be the epitome of the respectable classes’ increasing morality. Looking and sounding like a major Old Testament prophet, he was a devout churchman. But he also enjoyed a drink. In his diaries, he regularly complains about sick headaches in the morning. These days, we would call them severe hangovers. One evening, dining alone at Grillion’s Club, he consumed a bottle and a half of Claret followed by two small bottles of Port. He lived to be eighty-nine. What a constitution: what a liver.
The same was true of Churchill, though it is not clear exactly how much he drank. But he was never far from a glass, or a cigar. Asquith went further. As Churchill wrote to Clementine in April 1911: ‘On Thursday night the p.m. was very bad. I squirmed with embarrassment. He could hardly speak any many people noticed his condition…only the persistent freemasonry of the House of Commons prevents a scandal.’ Although Asquith contributed the word ‘squiffy’ to the English language, he was able to dominate events until the First World War came to dominate events. Once that happened, his reputation for squiffiness helped to undermine his authority and hasten his downfall.
Apropos authority, and though he was never drunk at the despatch box, Churchill’s drinking did damage his reputation during the 1930s, when he was out of office.
To many, it confirmed the impression that he was past his best. There was also the suspicion that his judgment – which had always been suspect in some quarters – was now impaired by drink. Late one evening in after the War had started – cometh the hour, cometh the man – Churchill was entertaining Harold Macmillan, a former Tory rebel now rehabilitated by the War. Macmillan wanted to go to bed. The PM wished to sit on with more brandy. ‘Harold, don’t you want to help me to denounce Hitler?’ ‘I’m not sure that you and I should be doing that. After all, he made you Prime Minister and me a Parliamentary Undersecretary of State. No other power on earth could have accomplished that.’ For a second, Churchill looked astonished. Then a smile spread across his face: ‘There is something in what you say.’
While few of them matched Pitt, Gladstone or Churchill, those who took important decisions rarely abstained from alcohol. In the late Seventies, I was an occasional guest at City luncheon tables. Starting with gin and tonic, we moved on to white, red, port, brandy and cigars. To be fair to the hosts, lunch was usually over by four o’clock. But in those days, wise men did their work in the morning. Just after the 1979 Election, a newly-appointed Tory Minister invited me to lunch at one of the grandest St James’s Clubs. He said that when he arrived, there had been six ministerial cars waiting outside.
That was at the high end of the drinking scale. But until a generation ago, most MPs, bankers, lawyers – including judges – expected to have lunch. Such lunches were rarely dry. In the Britain of that era, a majority of the men who ran the country – in that era, it was mainly men – would have failed a breathalyser if they had attempted to drive a motor car in the afternoon.
To youngsters these days, those sound like tales from a vanished age. The changes affected the City first, partly because of Manhattan. By the time it arrived for work at eight a.m. – they slept late in those days – London had gone to lunch. But the time it was back at its desk, it usually sounded well-lunched. Manhattan was unimpressed. After the Big Bang, Manhattan mores prevailed. London renounced lunch. Today, the City is full of sandwich bars.
Political habits also changed, and Margaret Thatcher had some influence. She was not censorious: after all, she was married to Denis Thatcher, who was almost Churchillian in his steady tippling. But she was also a fiercely demanding boss. Few Ministers were ever summoned to her presence without a tightening of the stomach muscles and none of them would have wanted to arrive when smelling of drink. So any minister who thought that there might be a risk of being sent for tended to concentrate on his briefing material. The drink could wait until he was safely out of No.10.
She herself drank sparingly, at least while she was Prime Minister. She did enjoy a glass of whisky, but it tended to be a weak one, which would last her for most of the evening. Once she left office, the drinks were more frequent and not so weak. By then, she was often in the company of her principal Parliamentary aide. Peter Morrison, a fellow who drank on a Pitt the Younger scale. When he was doing the pouring, any bottle had a short life expectancy and there was a further factor. Her eviction from office had been brutal and unexpected. She had been used to an enormous working schedule. Suddenly, she did not have enough to do and she was producing more adrenalin than she could consume. Adrenalin and alcohol are a volatile combination. Of an evening, she could sometimes seem excitable.
But the real change came with the arrival of the Blair Government. Suddenly, Ministers almost completely stopped drinking at lunchtime. A very occasional spritzer came to be seen as a noteworthy indulgence. Sandwiches found their way to ministerial private offices. Indeed, some Ministers gave up lunch altogether. Instead, they went to the gym.
The Tories have always been the party of the Cavaliers in the English Civil War, to whom they trace their ancestry. Labour supporters are mostly Roundheads. But the Roundhead attitude to lunch has persisted under David Cameron’s government. He himself is partial to good claret, but never in a quantity that would interfere with work. In the longer fullness, historians might argue as to whether this puritanism led to better government.
By Bruce Anderson
Columnist at The Spectator
This article was exclusively written for Axess.