The best pub – a very different way to run a business 

It’s been another alcohol fuelled week. Not quantity, you understand, but quality…

On Wednesday night after an event of the Cross Party Group on Co-operatives at the Scottish Parliament, sponsored by Scotmid, I was given a masterclass on beer by a former member of the Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op, exploring the set up of a brewery co-operative. 

Last night came the wonderful news that our member, George and Dragon Pub in Hudswell, has been voted Pub of the Year by Camra. This was a public house rescued by the public. When the pub was closing, local people came together to buy and run it co-operatively. The confidence they gained acted as a flywheel for community development and new services for the village. 

The George and Dragon was one of the early and pioneering societies in our Community Shares programme, now operating in partnership with Locality, Power to Change, DTAS, Wales Cooperative Centre, Co-operative Development Scotland, Plunkett Foundation and others – raising member capital to get things going.

I was reminded in Edinburgh by Martin Meteyard of an earlier generation of social businesses, combining cooperation and alcohol: the ‘Goths’.

The story is that until the early 19th century every Swedish householder had the right to distil their own spirits – and many did. At the time the annual consumption of alcohol was quoted as 7.5 gallons per head! 

In 1855 a law was passed making domestic distillation illegal and licensing commercial providers. The city of Gothenburg decided to award the retail spirits licences to only one enterprise, run as a trust. The trust aimed to sustain pubs, restaurants and off licences but moderate excess drinking. 

By controlling the income the town treasury provided libraries, museums, parks and other community facilities. Although the sale of beer and wine were not included in these restrictions, the system proved extremely profitable, providing thousands of Kronor annually for Gothenburg.

After spreading through Sweden, temperance campaigners and public house reformers in Scotland promoted the idea of ‘Goths’. The system was applied in various ways in Scotland, although the movement gained its firmest hold in mining communities.

Several societies were set up to run public houses according to the Gothenburg system. Some were aided by coal companies. The ‘Goths’ of the mining communities of Kelty and Cowdenbeath in Fife, Newtongrange in Midlothian and East Whitburn in West Lothian are examples. 

Armadale Public House Society in West Lothian was begun in 1901 by raising funds through the sale of shares to members of the community and was run by a committee of men, typically local miners. 

It’s a simple idea – to make public houses public. But it is also a very different way to run a business.

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