Byline: CARL HONORE
Edinburgh SCOTLAND — BY CARL HONORE SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL EDINBURGH EARLIER this month, the Scottish temperance move- ment finally threw in the towel. After 115 years battling the evils of drink, the British Women’s Temperance Association in Scotland has disbanded. In this country of inveterate drinkers, the teetotaller no longer has a national champion.
Margaret Duncan is a living illustration of why the movement has not kept pace with the times. A former schoolmistress, she sits very straight, wears her spectacles low on the nose and talks of “pubs” and “parties” in a voice tight with disapproval. Born just six years after the death of Queen Victoria, in 1907, she belongs to a different era. President of the BWTA in Scotland since 1988, she has never considered softening her rigidly abstemious stance. Says Mrs. Duncan: “How can one compromise a belief like abstinence? One can’t.”
Despite the myth that Scots have always had a weakness for the bottle, it was not until the 1820s that alcohol began to flow liberally here. Soon after the tax on spirits was lowered in 1822, consumption spread so fast that by the end of the decade heavy drinking was a way of life in every social class. As a result, some of the earliest temperance stirrings in Europe were felt in Scotland. Better known today for the international publishing empire that bears his name, Glasgow printer William Collins was one of the first temperance crusaders. The words he uttered back in 1834 have returned to haunt Mrs. Duncan and her colleagues: “To tear up spirit- drinking practices (in Scotland) is like tearing up the whole social system.”
Nevertheless, for more than a century the temperance movement flourished here. Powerful national groups lobbied MPs and campaigned tirelessly against the demon drink. Like vegetarians today, teetotallers evolved a parallel service industry: temperance societies, holidays, cafes, dance halls, restaurants, hotels and teashops around the country. Left picking up the pieces in homes broken and impoverished by alcohol abuse, women signed up in droves. With 332 branches and 80,000 members in Scotland by the early 1900s, the BWTA was a giant in the temperance ranks. When Mrs. Duncan joined in 1936, she never imagined that it would run aground. So what went wrong? Wiping her spectacles, she answers almost in a whisper: “It was the sixties. That’s when everything turned for the worse.”
In reality, the tide turned once and for all in the 1970s. One of the many doors pried open to women by the social upheaval of the 1960s was the door to the public house. A generation ago, the pub was a quintessentially male domain; by 1975 surveys found that 55 per cent of women (compared to 76 per cent of men) were using them regularly. Taboos were crumbling and women increasingly had the money to take advantage. Once the alcohol barons began to court that new buying power with special advertising and spruced-up pubs, drinking among women was irreversibly on its way.
As per capita alcohol consumption rose by 30 per cent between 1965 and 1987, temperance societies of all types withered on the vine. Still, it was among women, the traditional foot soldiers of the temperance movement, that the upward curve was sharpest. Mrs. Duncan recalls how swiftly interest in her group dried up: “When I used to give evening demonstrations on how to make interesting soft drinks, lots of women came. But about 10 years ago they almost stopped, and I was pleased if one or two turned up.”
Soon her recipes and utensils will be on display in a local museum, which is where most Scots think they belong. Nowadays in Scotland, alcohol is sold everywhere from the cinema to the corner grocer and nearly every social occasion is accompanied by a drink. Just as importantly, church groups still preaching the temperance creed are these days forced to spread their puritanical zeal more thinly. With drug addicts now outnumbering alcoholics in the U.K., there is a new bogeyman on the block. Says Mrs. Duncan: “Times have changed so much that nobody wants to hear about saying no to drink anymore.”
Tellingly, every issue of the BWTA’s quarterly pamphlet, which is still published in England, contains an obituary page. Reduced to just five branches and 96 members (most of them in their 70s), the Scottish BWTA had become a caricature of its former vigorous self. “We were just too elderly,” says Mrs. Duncan. “Members couldn’t get to meetings, nor could they run stalls or country dances or anything else the way we used to. It is sad but the only thing left was to close down.”
In England, the picture is similarly bleak. At the once-mighty English BWTA there has been no general secretary for the last three years and President Edna Hitcham, 73, describes the prospects for a revival as “very doubtful.”
Here in Scotland, the drinkers are already toasting victory. Edinburgh has one pub for every 250 inhabitants and there are scores of societies for dedicated boozers all over the country. To many people, the Scottish BWTA was the final pocket of resistance. An editorial after Mrs. Duncan announced its closure shows just how small a dent all those years of campaigning has made. Not liberal or permissive by any standards, The Scotsman newspaper explained the collapse of temperance societies with a question: “No one these days would join one for fun, would they?”
Mrs. Duncan, of course, disagrees. “If my friends and I can have fun over a cup of tea and a scone, why can other people not learn to?”
Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)