Campaign for the Revitalisation

As you probably know, CAMRA’s recently asked its members to vote on the organisation’s overall policy and direction. There are some interesting things about this vote. One is that – despite the heading in the leaflet that’s been sent out – we’re not being asked what CAMRA is for. The question being asked is who CAMRA is for – who should CAMRA represent in future? If you’re someone who feels very strongly about the English pub, that’s how you’re going to answer this survey – regardless of whether you believe that the future of the pub would best be served by the reintroduction of the Beer Orders, or by having all ‘failing’ pubs compulsorily purchased and ownership transferred to J. D. Wetherspoons, or by the repeal of the sm*k*ng b*n, or for that matter by leaving well alone. This is odd – it’s not as if they were short of space on the form.

The question, anyway, is ‘who should CAMRA represent?’ and the choices are these:

  1. Drinkers of real ale
  2. Drinkers of real ale, cider and perry
  3. All beer drinkers
  4. All beer, cider and perry drinkers
  5. All pub-goers
  6. All drinkers

Another odd thing is that we’re instructed to select one option only; I naturally went for option 1, but not without regretful backward glances at 2, 5 and 6. There’s also one very odd omission; see if you can spot it. (Two words, first word begins with ‘c’.)

No matter; it’s

  1. a harmless bit of navel-gazing
  2. a bold experiment in participatory democratic policy-making
  3. a pseudo-participatory (or ‘spectacular’) façade behind which the real policy-making process has probably already taken place
  4. a bit of fun

I anticipate a victory for the status quo, particularly given the multiplicity of alternative options (not to mention the absence of the c-word). What was more interesting – although it’ll probably be even less influential – was the ‘free text’ question, giving us the opportunity to explain why we were voting as we did. Naturally, I took the opportunity – and, half a second after I pressed Enter, I thought ‘this would make a nice quick blog post’. Alas, my words had already disappeared into the ether, but here’s what I think I said.

Can ‘real ale’ be defined consistently and comprehensibly? If so, is ‘real ale’ – as we’ve just defined it – a good thing? And if it is a good thing, does it need any support?

If the answer to these three questions is Yes – as I believe it is – the survey answers itself: there is such a thing as real ale, it is a good thing and we still need a campaign for real ale. If CAMRA turned its back on cask beer – to embrace beer in all its forms, or to represent all drinkers – then we’d need a new campaign for real ale. Since there is a Campaign for Real Ale, it seems only economical to use the one we’ve got.

The other advantage of keeping the focus on real ale is that other campaigning priorities follow naturally from it. So I’d vote

YES to campaigning against unreasonably high taxation on beer: real ale has always been an affordable luxury (if it is even a luxury)
YES to campaigning against neo-prohibitionism, which risks depriving a generation of the opportunity to drink real ale
YES to campaigning for pubs, which are after all the only place where real ale is available in either cask or key keg
And (very importantly) YES to campaigning for beer quality: if every pub in the country was serving real ale the job wouldn’t be done, not until they were all serving well-made beers in good condition (that’s the campaign’s original objective, ‘the revitalisation of ale’)

But I’d vote

NO (reluctantly) to campaigning for cider and perry; the definition of ‘traditional’ cider has never been a good match to the definition of ‘real ale’. Besides, APPLE is reaching the point where it can function as a separate organisation; let them sort it out.
I’d also vote NO to giving any official endorsement to ‘craft beer’ (unless it’s real ale), for similar definitional reasons. In any case, a campaign for craft beer might or might not be needed, but the Campaign for Real Ale isn’t the place to start it.
And NO to denigrating any other beer purely because it isn’t real ale. Nobody at leadership level in CAMRA does this anyway, but we could do with getting the message out a bit more clearly.

This last point is one I feel strongly about, although perhaps not in the way you might expect. I drink keg beer fairly often – including the kind that’s not ‘real ale’ – and when it’s good I’ve been known to rave about it. I’ve even had a couple of keg beers I’d class as better than their cask equivalents. But that’s me as a drinker, not me as a CAMRA member. I don’t think CAMRA should be campaigning ‘for’ good keg beers – not even those two – any more than CAMRA should campaign for particularly good types of gin or wine or coffee. What we can expect from CAMRA, though, is that it doesn’t campaign against beers without good reason.

At its core CAMRA is a single-issue campaign – and, despite how specific it is, ‘real ale’ is the best way to give that single issue a focus. But it’s a campaign, not a cult. What we want, if we’re members of CAMRA, is more, widely-available, good-quality real ale. That’s probably also going to be reflected in what we drink, given the choice – but if we do range more widely, frankly that’s nobody’s business but ours.

Update 5th April In comments, Rob Nicholson writes:

there is nothing wrong with CAMRA’s current values and aims except they are not vibrant and needy enough to get the next generation engaged. Sadly that’s a big “except” as without active members, the campaign has no future in the long term not matter what it supports. If CAMRA doesn’t change *something*, then it’s almost signing its own death warrant.

A few thoughts in response. Firstly, CAMRA isn’t going to run out of members any time soon. Where we do have a problem is in converting fee-paying members to active members – but that’s a problem faced by membership organisations of all kinds. In these days when nobody ever needs to face an evening with nothing to do and no social contact, the allure of serving on a Branch Committee or similar is necessarily reduced. In any case, if the problem is how to engage people who are already members of CAMRA, why should we imagine that adopting new values will do the job?

Secondly, let’s suppose that CAMRA membership – not just active membership – is heading for a demographic cliff, as the bus-pass contingent near the end of their drinking career, to put it no more bluntly than that. (I don’t believe this is the case, but I may be wrong – I haven’t seen the figures.) Does that mean CAMRA needs to attract young people? This is the usual conclusion, but it doesn’t follow. To see why not, look at the age profile at the average beer festival on a busy day – which is to say, everything from 18 to 80, with a bulge in the mid-20s and another in the 50-70 region. Then think what the age profile of CAMRA would look like if we were massively successful in recruiting under-25s, every year for the next ten years. It wouldn’t just keep CAMRA going, it would transform the organisation completely. I’m not saying this would be a bad thing – it might be a very good thing – just that nobody is actually arguing for it: nobody is saying that we need to turn into an organisation consisting mainly of young people. But if we directed all our recruiting efforts to young people – and if we got it right, which is a big ‘if’ – then that’s what would happen.

I don’t think anyone’s got a hidden agenda here; I think it’s just a case of not thinking it through. What CAMRA will need – if and when that demographic cliff catches up with us – is a steady supply of new members, but ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘young’. I see something similar at the traditional folksong sessions I go to. The room typically divides into two groups: the old stagers, who got into folk in the 1970s and never gave it up, and the new recruits (like me). Some the new recruits are in their 20s, but most of us are much older; traditional song didn’t knock on my door till I was 47. What CAMRA needs, as our own old stagers get older and greyer, is something similar: a continuing supply of new members of all ages. (Which, as far as I can tell, we are actually getting.)

But let’s suppose (thirdly) that we do need to attract young people. In that case we’re basically in the position of trying to second-guess the population group that is most conscious of image, branding and group identity, and cares most about the microcosmic cultural shifts which make one fashion statement cutting-edge and another old news. So, er, good luck with that. Nobody knows what’s going to be hip next year – people are paid a lot of money to answer questions like that, and most of them get it wrong. Perhaps the one thing that can be guaranteed not to work is to pitch to where we (old gits) think young people are now. In the unlikely event we get it right, the message will still be hopelessly wrong by the time the intended audience gets it. Failing that, we can either guess what the next big thing is going to be, or stick to what we were going to put forward in the first place. Will real ale be hip in 2017? Probably not, but who knows? (Did anyone see dimple mugs coming?)

In short, changing our values to appeal to young people is a complete shot in the dark – but, fortunately, we don’t need to appeal to young people;  we probably don’t even need to appeal to new members in any large numbers. We do need to ‘activate’ existing members, but – considering that these are, by definition, people who joined CAMRA with its current aims and values – changing the organisation’s values isn’t going to be the way to do it.

In fact, the more I think about this ‘revitalisation’ exercise, the more I don’t know what’s going on!


  1. Posted 4 April, 2016 at 10:58 pm | Permalink | Reply

    This is all well and good but as I said over on Stonch’s blog, there is nothing wrong with CAMRA’s current values and aims except they are not vibrant and needy enough to get the next generation engaged. Sadly that’s a big “except” as without active members, the campaign has no future in the long term not matter what it supports. If CAMRA doesn’t change *something*, then it’s almost signing it’s own death warrant. But neither is changing a silver bullet. Much of to catch-22 situation.

    • Phil
      Posted 5 April, 2016 at 8:16 am | Permalink | Reply

      Cheers, Rob – good comment, which I’ll reply to in an update to the post.

      • Posted 5 April, 2016 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Phil – you will note that I specifically do *not* use the phrase “younger member” but “new generation” – that was chosen intentionally as you point out, new doesn’t mean young. Although with the average age of the CAMRA active member being very much on the wrong side of 50 then most of the illusive new active member will most likely be younger. BTW – I’m an ex-CAMRA chairman and I’ve seen first hand the lack of energy in our branch – including from me! Some branches fare better – typically the larger urban ones with better transport links. But it is a growing problem which is why I’m glad CAMRA is tackling it now before it’s way too late.

    • pubcurmudgeon
      Posted 5 April, 2016 at 8:42 am | Permalink | Reply

      I think you’re slightly putting the cart before the horse there, Rob. People will only become active if they feel there’s something worth campaigning about, and I don’t think CAMRA should be looking around for new targets simply to justify its own existence. Given its current membership levels, it’s not going to disappear any day soon, although it may need to adapt to having less “ground presence”.

      And history is littered with examples of businesses that have tried to diversify but ended up losing sight of their original USP.

      • Posted 5 April, 2016 at 9:04 am | Permalink

        Mudgie, my comment is more an answer to the obvious question of “So why exactly does CAMRA have to change?”. New opportunities in a market are not reason alone to change but history is equally littered with companies who have taken their eye off the ball and collapsed spectacularly due to their “market” disappearing. The volatile tech world is an obvious example. I don’t think it’s putting the cart before the horse – it’s the reason we’ve got the horse and cart out in the first place to start this journey. My view is that it’s important that the membership understand this and I don’t think it’s vocal enough but I suspect the reason is because it’s a pretty negative statement – “The campaign is doomed if we don’t get the new generation involved actively”. The naysayers will have a field day with that as it smacks of desperation. Although it is there if you read between the lines. But once this is understood, a solution may be to be more inclusive as that may engage a new generation.

        I personally do think CAMRA should be looking around for new targets to justify it’s own existence because only in that way can we continue to fight for pubs and real ale with the same backing (financial if nothing else) as we have now. I’m not quite ready to give up.

  2. pubcurmudgeon
    Posted 5 April, 2016 at 8:50 am | Permalink | Reply

    A lot to agree with there, but I would say that if CAMRA does decide to refocus on real ale it needs to drop the implied assumption that “real ale” and “good beer” are by and large the same thing. I know that “anti-campaigns” have been banned, but it continues to lurk in the background.

    It should also drop the daft view that bottle-conditioned beer is a direct equivalent of cask. When CAMRA was formed it had pretty much entirely died out, and had not been commonplace for decades before keg was invented.

  3. Posted 5 April, 2016 at 9:14 am | Permalink | Reply

    >Firstly, CAMRA isn’t going to run out of members any time soon: I’m sure Kodak said “ohh nobody is going to stop using film cameras in large numbers” ;-)

  4. Posted 5 April, 2016 at 9:20 am | Permalink | Reply

    Sorry for continuing to peep up – “Which, as far as I can tell, we are actually getting”. Yes, the average age of the CAMRA member is dropping with ever increasing membership but I still think it’s in the high 40s. But the age of the active member is going the other way (look around conference at the weekend) linked naturally and sadly to dwindling numbers. Yes there were younger people there and CAMRA does have a vast number of “new generation” that are already members. 5,000 of them decided for the first time to exercise their right to vote at the weekend much to the annoyance of some people. The misunderstood (and explained) modernisation suggestions will be a stepping stone. We’ve talked about *that* a lot on Facebook recently.

  5. Posted 5 April, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Generally agree with you.

    On this bit:
    “I’d also vote NO to giving any official endorsement to ‘craft beer’ (unless it’s real ale), for similar definitional reasons” – I’d vote NO to campaigning for it, but “endorsing” it seems less strong than that and would be a Good Thing imo. For instance, I’d be happy to see a (top pressure, force-carbonated, non-keykeg, non-real) UK keg bar at a CAMRA fest, treated like the cheese stall, the mead bar, the foreign beer bar and so on – “this isn’t the main event because it isn’t real ale, but it’s good and it’s something that people who like real ale are often interested in as well”. If nothing else, it’d be a pretty strong reminder that CAMRA aren’t anti-keg, just that they don’t think it needs standing up for in the same way that cask does.

  6. Oliver Holtaway
    Posted 5 April, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Excellent post – it’s vital that we tease out the differences between what we might feel as drinkers and as CAMRA members. And your three questions, especially the third (“does it need support”?) are a sensible and clear-cut way of breaking down the issue. As you point out, if CAMRA widens to include all beer, then we would need another campaign to keep real ale going! Or to put it another way, why would I pay £30 a year in order to promote “good beer”?”

    I personally voted “none of the above”, having not been given the option to vote B+E (drinkers of real ale, cider and perry AND all pub-goers). The organising principle being that these are all traditional aspects of British drinking culture that require collective support.

  7. Glenn Johnson
    Posted 5 April, 2016 at 3:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Good post and much of this echoes my views. I also voted for option 1 as it was closest to my views.

  8. Max Malkin
    Posted 5 April, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

    This damn Revitalisation lark is, in it’s own way, akin to this wretched Referendum lark. Whilst the Referendum has the power to split the country in half and no one really knows what will happen whichever way the vote goes, and if this Revitalisation lark gets the votes that completely alters the current focus of Camra then Camra could be dead as an organisation within 5 years. I’m not saying all is rosy with Camra as it is, it clearly isn’t. For one thing it’s far too bureaucratic for it’s own good. Forever telling volunteers what they will or will not do will never get non-active members active. No one likes being told what to do and when anyone is doing all these things for love it’s even worse.
    This Revitalisation lark is like so many things Camra dream up badly thought out and rushed out to the members before the National Executive have really thought things through – and to release this half-baked idea to the press, beggars belief.
    Yes, I really do believe that this Revitalisation is completely comparable to the Referendum in that each of them can do uncrontrolled damage in their own sphere.

  9. Posted 6 April, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The above is a good point. Of course this isn’t some kind of binding vote. It is a consultation to see what people think. Bit early to be assuming the outcome, though I agree that if CAMRA widened its remit to include all beer, it would be a death sentence for the organisation. Focus is key to any organisation and is what binds its members together. Good beer is vague. Real ale isn’t. Focus you see.

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