Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)
Their Remedy (S266b: 1877)
Sir,--Will you allow me to make a few remarks on this important subject, suggested by your article of Saturday last, though the question is one to which I have long given attention?
Mr. Lowe's treatment of the problem appears to me to be strangely one-sided, inasmuch as it omits to deal with some of its most essential characteristics. He assumes that the only grounds for special legislation and a special licensing system for this trade as compared with others is the fact that its customers are apt to be disorderly, and that it is therefore necessary to have power to deal with them peremptorily and effectually. If this were an adequate statement of the points in which the liquor traffic differs from any other, we might admit Mr. Lowe's proposed treatment of it to be logical. But surely it differs from all other trades in far more essential features. Its customers are truly apt to become disorderly, but that is not all; they are also unfortunately apt to become paupers, criminals, or lunatics. Those who have the best means of knowing the facts trace at least half the crime, half the pauperism, and a considerable portion of the insanity of the country, directly or indirectly, to drink. The judges, the clergy, and the medical profession are almost unanimous on these points; and as pauperism, crime, and insanity are not only vast evils, but are evils which the Legislature, notwithstanding all its efforts, is as yet almost powerless to subdue, these effects of the drink traffic should surely be taken into account in any statesmanlike attempt to define its special character with a view to remedial legislation. Again, the passion for drink is itself a disease approaching insanity, inasmuch as its victims are unable to resist the temptation to indulge in it, however injurious and immoral they to know such indulgence under the circumstances to be. The mere sight of a drinking-house is to one of these men irresistible, and his scanty wages are spent, even though he knows his wife and children to be destitute and hungry. And yet Mr. Lowe makes the monstrous assertion that diminishing the number of public-houses--that is, diminishing the temptation--will not check drunkenness, though the fact that it does check both drunkenness and crime has been again and again demonstrated. Some striking evidence of this is given in Mr. Prettyman's recent work on "Dispauperization." A practical solution of the question, what is to be done, is, however, more important than the exposure of erroneous views, and to this I now address myself. I fully admit that Mr. Lowe's objections to allowing municipalities to purchase and manage public-houses are serious, and I believe conclusive; but there is another and a far better mode of carrying out the proposed reformation, and it has the great merit that it can at once be put in operation without any demand for legislative powers. I propose, then, that a society or association be established for the purpose of buying up public-houses and other licensed drinking-shops as occasion offers, and for carrying on the business of licensed victuallers in such houses, with the aim of discouraging the excessive use of stimulants. The society is to have no power to make or appropriate any profits out of the trade beyond 5 per cent. on subscribed or borrowed capital, all surplus profits being spent in increasing the accommodation and comforts of such houses, and making them places of cheerful and instructive recreation for those who frequent them. If our Bishops and clergy, our judges and magistrates, our wealthy legislators, country gentlemen, and philanthropists, with Sir Wilfrid Lawson and the United Kingdom Alliance, would cordially unite in the establishment of one such association to begin with, it is not too much to suppose that for such a great purpose a million of money could be easily raised, and the good work of furthering temperance and diminishing the vast mass of crime and pauperism that disgrace our country be at once begun. When after a few years the beneficial effects of the proposed society's action were generally acknowledged, the Legislature might be applied to for a charter, and for compulsory powers to purchase licensed houses; and if any fears were entertained that so powerful a body might not adequately supply the public wants it might be made a condition that no house so purchased should be closed, or cease to sell the usual alcoholic drinks without the consent of the licensing magistrates. It must be remembered, however, that even without such legislative powers of compulsory purchase, the sphere of operations of the association might be continually extended--perhaps quite fast enough--owing to the fact of its being a permanent institution, always read to purchase but never to sell. And after a time we might expect that some of our great brewers would voluntarily sell their public-houses to the society, while others might be philanthropical enough to bequeath it such property. Others, again, thinking less of increasing their wealth than of furthering the public good, might be induced to adopt the principles of the association in the management of their own licensed houses; so that if the principle of such an association is sound, as there seems every reason to believe, it would assuredly grow and produce all its beneficial results, without agitation, without asking for any exceptional legislation, but submitting itself throughout to existing licensing laws and to the influence of an enlightened public opinion. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the social improvement which might result were the whole of our public drinking-houses regulated on the principles here advocated. There would be, of course, as at present, a variety of grades of such houses, some adapted for labourers, others for mechanics, and others again for the middle classes, but all alike would offer clean rooms with fire and light, together with cheap and wholesome food, without the necessity for purchasing intoxicating drink. In the lowest class of houses, a small cup of coffee or a glass of ærated water, at the cost of a halfpenny, might be sufficient to admit to its privileges. There would, of course, be no fixed limit to the sale of intoxicating drinks, except that it would be refused on the slightest approach to intoxication; and this alone would almost abolish the worst kind of drunkenness among the lower orders. In the better class of houses, newspapers and magazines, draughts, chess, and other innocent games would be supplied; and, as the profits would continue to be spent in improving the accommodation and increasing the attractions, libraries and billiard-rooms might be added; and every poor man, would ultimately find, instead of the debasing public-house, a place where he could obtain wholesome food and drink in great variety, as well as social intercourse, innocent amusement, and useful information. This, it appears to me, is the best mode of grappling with the great evil of drunkenness and its attendant vices. Its action will be so gradual, and its restrictions so mild and beneficial, that even habitual drinkers could hardly object to them; and I venture to think that the proposal, when fairly considered, will be found to be entirely free from every serious objection which has been urged against Mr. Chamberlain's Birmingham scheme or against Sir Wilfrid Lawson's Permissive Bill.--I am, Sir, yours truly,
Alfred R. Wallace.