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 they’re 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 Blair’s 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 what’s acceptable in the workplace.
Drinking on the job
Westminster’s 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 it’s open for fewer hours a week than before.
“It’s 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 don’t 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 bar’s shut down reportedly involved parliamentary staffers, not renovation workers.)
“I don’t 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…