The Politics Of The Bottle

The political implications of prosecco versus a pint

The recent election campaign saw the creation of the “prosecco socialist”, the austerity version of the more familiar “champagne socialist” of palmier days. Using wine as a way of questioning the competence of politicians is not a new strategy. I always thought that the “source close to the Prime Minister” who talked about David Cameron “chillaxing” with a few glasses of wine at the weekend was trying to find a spot between the shoulder blades. By contrast, for a politician to be associated with beer sends a very different message. Holding a pint of beer says: “I am down to earth, I understand the tastes and preferences of ordinary people, I am not a prisoner of the political village.” That is why Nigel Farage loves to be photographed in the pub, and presumably also why Barack Obama arranged to be filmed drinking Guinness in Ireland and, more recently, lager in Germany. Beer is politically harmless, while wine suggests frivolity, aloofness, self-indulgence. Except of course in France, where the equivalent of “champagne socialist” is “gauche caviar”. Each culture derides its politicians by associating them with something luxurious and foreign.

The English satirical use of wine to characterise vicious or corrupt politicians has a long pedigree in our political life. The early 18th century saw some fine examples of it in the pamphlets of Charles Davenant. Davenant was the son of the poet and playwright Sir William Davenant, and was raised in a tradition of high Stuart loyalism. During the reign of James II Davenant served as an excise commissioner and sat in the House of Commons for St Ives. Unsurprisingly for one so closely and publicly attached to the old king, in 1689 Davenant was turned out of all his employments, and was forced to make a living by his pen.

Davenant’s chief intellectual gift lay in the direction of political economy. His first publication was An Essay Upon the Ways and Means of Supplying the War (1695), the war in question being the Nine Years’ War between France and England and her allies which had begun in 1688. Other technical pamphlets on political economy followed before in 1701 Davenant published his most far-reaching work, a collection of three essays on I. The ballance of power, II. The right of making war, peace and alliances, III. Universal monarchy. These exerted a powerful influence over statesmen and have continued to interest historians of ideas, although their impact on the general reading public was limited.

However, in the same year Davenant struck a chord which resonated far beyond the confines of Whitehall. Disposition and experience had combined to give him little reason to like the Junto Whigs, who in recent years had held the reins of administration. Gradually public opinion had swung round to Davenant’s point of view. The Whigs, so it appeared, had been transformed, with indecent haste, from a party of principle and resistance to a pliable set of politicians on the make, concerned only to aggrandise themselves, oblivious to their former principles, devoted to cronyism and corruption, and — it seemed — entirely in the pocket of the king. It must have been rather like what we witnessed more recently in the conversion of Labour into New Labour.

Davenant’s stroke of genius was to dramatise the corruption of the Old Whigs in the person of Tom Double, a low-life chancer who in a few years manages by effrontery and quick footwork to become Sir Thomas Double with “Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Pound; . . . the Estate of two good Earls; . . . Forty Thousand Pound in Bank Stock, and as much in the East-India Company”. Davenant wrote four dialogues in which Double explained his wiles and cheats to Whiglove, a true Whig who adheres to traditional ideals of rectitude in public life and his personal dealings. The first of these dialogues, The True Picture of a Modern Whig, went through six reprintings in four months, so sweetly did it echo the public’s disenchantment with the current administration.

The young Double had enjoyed few advantages: “I was first bound to a Shoemaker in London, and being an impudent young Rogue, I got into the Gang of Loyal Apprentices that Address’d to King Charles II and I was one of those who were Treated with Hide-Park Venison at the x Tavern.” Encouraged in this way Double had commenced life as a Tory, and had got a place in the Customs: “But in King James’s time, the Commissioners of the Customs detected me in a notorious Fraud, and turn’d me out, upon which I became a Male-Content.” It may be that some of Davenant’s own experience as a Commissioner of Excise in James’s reign lies behind this circumstance of Double’s early career.

After various scrapes and misadventures, the great crisis of Double’s early life happens in November 1688, “just the Week after the King landed at Torbay”:

I had eat nothing all day, and had not a Farthing in my Pocket, but knew an Ale-house where I could have Credit for a black Pudding and a Pot of Ale; thither I stole about six at Night, and found sitting at the Kitchin-Fire, smoaking his Pipe, an Essex Gentleman, who . . . had been drinking the Prince of Orange’s Health.

This is the significantly-named Mr Aletope, whom Double then proceeds to get drunk on the unfamiliar drink of wine and cheat at backgammon by means of loaded dice. Double wins 200 pounds, which the honest Aletope pays at once “from his scrutore”, and this is the seed from which Double grows his monstrous fortune:

And now I am at my Ease, I have my Country-House, where I keep my Whore as fine as an Empress: You know how I am lodg’d in Town, where I am serv’d all in Plate. I have my French Cook, and Wax-Candles; no Butchers Meat comes upon my Table; I drink nothing but Hermitage, Champagne, and Burgundy: Cahors Wine has hardly admittance to my side-board; my very Footmen scorn French Claret.

The implicit rankings of French wine in this passage are interesting. Hermitage has precedence. It is still, of course, one of the most notable wines of France, particularly in vintages such as 1978 or 1990; but even the most committed advocates of the Northern Rhone would hesitate to place it first. Champagne and Burgundy — no surprises there. But Cahors? Now, if drunk at all, then experimented with largely on the strength of the myth of the “black” wine said to have been made there in the distant past. Today’s Cahors shows little affinity with the heroic wines attributed to the region. But clearly Tom Double will tolerate it on occasion. Most striking of all perhaps is the contempt for claret, the finest examples of which are now by far the most expensive French wines, thanks to the Chinese and their unreasoning veneration of Chateau Lafite.

So what did Blair and Brown drink at the infamous Granita dinner? I think we should be told.

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