LONDON — Drinking has been an integral part of Westminster life for centuries: The first bar and grill was set up inside parliament in 1773. In Victorian times, parliament was renowned for the excellence of its cellars, including the Valentia Vats — a vat of Scotch whisky, of a capacity of 1,000 gallons, and a mere 300 gallons of Irish whiskey. These days, there are several bars open at all times of day and night.
But it might be last orders for lawmakers workplace boozing.
In the U.K. and across the Continent, millennials are drinking less than previous generations, and theyre becoming increasingly vocal in objecting to a clubby culture of boozing they say is out of touch and elitist.
“People are aghast that a workplace, a parliament, has so many places to drink during the day,” said Ben Wright, author of “Order, Order!: The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking,” adding that the drinking culture increasingly feels “incongruous and out of place.”
After the “industrial drinking” of the 1970s and 80s gave way to the reforms made by former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blairs government, Wright said, a range of factors — including the rise of social media and the growing number of women in parliament — are changing the notion of whats acceptable in the workplace.
Drinking on the job
Westminsters iconic Sports and Social, known as S&S, was temporarily closed in December following a fight (in which one man was arrested). After the House of Lords director of facilities investigated the circumstances prior to the incident, the bar reopened in January — though its open for fewer hours a week than before.
“Its a complete bubble,” said one young parliamentary aide over beers at the bar.
The aide described nights of heavy drinking early in the week when MPs are sitting, and a hothouse atmosphere fueled by alcohol.
Long, antisocial working hours — MPs have been voting after midnight on Brexit — mean that parliamentary workers spend the bulk of their time onsite, where there is also a hairdresser, a florist and a gym.
The S&S is not the only bar on the parliamentary estate — there are around a dozen. At the Westminster Arms, the chatter is regularly interrupted by the sound of the division bell. Like many pubs just outside parliament, it alerts lawmakers when to sprint back to the House of Commons in order to vote on the issues of the day.
“I dont think we have or will be seeing any brutal changes from one day to the other, but there is a sense that the culture is slowly evolving in Westminster” — Marie Le Conte, journalist
Drinks are also reasonably priced in parliament bars compared to anywhere in the country, and an absolute steal for central London, according to a freedom of information request made last year.
“We constantly review prices and procedures,” said a spokesperson for the House of Commons. Actions to promote responsible alcohol use include “increasing the range of non-alcoholic drinks and lower strength beers available, and training and supporting staff to refuse to serve customers when necessary.”
Change happens slowly in Westminster, but as the houses of parliament undergo a thorough modernization, some hope extreme behavior will be removed along with the asbestos.
S&S regulars say the character of the pub has already changed as a result of the renovations, due to the fact that the builders working on the renovation would drink there, making it more like a “normal” pub. (The brawl that prompted the bars shut down reportedly involved parliamentary staffers, not renovation workers.)
“I dont think we have or will be seeing any brutal changes from one day to the other, but there is a sense that the culture is slowly evolving in Westminster,” said freelance political journalist Marie Le Conte. “Firstly, it has stopped being such an old boys club and the more women work in parliament, as MPs, staffers or journalists, the more the atmosphere will change.”
With recent scandals, she added, theres increasing recognition that parliament is a workplace and should be treated as such. “If that means we all have to mostly give up on boozy lunches and excessive nights out in Westminster, then so be it.”
Coke Zero En Marche
Across the Channel, Belgian parliamentarians have been having a similar debate. In the late 1990s, the bar (just the one, unlike the U.K.) near the hemicycle started serving free wine and beer to prevent deputies from going out for a drink during debates.
An independent integrity committee last year advised putting an end to the practice, following an alcohol-fueled altercation allegedly involving racist remarks at the bar. But the president of the chamber, Siegfried Bracke, ultimately concluded that, “having looked at the figures,” there was no reason to stop serving alcohol.
But here again, there is a generational shift in attitudes. Wim Soons, the former head of the youth chapter of the Christian Democratic and Flemish party, said that “as a youth movement, we made a point theres no workplace imaginable where you have free alcohol — it should be abolished.”
In the French National Assembly, consumption of wine and spirits has fallen by 50 percent since July | Francois Guillot/AFP via Getty Images
Putting a stop to free alcohol would help improve politicians image and make them appear more professional and trustworthy, Soons said. “Of course, you can drink after work, or maybe a glass of cava at lunch, but I do think the free alcohol available in the federal parliament was a relic of earlier times.”
At least the Belgians arent downsizing their cellars — which is whats happening in the home of the worlds most famous wines.
After a new wave of young, abstemious deputies from Emmanuel Macrons La République en Marche Movement swept to power, the French parliament sought to sell more than 5,000 bottles from its cellar.
But in the National Assembly, consumption of wine and spirits has fallen by 50 percent since July.
Members of Marcons party now hold 351 out 577 seats in the assembly, and the younger politicians have a very different attitude to fine wines — with beer and Coke Zero particularly in demand. “Sometimes, the bar runs out of cola during late-night parliamentary sessions,” Florian Bachelier, a deputy for Ille-et-Vilaine told Ouest France.
Can great political decisions really be forged over mineral water? | Nicolas Tucat/AFP via Getty Images
Boozy nights are in decline on the other side of the Rhine, as well. “Lets meet at Ossis,” is a common refrain among German parliamentarians, referring to parliaments little-known bar, which sits hidden in a basement just across the Bundestags forecourt.
Named after Osvaldo Cempellin, a legendary bartender who retired in 2010 after almost four decades serving Germanys most powerful (first in Bonn, then in Berlin), the bar is open only to parliamentarians and their companions. Word is it gets particularly busy during budget sessions of the Bundestag, which can drag long into the night, with many lawmakers heading over to Ossis to kill time before its their turn to address the assembly.
“The later the night gets, the more spectacular speeches tend to become,” one Bundestag official for Angela Merkels center-right Christian Democrats said privately.
Taking it outside
Officials, however, also agree that the Bundestag has significantly downsized its in-house drinking habits during the last two decades, particularly after the parliaments move from Bonn to Berlin in the summer of 1999. This partly has to do with the fact that it takes lawmakers at least five minutes to walk from the plenary to the bar, while distances in Bonn were much shorter. This is also a sign — beer tents aside — that Germanys era of hard-drinking politics is in retreat.
The swing toward sobriety has made some wonder if the change is all for the better. Great political decisions are rarely forged over mineral water, points out Jane Peyton, founder of drinks consultancy School of Booze and author of “Beer o Clock.”
Much of the thinking behind allowing bars in parliament follows the Belgian example: that, without them, elected representatives will just go out for a drink anyway.
“Bars are neutral spaces where politicians of all parties can relax, socialize, and do business,” she said, noting that a few drinks can help create social connections that then make cross-party projects easier.
Bars also offer a social life to politicians who might be far from home, work anti-social hours and otherwise have few options to socialize, said Peyton.
Much of the thinking behind allowing bars in parliament follows the Belgian example: that, without them, elected representatives will just go out for a drink anyway. If boozing in the official parliamentary bars comes to an end, many lawmakers will be happy to take the party across the street.
One of the attractions of the pubs outside Westminster, for example, is that the institutions obsession with status — “parliament loves its hierarchies,” said Wright — is temporarily suspended.
Inside the grounds of parliament, the Smoking Room is accessible only to MPs, making it a private members club you have to win an election to join. The Lords have their own bar. And in the Strangers Bar, only MPs can order and pay for drinks.
But in the pub, everyone is equal.
Frances Robinson is a freelance journalist based in London.