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July 23rd 2003

Goteborg, Sweden



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Licensing and Temperance


MANY different accounts of the Gothenburg system have been published from time to time but, in my humble opinion, they have at least one fault in common—they do not begin at the beginning. They tell of the deplorable results that followed the brandy epidemic in Sweden— results quite as grave as those of the corresponding ' gin epidemic ' in England in the early part of the eighteenth century—but extremely few writers trouble to inquire as to the circumstances that really led up to the conditions which, in due course, gave the raison d'etre for the system in question. An initial investigation into these particular circumstances has impressed me all the more because of the further analogy I find in the two epidemics ; for, just as the gin epidemic in England was largely due to ill-advised legislation, so was the brandy epidemic in Sweden primarily due to the misguided action of one of Sweden's rulers, and to the laws that followed thereon. Not only is the story important and of special significance from this point of view, but the reader will find, I think, that it is also interesting in itself, and deserving of some degree of attention.
At the outset of their history the Swedes were beer-drinkers, like their forefathers, and, though they drank freely, there is no evidence that the beer they consumed did them any great harm as a people. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries the drinking of branvin (a spirit distilled from corn or potatoes, and containing from 40 to 50 per cent, of alcohol) came into vogue, and grew to such an extent that Gustavus Adolphus (King of Sweden from 1611 to 1632) and Charles XII. (who reigned 1697 to 1718, and was himself a water-drinker) both issued orders for the suppression of distilleries. But any good they did by orders in this direction was completely nullified by the policy of Gustavus III., who became King in 1771, and from whose reign the brandy epidemic in Sweden really dates.
A man of high aspirations and many good qualities, Gustavus III. came to the throne at a time when Sweden was practically ruled by an oligarchy of nobles, and the first task that lay before him was to break down their power and get the control of national affairs into his own hands. This accomplished, he found himself free to develop various ideas he had for the advancement of the country by (among other things) encouraging agriculture, improving the conditions of the peasantry, fostering commerce and mining, digging canals, and establishing hospitals, orphanages, workhouses, and other institutions. He
also, less happily, had the idea of making the Court of Sweden a rival of the Court of Versailles in splendour and magnificence ; but the heavy expenditure into which he was led by this aspiration, following, as it did, the generous outlay on his various beneficent schemes, seriously affected the national finances, and the Swedish Parliament of those days thereupon declined to vote him the increased supplies of which he was in need. He thus had to consider how best he could raise funds in other directions.
In his dilemma he turned for an object-lesson to Russia.
Down to the sixteenth century the principal drinks of the Russian people were fermented beverages, such as mead, pivo, braga, arid quass; but distilled liquors were introduced about that time by the Genoese (then in possession of the Crimea), and they were eagerly welcomed by a populace naturally disposed by temperament, climate, and other conditions to the use of the strongest drinks they could obtain. Vodka (corn brandy) seemed to satisfy this craving for stimulants more completely than the aforesaid fermented beverages, and before long it was recognised as the national drink, Russia thus becoming known as ' the land of vodka.'
To successive Russian rulers the opportunity thus afforded them of making money out of the vices of their people was too good to be lost, and they proceeded to exploit the new passion for vodka for all they could get out of it in the interests of their treasury. There was absolutely no pretence in Russia, in those days, of regulating the traffic with a view to checking insobriety. All that was aimed at was to make the manufacture and sale of spirits ' as prolific a source of revenue as the unlimited autocratic power of a ruler could possibly make it'; while coupled with the greed and power of the ruler were the greed and power both of a swarm of officials (from vice-governors of provinces downwards), who all wanted a few pickings for themselves out of the money raised before it reached the Imperial treasury, and also, later on, of numerous contractors, who farmed out the traffic from the fiscal authorities, and made huge profits from the business to as late a period as 1862, when the farming system was abolished, Government monopoly following in 1895.
How greatly the interests of the Russian peasantry suffered under a system which thus deliberately sought to stimulate and encourage their drinking propensity, and what a curse excessive vodka-drinking has become in Russia, under direct Government patronage, are matters I need not stay to discuss. The point I am here concerned in is that when Gustavus III. of Sweden looked round to see by what means he could best supplement his own inadequate revenue, he was struck by the great fiscal success of the Russian system, and resolved that he would himself see what he could do to raise money by means of distilled beverages.
If he had any qualms of conscience as to the prudence of this step, they must have been soothed by the then popular idea that, in encouraging the distillation of spirits from native-grown produce, substantial advantages would be conferred on agriculture. In any case, the fact remains that he started business as a distiller by setting up Crown distilleries in 1774, and seeking to establish the production of spirits in Sweden as a Crown monopoly. So bent was he on achieving this aspiration that he turned into a distillery the venerable block of buildings constituting the Castle of Kahnar. Constructed originally in 1200, the castle had been rebuilt, enlarged, or restored at various periods, finally taking the form of a quadrangular edifice, with towers, ramparts, and moats; it had withstood eleven sieges, it had been the frequent residence of Kings and Princes, and it was now doomed to be converted into—a distillery! A windmill was even erected upon the highest tower, and, later on, the largest room in the castle, known as the ' Unions-Sal,' became the granary, the throne which had hitherto stood there being cleared out (so as to increase the space available for the grain), and sold for what it would fetch. In the further interests of the Crown monopoly, the Swedish pastors (most of whom were already their own distillers, and from whom many of the peasantry had learned the art) were called together, and told they must not only instruct the people that henceforth they were to get all their spirits from the Crown, but they were also to impress upon them that, as a national duty, they were to drink as much of such spirits as they could !
The action thus taken by the King led to widespread discontent. Popular uprisings occurred ; there was a tacit revolt against the idea of a Crown monopoly, and illicit distilling and smuggling spread throughout the land. The opposition became so vigorous that the Crown monopoly had to be abandoned thirteen years after it had been set up, and the Government sought to appease popular clamour—and, at the same time, to further still more ' the interests of agriculture' —by giving to every farmer the right to distil from his own produce for home consumption, while tavern-keepers in the country, and brewers and all freeholders in the towns, were empowered to distil for the market.
From this time the drinking of spirits in a most potent form became more than ever a national habit in Sweden, permeating all classes of society, but having consequences especially marked and especially deplorable for the peasantry in the country and the labouring people in the towns. The right of practically every man to do his own distilling became a fixed article in the national faith. At the beginning of the nineteenth century all persons possessed of cultivated land could distil; from them the same privilege was extended to tenants, provided the owner of the land gave them leave, the right to sell (in quantities of not less than 2 pints) going with the right to distil; while in the towns not only every householder, but even the householder's lodgers (if he gave them permission), could distil on payment of a trifling tax to the State.
The result of this condition of things was that in the rural districts every peasant's cottage became, not only a distillery, but a place for the sale and consumption of home-made spirits of the worst possible type. A royal ordinance enacting stringent regulations against drunkenness was issued in 1813, but the evil was likely to remain as pronounced as ever so long as domestic stills were regarded as the natural right of every householder.
Some attempt at interference with them was made in 1824, but with so little success that five years later the number of stills on which license fees were paid (in a country then having a population of only 2,850,000) was no fewer than 173,124. At that time the annual consumption per head of the population of spirits containing close on 50 per cent, of alcohol was about 7J gallons. The farm hands were not infrequently paid their wages in liquor, and drinking bouts were regarded in the light of patriotic gatherings, where every man present thought it his duty to drink as much spirits as he could in the special interests of agriculturists who otherwise would find it difficult to use up surplus produce for which there was no market. ' The whole country,' in the words of a traveller in Sweden at this period, ' was deluged in spirits.'
The consequences were indeed deplorable, and symptoms of rapid physical, moral, and mental decadence spread with steadily increasing gravity on every hand. But these results were essentially due, hot to the action of a recognised 'trade' under effective magisterial and police control, but to the existence of national habits directly traceable to a baneful practice of household distilling originally established with the sanction and encouragement of the Legislature itself.
An active campaign carried on by the Swedish Temperance Society, which came into existence in 1837, had considerable influence in arousing public opinion; though it should be mentioned that the members of this society pledged themselves in regard only to ' spirituous liquors,' in which they included neither wine nor beer. In 1852 and 1853 over 800 petitions were presented to the King praying for an alteration in the licensing laws. These had already undergone some important changes in 1835, when land under a certain value was deprived of the right of distilling, which, also, was to be carried on for only six months in the year, while various other modifications were made; but the general conditions still remained such that in 1854 a Special Committee of the Diet reported:
' The comfort of the Swedish people, even their existence as an enlightened, industrious, loyal people, is at stake, unless means can be found to check the evil. Seldom, if ever, has a conviction so generally, so unequivocally, been pronounced with regard to the necessity of vigorous measures against the physical, economical, and moral ruin with which the immoderate use of spirits threatens the nation. A cry has burst forth from the hearts of the people appealing to all who have influence—a prayer for deliverance from a scourge which previous legislation has planted and nourished.''
^ These concluding words I have put in italics because they confirm so absolutely the argument I have ventured to advance.
Following on the report of the Special Committee in 1854 came the new Liquor Law of 1855, which, among other things, greatly curtailed the right of domestic distilling (though this was not finally suppressed until 1860), fixed the minimum quantity to be sold at such an amount as to abolish the smaller stills, further limited the time in which distilling could be done, gave country districts the power of curtailing the number of licenses, and, in the towns, made the granting of licenses the prerogative of the municipal authorities, who were to dispose of them by auction, and were further empowered to confer the whole of the licenses for retail and public-house traffic on a single company, under certain specified conditions, if they should regard such a course as desirable.
This idea of a ' company' had already been carried out at Falun in 1850 and Jonkoping in 1852, but it was to remain unknown to the world at large until its adoption, in October, 1865, by the seaport and manufacturing town of Gothenburg, with whose name it has since been directly identified. In effect the fundamental principle of the system is that the licenses for the bar and retail sale of spirits in a particular town or district should be transferred by the local authorities to a company formed of various philanthropic persons, who will be content with a return of 5 per cent, on their share capital, will see that the traffic is effectively controlled, especially from the standpoint of eliminating private interest in the sales, and will pay over the net profits for use for various public purposes.
From the story here told of the early days in Sweden I would turn to narrate briefly the events that preceded the introduction of the Gothenburg system into Norway.
Prior to her union with Sweden in 1814, Norway was under the dominion of Denmark, and the Danish Government prohibited her from having any distilleries of her own (though a few did actually exist in Norway), and further sought to prevent her from importing any spirituous liquors at all otherwise than from Denmark. These conditions were regarded as a great injustice by the Norwegian people, who resented such curtailment of their own liberties as one enforced in the interests of distilleries in Denmark and Holstein; and when Norway ceased to represent a part of the Dano-Norwegian absolute monarchy, and became an independent kingdom, with a free constitution (though united with Sweden as regards her royal house and foreign policy), it was a source of especial satisfaction to the Norwegians to know that they would now be able to follow the example of the Swedes in adopting the system of domestic distilleries. Such power was given them under the law of 1816 (which professed to have in view mainly the interests of agriculture), every owner or occupier of land being authorized to distil brgendevin (the Norwegian name for the Swedish branvin) from his own agricultural produce; while in towns any citizen might distil in stills containing at least 43 gallons, on payment of a very modest contribution to the State treasury.
' Everyone in those days,' as a Norwegian writer says, ' considered that brandy was a delicious gift from God, the best medicine in all illnesses, and indispensable for workers ; while the expectations of the advantages to be derived from the new political freedom were such that the idea of not conceding to every peasant and every citizen the right of distilling his own liquor was not to be entertained.' The drinking of spirits also entered more and more into the social life of the people, so that when the old restrictions on distilling were abolished, and an era of practically free trade in spirituous liquors was established, manufacture and consumption underwent rapid expansion. Seventeen years after the passing of the law in question the number of stills for which payment was made to the State was 9,727—namely, 9,576 in the country districts and 151 in the towns ; while the consumption of spirits per annum had risen from £ gallon per head of the population to 4 gallons per head. The total amount manufactured in Norway at this time was 4,486,000 gallons a year; but there was no sale for the liquor either abroad (owing to the enforcement of non-importation laws by other countries) or at home (because of the poor, if not almost poisonous, quality of the homemade stuff), and the braendevin was generally consumed in the houses where it was distilled. When one peasant had a supply of liquor, he would summon his friends aivd neighbours to a drinking bout, and each of those friends and neighbours would do the same in succession. They indulged in the beverage on grounds that were alike personal and patriotic. They regarded brandy as an excellent tonic and a promoter of warmth in a cold country, and they thought also that the more they drank the greater would be the quantity of grain and potatoes used, and the more prosperous would agriculture become.
Nor were these ideas limited to the peasantry and the labourers. They were shared by people of all classes in Norway, and spirits came into universal use—alike at meals, social gatherings, friendly meetings, and on all other possible occasions. By 1836 the total consumption had doubled, and the results that followed therefrom were regarded in the light of a national disaster. In this same year an 'Association against Brandy-drinking ' was founded at Stavanger by a theological student and temperance pioneer named Andresen, who became so active a propagandist that he broke down under his strenuous labours, and died at the early age of forty-three. Certain limitations on free distillery had been imposed between 1820 and 1840; but the vigour of the campaign against brandy-drinking was such that in 1842 the Storthing passed a resolution declaring that at the end of ten years no further distilling at all should be tolerated in Norway. This proposal, however, was vetoed by the King, and the Storthing afterwards fully recognised the impracticability of the idea. In 1845 and 1848 came laws which virtually abolished rural home-distilling, reduced the number of small distilleries in the towns, regulated both the wholesale and the retail trade in spirits, and imposed a steadily increasing manufacturers' tax on distilled liquors.
The effect of the various influences thus brought into operation was that the number of distilleries in Norway, which (as mentioned above) stood at 9,727 in 1833, fell to 1,387 in 1840, and to 712 in 1848, further steady reductions following, until eventually the total number was only about two dozen ; though these are mostly important establishments,doing an amount of business which in former days would have been distributed over a large number of the smaller or domestic distilleries.
With the law of May 3, 1871, came the introduction of the Gothenburg System into Norway.* Of the further developments in this connection I shall speak later on; but what I have already said on the subject of these early days will show, I think, that those undeniably great evils from excessive indulgence in ardent spirits which the Gothenburg system was designed to check were ' national' evils owing their origin, not to any highly organized ' trade,' actuated by a desire to enrich itself at the cost of the people (as the teetotal party generally would represent), but to the desire, on the one hand, of representatives of the State to secure increased revenue, and to the unwisdom, on the other hand, of so much of the past legislation. These considerations are all the more deserving of being borne in mind, inasmuch as the tendency on the part of advocates of the Gothenburg or of the ' disinterested management' system to-day is to rail against private trade in liquor, and to argue that all will be well if only the said trade is left in the hands of those rulers of the State in whose wisdom and absolute disinterestedness, they maintain, confidence can alone be placed.
* Owing to various modifications, especially in regard to the allocation of profits, the system as carried out in Norway is in some quarters called the ' Norwegian,' as distinct from the ' Gothenburg' System ; but the one has really been a modification of the other, just as the 'disinterested management scheme,' proposed to be set up in England, is only a still further adaptation of the same fundamental principle of ' control by philanthropic companies,' on the lines, however, of paying over all the surplus profits to the National Exchequer in the first instance.

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