It all started with Barack Obama.
In 2009, white police Sergeant James Crowley arrested a black man for apparently breaking into a house in a prosperous part of Cambridge, Massachussetts. It turned out the black man was Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr: a writer, TV presenter, editor, literary critic, filmmaker and essayist, and the first African American to receive the prestigious Andrew Mellon Foundation Fellowship. He’d lost his keys. Crowley had arrested him for trying to get into his own home.
Obama quickly realised he had a potential race issue on his hands. He avoided this by inviting both men for a beer in the White House Rose Garden. Not a tense boardroom summit behind closed doors; just three guys (four when the Vice-President turned up) sorting out a problem over a few beers.
It was a brilliant strategy. Obama understood that the beer moment is informal, that it makes us equal, that sharing a beer around a table turns a meeting into a get-together.
It’s why the Samaritans ran a poster a few years ago with two empty halves on a pub table, and the line “A problem shared”. It’s why bosses often take employees out for a quiet pint to nip a problem in the bud before it turns into something potentially more serious.
Beer has become a defining part of Obama’s ‘regular guy’ strategy. The first time he met David Cameron, the pair exchanged beers from their constituencies. Earlier this year he bet a case of beer with the Prime Minister of Canada on the outcome of the head-to-head hockey games between the two countries at the Winter Olympics. Obama’s White House even has its own home brew set up: allegedly, the honey ale is excellent.
So did the Beer Presidency inspired Nigel Farage? Or does Farage perhaps believe Al Murray’s Pub Landlord is a real character and decided “I’ll have some of that”?
Either way, this millionaire former stockbroker has expertly used beer (and fags) to make himself appear to be a man of the people. This shrewd politician who pretends to be anti-politics, this expert media manipulator who pretends to be above the unseemly media scrum, has out-Borised Boris in the “Yeah, he’s a politician, but he’s the kind of bloke you could have a laugh down the pub with” stakes.
Farage’s froggy grin as he hoists aloft his pint of Greene King IPA became the symbolic image of last month’s local and European elections. He virtually lived in the pub – or at least outside it (bloody smoking ban) throughout the entire campaign, and celebrated victory in the only way he knew.
Suddenly, politicians who were queuing up to attack the drinks trade a few years ago are now desperate to be seen as beer lovers.
Until he ended the Beer Duty Escalator in 2013, there wasn’t a single photo in the public domain of George Osborne in a pub, or holding a beer anywhere else. Now, you can’t keep him out of Westminster’s boozers. Someone only has to whip out their smartphone to take a selfie or a picture of their dirty burger and there he is in the background, his waxy face glistening as he holds his pint of London Pride at arm’s length, pinkie extended, as if it might bite him, or worse, turn him common.
David Cameron – always the consummate PR man – loves pubs so much he sometimes leaves his kids there for safe keeping. Last month he was in Burton-on-Trent, the legendary brewing town that’s still home to the likes of Molson Coors and Marston’s, saying things like, “I am a big fan of the traditional British pub and I think that the British beer industry is a really vital industry,” and “Burton is the capital of brewing and it is important that we help to keep it that way.”
Ed Miliband paid a visit to Hackney’s Five Points brewery in February in recognition of their commitment to paying a living wage to all employees. Poor old Ed looked as discombobulated as he always does when trying to do carry out simple human tasks, but at least he didn’t seem quite as uncomfortable as Osborne – to Miliband, beer seemed like a curio he had never encountered before rather than an actual threat.
Beery politics is now in full swing. At the start of June, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable went down the boozer together ostensibly to launch a new scheme to help struggling publicans in disputes with their pub companies. But the subtext was blatantly clear: following an attempted leadership challenge against Clegg, which Cable was implicated in, the two men wanted to be seen sharing a pint like the old buddies they clearly are, putting aside their differences, kicking back, relaxing, and sipping gingerly at their beers with terrified rictus grins as a media scrum photographed them through the pub window.
Grant Schapps’ appalling beer and bingo gaffe aside, it seems an increasingly out-of-touch political class has leapt on beer – and cask conditioned real ale in particular – to demonstrate that they’re just like us after all.
The Tumblr and Twitter feed Politicians Pulling Pints shows that the phenomenon extends to all parties and all ranks, with an endless parade of startled politicos standing behind hand pumps, trying to look normal.
Beer has this power. It is the most sociable drink in the world, more democratic than wine, more honest than coffee, less twee than a nice cup of tea. When we admire someone, we often say we’d like to buy them a beer. When we want to say that someone seems like a decent sort, we say they’re the kind of person you could have a beer with.
But beer can only do so much on its own.
Obama strikes me as someone with a genuine love of the product, as does Angela Merkel. After seeing her down a litre stein recently, I wouldn’t fancy my chances against her in a drinking game.
Farage too clearly loves beer and pubs – even if he is the character in the corner who you regret getting into conversation with when, after one too many, he starts telling you loudly how the immigrants have eaten all the swans in London’s parks.
The rest of them don’t quite cut it I’m afraid. If Obama and Merkel are regulars and Farage is the shouty, dodgy drunk propping up the end of the bar, most other politicians come across as the kind of people who turn up to the pub on Christmas Day, waving their money in the air and cutting in before their turn, carrying on mobile phone conversations while they order, then not knowing what they want by the time they get served, ordering their round one drink at a time and inevitably asking for the Guinness last of all.
There’s a great (but sadly untrue) folk myth about Peter Mandelson visiting a chippie, pointing at the mushy peas and saying, “Can I have some of that guacamole dip?”
Come the 2015 Election, which party leader is going to be first to ask for a top-of-the-range craft pale ale with a lemonade top?