15 April 2021

Politics is nothing without the pub


There is a great paradox at the heart of British politics. On the one hand, the drinking culture is pervasive, and much of life in SW1 revolves around alcoholic beverages. On the other, most drinking establishments in Westminster are appalling.

The pubs near Parliament are, with no exceptions, wildly overpriced and not very pleasant to be in. It feels like an odd situation: surely, you would think, even the keenest of drinkers would not willingly spend this much time in such subpar spaces.

But perhaps that is the wrong way to approach the issue: instead, the very fact that Westminster does not have a single decent pub reveals just how important the drinking culture is to the bubble.

If it weren’t, the Red Lion and its neighbours would have had to improve to survive long ago. Luckily, they know that at heart, they do not matter. Without wishing to sound like a Live Love Laugh poster, drinking in Westminster is all about the company, and not the surroundings.

In fact, you could even go further; drinking in Westminster is about company because working in Westminster mostly is about learning and sharing information, so working and drinking in politics are close to being the same thing.

This is why so many people in and around politics have been despairing recently. While thousands of pubs up and down the country reopened on April 12, most watering holes around Parliament will remain shut until May 17.

These insiders could always go for a drink virtually anywhere else in London, but that would defeat the point. After a year of enforced isolation, what bubble dwellers yearn for isn’t simply to drink with their friends, but to do so in a space where everyone else is likely to be.

It isn’t a unique feeling; many people have written about missing not only those close to them, but all the loose acquaintances that made their lives richer. It’s easy to have a Zoom drink with someone you have known for years, but trickier to recreate the seven-minute chats you used to have with people you vaguely knew.

The difference here is that those chats were crucial to the workings of Westminster. From journalists receiving leads for stories during idle chats to special advisers getting a sense of how popular their boss really is, the drinking culture made everything run a bit smoother.

In fact, many jobs were made harder by the pandemic; lobbyists and diplomats alike could no longer establish the professional contacts they rely on so heavily, and MPs found themselves unmoored, and less aware of what their colleagues were doing or thinking.

WhatsApp and Zoom may have helped, but they could never fill the gaps entirely; sometimes the most important part of a conversation is the small talk made at the beginning, or the unwise aside uttered at the end of the third pint. If they are not face to face, it is harder for conversation to flow.

Still, the people who have undeniably had it the hardest are the ones at the bottom of the ladder, no matter where they work. Because who you know matters so much in British politics, those who had just entered the bubble when the virus hit have been left in limbo, with one foot in the door but not entirely in the room.

Hopefully, things will return to normal soon, and they will be able to resume their introduction to the odd and intense world they have decided to enter. While some have argued (or hoped) that the pandemic would mark the end of Westminster’s drinking culture, it seems unlikely.

After all, it is a place filled with hyperactive, hypersocial people, most of whom have found lockdown to be unbearable. We are all desperate to be in the know but for the past year, very few of us have been – and those who have lament that there has been very little to know about anyway.

All in all, it seems rather likely that the pavement outside the Red Lion will once again be full to the brim from the moment the pub reopens. MPs will bump into civil servants who will bump into journalists who will bump into staffers who will bump into lobbyists, and everyone will complain about the price of the drinks and the length of the queue, and all will be well.

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Marie Le Conte is a freelance political journalist and author of 'Haven't You Heard?: Gossip, Politics and Power'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.