I’ve never considered myself as an activist, outspoken maybe, ‘say it as it is’ definitely, but not an activist, not a political lobbyist. Not until I enlisted to take part in the CAMRA Mass Lobby Day that is.
I couldn’t turn down the promise of free travel down to London and a drop of free beer, could I?
Maybe I could, because I don’t agree always with CAMRA policy. Not across the board, although I do agree strongly with the broad aims of the campaign. Particularly the drive to save pubs. I’ve said it before, pubs and beer go hand in hand for me and you can’t have one without the other.
So, early one Tuesday 30th October, I caught the bus, to catch the train, to go to London, along with a sizeable contingency of CAMRA members from across the country. I didn’t count them but I’d estimate I saw between 100 – 150 lobbyists at the event.
Registration and briefing was in the very impressive Emmanuel Evangelical Church, a real living church in the heart of Westminster and it was an honour to experience it’s pleasant and magnificent calm and nice to see a sacred space brought into multi use.
I couldn’t help tittering when the nice briefing lady told us the feedback form was to be filled in by ourselves and not handed to the MP, like someone did earlier, reinforcing we weren’t really activists with a big A.
As I walked the half mile or so towards Westminster I wouldn’t have got lost as there were strategically placed CAMRA stewards in hi-vis jackets to make sure we didn’t … it’s the big pointy building that’s covered in scaffolding mate.
I’ve never been inside the Houses of Parliament and I got quite giddy walking along Millbank, as it loomed into view. I needn’t have, a glance at my Google map told me I was going to Derby Gate, offices on the other side of Great George Street where my MP has his office.
As I neared Westminster Bridge everything started to look like a flashback from a film and the horror of the news coverage started to sink in. I said a prayer for those who lost their lives, who witnessed the carnage, who selflessly came to peoples aid and I uttered an oath against the fools who let a brother stand alone, unarmed, defending the gates of democracy.
I’d thought long and hard about what I was going to say. I knew all the background, reckon I’m a pretty decent negotiator, it’s just I wasn’t entirely convinced about some of it, and my heart is often on my sleeve. Thankfully I’d met Alec Shelbrooke several times previously, and spent a lot of time working with Members of Parliament in a previous life, so it wasn’t as daunting as it might have been for some.
I didn’t anticipate any resistance to be fair. The Chancellor announced beer duty had been frozen and some relief on business rates for small businesses in the budget the day before and Alec has supported our little beer festival and is a regular in his village pub.
I didn’t get any resistance neither. Alec was very supportive of a review of the Pubs Code so that the Market Rent Only option could become a genuine choice for tenants; you heard of anyone who is on MRO? No. Me neither.
He really thought CAMRA’s campaign to introduce a preferential rate of duty for draught beer was an excellent idea and said he was keen to galvanise support from colleagues on this. To be fair, I think this could really level the playing field between pubs and cheap off sales; supermarkets.
I thank Mr Shelbrooke MP for his frankness around the issue of reshaping the business rates system to address the unfair burden on pubs. It really is a non-starter as Alec said, something I thought as soon as I saw it.
I mean how can you call for a reduction in business rates on pubs when every other small retailer on the high street is struggling too. For me it’s ‘all for one and one for all’; the butcher the baker the candlestick maker all working together through their respective trade bodies, including CAMRA, to obtain an across the board review of crippling and disparate business rates.
I really think CAMRA should have worked more collaboratively here, but that’s not how politics works is it. I’d love to see the end of the adversarial political set up in the UK (or anywhere). It really gets on my tits. That’s why I’m not going to tell you which parties the excellent speakers at the CAMRA meeting in the afternoon were from. Look them up if you really want to know.
Mike Wood, chair of the all party parliamentary Beer Group was passionate and loud, very loud, but very clear that we should lobby, lobby, lobby, petition, petition, petition and campaign for pubs.
Ruth Smeeth, vice chair of the Beer Group, licensees daughter and self styled MP for Titanic Brewery, urged delegates to go and have a pint with their MP. Thankfully I can, I know where he drinks and he’s in there often.
The best one came from Alan Brown, who thanked us for coming as there were more people listening to him here than he’d ever had in the big place across the road! As a long term CAMRA member he’d received the email inviting him down to Westminster to lobby … himself? Again he urged the meeting to engage, engage, engage.
Meeting over and it was straight into the free beer with bright racked beer bags from Sambrooks, Wimbledon and Redemption breweries. I sampled tasters of quite a few, and a couple of the brewers have never been favourites. Redemption Big Chief, a 5.5% traditional English IPA and Urban dusk a 4.6% Best Bitter were the highlights.
It was interesting chatting with other members and finding out how they had fared. Some had even been fobbed off with assistants at the last minute, which is disappointing, but most seemed to have been well met, which is encouraging.
Anyone thinking that the smartly dressed lobbyists had only come for the free beer are well wide of the mark. For one, there wasn’t a massive amount of beer available, and two there was only a split window of just over an hour or so to actually try any. No, the people who went to see their MP’s went because they actually believed in what they are campaigning for. Like some French bloke said back in 1912 …
From the towns all Inns have been driven: from the villages most…. Change your hearts or you will lose your Inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.
Hilaire Belloc, from This and That on Inns.