It’s tempting to say that it started with Nigel Farage, the millionaire former stockbroker hoisting aloft his pint of Greene King IPA in every single photo opportunity.
But there’s always been a trend for politicians pulling pints. Barack Obama made beer a feature of his presidency years before Farage hit the front pages.
He’s even installed a microbrewery in the White House — the wheat beer is apparently very good.
But since the UKIP leader adopted the foaming tankard and made sure we saw it again and again, politicians can’t wait to be seen with a pint in their hand, to prove they are human.
David Cameron, the ex-PR man, just about pulls it off, and loves pubs so much he sometimes leaves his kids there. Ed Miliband did the best he could when he visited Hackney’s Five Points Brewery last year, but he had that bullied schoolboy look about him, as if he thought his glass might beat him up and nick his satchel.
George Osborne, who had never been photographed with a beer until the recent budget beer duty cuts, is now never out of the pub, his facial expression saying “how much longer do I have to do this?”, his half-pint glass held tentatively, as if it might infect him with Working Class-itis.
And the ‘pub summit’ last June between Nick Clegg and Vince Cable is the most excruciatingly uncomfortable thing I’ve seen in a licensed premises since my old mate Simmy used to show us party tricks he could do with five pence pieces or lit matches and a certain part of his anatomy.
Farage has been doing Dry January apparently, and he’s hardly been in the newspapers at all, reduced to very small stock headshots when he does. Without his pint, he loses his power, like Sauron without the One Ring.
Now, Al Murray, the Pub Landlord, is standing against Nigel Farage in Thanet, Kent. This raises the mouth-watering prospect of the issue being settled by a drinking competition at the excellent Planet Thanet Beer Festival in Margate, just a month before the election.
Whether you find the Pub Landlord funny or not, his candidacy underlines a serious point: pubs have become an electoral issue, and that’s great news for our industry. I remember writing back in the dark days of the duty escalator that it wasn’t enough to cry “It’s not fair!”
Politicians are, to use a polite word, pragmatic. They are interested in issues that win or lose votes. When pubs start being boarded up or turned into Tesco Metros, their constituencies suffer and people get angry, and when they get angry, they get heard.
The end of the beer duty escalator, the cuts in beer duty, and November’s passing of the market rent-only (MRO) amendment to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill were the result of grassroots campaigns that MPs noticed. It should not be forgotten that, whatever your views on it, the MRO vote was the biggest rebellion the Government has suffered in this parliament. The party line, in accord with the most powerful lobbying groups, was to vote against the motion.
The will of the people overruled that.
Now, the comedy of Murray v Farage allows some serious questions to be asked about the future of pubs.
Murray’s Free United Kingdom Party (FUKP) has already announced policies such as reducing the price of beer to 1p a pint and nationalising pubs so publicans can have jobs for life and generous pensions. Of course, these policies are only as serious as getting some Poles in to brick up the channel tunnel (with good British bricks) or getting Kent County Council to run Greece.
But newspapers are asking Murray about pubs and beer, and printing what he says. His quote taken from an interview in last week’s Guardian, is very funny, but his analogy is a good one — a serious point wrapped up in a trouser gag.
Some have accused Murray of trivialising the election, even accusing him of undermining the democratic process. These critics have seemingly misunderstood what democracy is, and forgotten the long tradition of comedy characters standing for parliament, from Screaming Lord Sutch’s Monster Raving Loony Party to a whole host of UKIP candidates.
And if Murray is throwing a slightly surreal spanner in the works, hiding serious points behind jokes, coming at the whole thing in an off-kilter way and upsetting the establishment, well, isn’t that public bar banter at its very best?