Political small beer

Around the web: Campaign for Real Ale

The image of a real ale enthusiast tends not to be the most flattering of stereotypes. Comic send-ups of these types involve lots of arcane beer lore, snobbery, pipes, and turtle-necked jumpers. Even Class War’s links page notes: “Anybody interested in joining Camra should be aware that a beard is compulsory”. Does the Campaign for Real Ale online do anything to dispel this image?

The website itself leads with a peculiar selection of characters whose foreheads happen to morph into heads of beer. Could this be a reference to ‘beer on the brain’, or a rather less generous reading of Camra supporters as ‘pissheads’? It then leads into a series or rhetorical questions concerning pub closures, opening times and beer volume, followed by a call to ‘Join us’.

The first item on the packed navigation bar is ‘What is Camra?’ We are greeted with a contents wheel, with each section providing a link to further down the page. The initial four pieces are concerned with organisation and objectives. These have the virtue of being presented in a more transparent way than some organisations whose ostensible aim is a socialist democracy. For example, it details the numbers of full-timers employed, who is eligible for membership and a broad outline of how the campaign is financed (would you expect the SWP to fess up these kinds of details?).

Camra’s objectives are similarly clear and unambiguous. It stands for consumer rights, promotion of quality products, the reintegration of pubs into community life, a greater appreciation of ‘traditional’ drinks, an improvement in all licensed premises and the promotion of ‘traditional’ ciders and perries. Unsurprisingly these aims inform the character of the campaigning, which revolves around championing small breweries, defending licensees, opposing takeovers and mergers, and advocating root and branch reforms of licensing laws. Camra is not shy to shout about its achievements either, claiming responsibility for a small brewery renaissance, more liberal licensing, and the real ale movement itself.

The rest of the page discusses Camra’s European arm and the group’s investment club. This facet of the organisation takes the campaign into the belly of the big brewery beast. The premise is simple. Camra invests members’ cash to facilitate a real ale voice and vote in shareholders’ AGMs. Any dividends from these shares are reinvested back into the companies, thereby maintaining Camra as a growing economic power. At current holdings of just under £3 million, I am sure the industry is strong enough to cope with this level of indigestion.

Returning home, the ‘Join us’ pages outline members’ benefits, job vacancies and the youth section (could this be a hangover from Camra writer-editor Roger Protz’s days at Socialist Worker?). ‘Shop’ is self-explanatory, allowing you to pick up branded merchandise, pub guides, beards, etc. The ‘Ask if it’s a cask’ page is an introduction to the guarded secrets of brewing. It gives a Noddy’s guide to the history of brewing, the process itself and the journey from the pub basement to your pint. There is also ‘Ten reasons to try real cask ale’, which extols their alleged health benefits, and a bizarre marketing gimmick inviting us to meet Ninkasi - the goddess of beer.

‘Key campaigns’ lists Camra’s current main areas of intervention. Of particular interest is the definition of real ale included here. Needless to say, it is heavy on the ‘tradition’ and rejects the “use of extraneous carbon dioxide”. ‘News’ carries the latest from the brewery world (apparently, 2004 is to be the ‘Year of beer with food’). ‘Beer festivals’ is again self-explanatory stuff, and the page for the Good beer guide is little more than an advert. But at least it has a photo of comrade Protz, sporting the site’s first beard. The ‘Pubs and pubs week’ and ‘Historic pub interiors’ are dedicated to the “good old British local”. There is no definition of what constitutes this kind of boozer, but the following material on its importance to “the community” suggests Camra has something like the Queen Vic in mind.

The Camra website acquits its task well (there is little in the way of pipes and tweed jackets), but it is a pity that the technology required to sample a pint online has yet to be developed! But, reading between the lines, it shows the ambiguity inherent in consumer-based politics: ie, taking the side of the ‘little man’ against the big companies; indulging in myth-making about the virtues of tradition, etc.

By pursuing this multi-pronged campaign, Camra could well achieve its limited objectives, but this consumerist strategy has little to offer socialist politics.