How Brexiteer Tim Martin turned Wetherspoon into a national institution—that even Remainers loveby Dan Hancox / December 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
At 5pm on a dark Wednesday evening in November, the after-work rush at the Shakespeare’s Head in central London, one of JD Wetherspoon’s 875 pubs across the country, is quickly turning from a trickle into a flood. There are American students having pints of Coca-Cola and nachos, two large booths of stolid older men in dark suits nursing their ales, a Polish metaller with a mullet and a cocktail, three south Asian guys with office jumpers and smart haircuts, two middle-aged couples double-dating with a bottle of white wine and pizzas, hipsters in shin-length trousers tucking into burgers, a Spanish couple anxiously steering their wheelie suitcases through the noise, a newspaper distributor who’s come in to use the toilet, office jesters in tasteless Christmas jumpers, a cocky student hockey team in matching stripy ties, punky teens with berry-coloured hair and cider, and posh lads manspreading in smart jeans and shoes. Near the front door, two weathered men in paint-splattered work clothes roll cigarettes to go with their lager; a young woman wearing a pristine white beret does the same.
There are three slot machines, a slightly faded red carpet adorned with swirls and ferns, oak booths with grand windows, and hearty laughter from all around. Every table is occupied. In the thick of it, both standing and standing out at the bar at 6’6” and with a mane of silver hair, is Tim Martin. Wearing a polo shirt and jeans, he’s joshing with a slightly nervous young member of staff, who needs reassuring that she should be charging the company’s instantly-recognisable founder and chairman for his coffee. “Do you not even get a staff discount?” she asks. “No,” he says drily, “there’s no justice is there?”
Wetherspoon has been a familiar presence on the British high street for some time, but it is only in the last few years that it has become something more: equal parts renowned and controversial. This is both for its cheap drinks and for Martin himself, a kind of physical quintessence of the pub-man, a bolshy, one-man Brexiteer army, and one of the most famous businessmen in Britain. Somehow, his chain has become a last bastion of working-class sociality in an age of relentless pub closures and urban gentrification, and, at the same time, a student and hipster cult favourite. It would be hyperbole to claim it is all things to all people, but it is not far off—at the very least, a shared space for a wide range of people who aren’t supposed to be crossing paths.
It has become common to observe that Britain is newly beset by attritional, depressing culture wars that are tearing the nation apart. Brexit, goes the received wisdom, fractured a nation already riven by decades of Thatcherism, austerity and inequality—between the hopelessly nostalgic, post-industrial towns and the snobbish, globalist cities; between poppy-wearing patriots and citizens of nowhere. These people are not meant to walk the same carpets. But the cast assembled in the average Wetherspoon tells a different story. How did a pub chain pull that off?
For Tim Martin, the journey started in an altogether different kind of pub, and country. Margaret Thatcher had just been elected, and Martin—then 24—was revising for his law exams, without much enthusiasm. Having passed a peripatetic childhood following around his Guinness salesman father, Martin felt more at home in a pub than the law library. He discovered one that did decent real ale, Marler’s in Muswell Hill, and became a regular. A few months later, the landlord sold up to the young would-be entrepreneur—on 9th December 1979, Martin’s Free House opened, to be renamed Wetherspoon a few months later.
Within 13 years, Martin had acquired another 43 pubs, and in 1992 the company went public and began gobbling up new premises at an ever-faster rate. By the end of the decade, there were 400 Wetherspoons. By 2001, 500; by 2002, 600. That same year, they began opening for breakfast, six days a week. It used to be known for an unhealthy, all-day-drinking clientele. But when the 2007 smoking ban came into force, Martin didn’t fight it, but got on the front foot. His pubs weathered the storm better than their rivals. During two decades of steep decline for British pubs, Wetherspoon has continued to grow. Last year profits fell year-on-year—something Martin attributes to rising staffing costs—but sales still rose healthily to £1.8bn nationwide. Four decades on from his purchase of Marler’s, Wetherspoon has 875 pubs, 50 hotels and 42,000 employees.
It is an institution invested in telling its own story. The company has its own quarterly, 100-page glossy magazine, Wetherspoon News, distributed to every branch, and there are plans for a £7m Wetherspoon Museum in Wolverhampton. Each pub is decorated with historic photos of the area and local paraphernalia. Other people have joined in this storytelling: Mags Thompson, the woman who has embarked on an Odyssean 25-year pub crawl across all the branches, and Kit Caless, author of the unusual compilation Spoons’ Carpets: An Appreciation (no two designs are the same). And Martin’s bullish public persona helps Wetherspoon head off accusations that it might be a soulless chain making high streets more homogenous, in an industry where that nebulous quality, “character,” is paramount.
“Pubs have to have a strong element of individualism, and authenticity, and soul,” Martin tells me, when we sit down for a coffee in the Shakespeare’s Head. “We’ve taken over non-pub buildings mostly—so we try and find a connection with the area, or a connection with the building, or a connection with the local people. It’s a personal fascination of mine—but you also get an enormous amount of kudos for bringing a historic building back to life.”
To that end, they have also made a point of buying up, restoring and converting unique, grandiose historic buildings—many of them listed—including numerous gorgeous art deco cinemas and theatres, an opera house in Tunbridge Wells, a former post office in Crystal Palace, an old bank vault in Glasgow, a (Grade 1 listed) docks warehouse in Canary Wharf, several banks in the City of London, a Victorian swimming pool and a former waterworks in Sheffield, a magistrate’s court and police station in Keswick, and a 19th-century church in Ayr.
Martin is a hands-on boss, to put it mildly—and keen on the details. The Shakespeare’s Head is the third of his pubs he’s been in today. He aims for a minimum of 10 visits a week—always unannounced—plotting his trips via a map of them all at his home in Exeter. “It’s hard day-to-day, but it’s worth it—it’s about preventing things atrophying. So I go in, say hello, have a chat with all the staff on the bar, do the same in the kitchen, ask about any problems, ask what beers are selling well.” He shows me the day’s notes—The Admiral Byng in Potters Bar needs better shelter on its patio; and the menu at the chippie down the road from it has given him some ideas. It all becomes part of the conversation at weekly meetings with pub and area managers, along with suggestions from staff. “Another thing I always do is test the beer,” he says, sipping from two shot glass samples lined up alongside his coffee.
Coffee was one of Martin’s micro-interventions that helped diversify the chain from reliance on what he calls the “old boys” nursing pints. He explains, “20 years ago I walked past a Starbucks, and it was bloody full, at 4pm in the afternoon! And I thought bloody hell, we have to get into this coffee business.” Wetherspoon started selling coffee in 2000, and now sell over 70m hot drinks a year.
“It’s about trying to inject a bit of adrenaline into the body corporate. That’s what any really good supermarket chain, or any clothing shop does, when it’s doing well. When it’s doing badly, the top brass meet in the boardroom, wear suits, and get protected from what the customers say.” Wetherspoon has a strict “no music” policy, something conventional wisdom suggests would not appeal to young people. But the one time they experimented with it, in a pub in Maidstone, it drove all the young people and students to the music-free section upstairs. “So many false decisions in life generally—in every field—are made on false assumptions,” he says.
Displayed on his office walls, Martin has arranged a series of mantras, some from business books, some of his own invention. His favourite, courtesy of Rose Blumkin, a penniless migrant who went on to found Nebraska Furniture Mart, is simply: “sell cheap and tell the truth.” Few would argue that adhering to the first half of this slogan has served the company well—in the Shakespeare’s Head, in the heart of central London, the pints are all under a fiver, and many are less than £4. A fry-up is £5.25, and a tea or coffee (with refills) is £1.60.
As for telling the truth? Well, they are certainly telling the truth as Martin sees it. Most people know Wetherspoon is run by a hardline Brexiteer—in addition to regular media appearances, he has shared platforms with Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg, spoken at Brexit Party rallies, posed for photos with Boris Johnson, and donated £200,000 to Vote Leave—but perhaps only its customers realise the scale of the pro-Brexit propaganda inside his pubs. Even after the vote itself, his arch-Leaver message was ubiquitous: in his column in Wetherspoon News, and in laminated pamphlets and cards on every table, warning “this is how much more expensive your drinks will be if we don’t leave the EU properly.” In the Great Harry pub in Woolwich in November 2018, in the critical weeks for Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations, I went to the toilets and was confronted with a life-sized cardboard cutout of the prime minister, holding pieces of text that explained how bad her deal was for Britain.
Martin’s Brexit campaigning has made him a household name—after our interview has ended, customers of all different ages queue up for selfies with the celebrity chairman. But courting notoriety means courting controversy, too. In October, Martin was accused of breaching the Companies Act, after failing to seek shareholder approval for almost 2m pro-Leave beer mats, 5,000 posters, and 500,000 booklets during the referendum campaign—all of them penned by Martin himself, and produced at a cost of over £90,000.
There have been promises about price cuts to pints in the event of a no-deal Brexit (Martin’s preferred outcome), and a petty PR stunt intended to show how vibrant British trade could be outside the EU: last year, they replaced German Jagermeister with British equivalent Strika, French Courvoisier and Hennessy with American and Australian brandies, and Champagne with sparkling wine from the UK and Australia.
In the autumn, criticisms emerged from some shareholders that his outspoken politicking, particularly his regular media tirades against “elite Remainers” and corporate governance rules—might be hurting the company. On the one hand, Martin is keen to appear defiant—it is, he says, just his side of a good honest debate—but at the same time, he confesses that he’s “pulled back a bit from the fray.” He shows me a text from a senior Brexit Party official, asking if they can have a chat. “As you can see, I haven’t replied,” he says.
For all his reputation for abrasive, opinionated, old-school publican swagger—he is certainly big enough to give you the bum’s rush from one of his pubs—in person, he is not the bruiser-boozer of caricature. There is a touch of vulnerability and self-effacement to him—and even, whisper it, a touch of rough-hewn liberalism. He has arrived at the Shakespeare’s Head via his weekly French lesson. “I’ve been doing an hour a week for 15 years—far too long in order to not speak it fluently, which I still can’t. I love Europe, I just don’t like the EU. I’m pro-immigration—it’s good for the country, provided it’s controlled by the government, not controlled by people we haven’t elected.”
During the febrile winter of 2018, he embarked on a 100-date tour of his own pubs, taking his case for a no-deal Brexit directly to his customers. It was, he says, the hardest thing he has ever done. “I was haunted by this feeling that I was going into a pub, where not everyone was going to agree with me, and I was sort of invading people’s privacy. I found it nerve-wracking, honestly. Imagine, you and I come in for a pint, we voted Remain, and this guy starts heckling us!” he laughs. He was worried enough, he says, to ask for a security detail for the last 30 dates—but on the whole, people appreciated it, whether Leave or Remain.
“I think that good decisions are built on debate—[it is] the reason democracies are successful. They appear very chaotic, democracies, don’t they, but look around here, how bloody successful, for all its faults, the UK is. In the context of the business, when we debate things, we make better decisions—everything down to what type of glass we should sell a guest beer in.”
Given Martin’s hardline Brexiteer public image, it seems surprising that “Spoons” is so fondly regarded by millennials and Generation Z. The obvious explanation is the same as it was when I was 18, and whiling away evenings in The Holland Tringham, a Wetherspoon in Streatham: the cheap prices. But following the success of its weekly “curry club”—Wetherspoon is one of the assassins cited in a 2017 Guardian piece entitled “Who killed the great British curry house?”—its food and drinks menus have both become more “hipster-friendly,” trumpeting craft beers, as well as real ales, and smashed avocado bagels, quinoa salads and several vegan options.
In this same period, it has become a cult phenomenon. A Facebook page devoted to “Wetherspoon memes for financially challenged over-18s” has received 55,000 likes. Buzzfeed has compiled pieces about what it’s like to work there, its weirdest pubs, its most beautiful pubs, and so on. In a 2017 essay in the punchy left-wing youth culture magazine Huck, mischievously titled “It’s time to nationalise Wetherspoons,” Eleanor Penny wrote that the chain’s popularity was “bolstered by the paradoxical force of its own mundanity… Spoons has become the reliable refuge of the stuck-out and the broke and the fun-hungry. In short, a proxy for the public space.”
Wetherspoon’s appeal to young people is wider than the menu, and deeper than the prices: there is something about its apparent authenticity—this universal, unpretentious, mass-produced version of authenticity—that contrasts with the artisanal pop-up supper clubs and indie poseurs that populate the food and drinks trade in big cities and university towns. Then again, arguably even this appeal is tied to economics: university-educated hipster millennials may be liberal-minded Remainers, but like the chain’s “traditional working class” customers, they have badly paid jobs and rent over-crowded flats—and here is somewhere you can go with your laptop and drink bottomless filter coffee all morning for £1.60. Or indeed, somewhere you can go with your mates and both get pissed and have a meal that is “terrible but somehow very good” for £15, as the novelist Megan Nolan wrote in a poignant homage to her local Wetherspoon.
The political edge to the young left’s “nationalise Wetherspoon” jokes found a more tangible expression in October 2018, when workers at two pubs in Brighton voted for strike action over low pay. Backed by the bakers’ union BFAWU, the strikers wrote of choosing “between dinner and a haircut,” and demanded a living wage of £10 an hour and union recognition. They claimed a subsequent pay rise a month later as a victory—although it was not to the £10 per hour demanded.
At the time, Martin accused the strikers of “gunboat diplomacy.” He is more conciliatory now. “I think there may have been some issues at that pub that hadn’t been picked up,” he conceded. “People are free to strike if they want to, there’s not much objection I could legitimately have—I think anything that forces a company to look at itself, you can turn to your advantage.”
One of those strikers, 20-year-old Alex McIntyre, told me conditions had now improved and management was paying closer attention to problems, such as the absence of functioning air conditioning that had seen staff pass out in a summer heatwave. But the pay is still not a living wage, he says: he spends two-thirds of his salary on rent, common for colleagues in an expensive city like Brighton. “It’s not sustainable, and the company is making healthy profits—I think it’s just so simple, to pay the bottom rung of the ladder a sustainable living wage.”
He remains fond of his pub, and his work. “It’s a meeting point for the community, for all sorts of working people. All my lefty friends are literally in Wetherspoon every day,” he laughs. “I just really wish that Tim Martin would come and actually sit and talk to us—talk to me about not being able to buy food for two weeks straight, and being late on my rent, and then tell me that he’s not paying poverty wages. He’d see that we’re not insurgents trying to ruin the company. We’re just trying to have a better time at work.”
According to a 2018 ONS report, “Economies of Ale,” the number of pubs and bars in the UK fell from 52,500 in 2001 to 38,815 last year—it is estimated that one pub closes every 12 hours. Wetherspoon has bucked the trend through economies of scale. At the same time its rock-bottom prices have arguably increased the pressure on smaller, independently-owned pubs. Martin has rejected the idea they are killing off smaller pubs—claiming that the closures tend to be in suburbs and smaller villages, whereas Wetherspoon focuses on the high street. It’s a complicated picture. Across Britain’s major cities, it’s a poignant but familiar sight to see gentrification, and the heavy impact of the smoking ban, turn traditional working-class boozers, the haunts of the “old boys,” into overpriced gastropubs or simply shut and turned into homes.
Pubs are being changed by the society beyond their walls, too. Who uses pubs, and the way we use them, will continue to change. One part of the reason the old pubs are closing is because men don’t go on their own so much anymore, and pubs have become more inclusive spaces. My mum tells a story of trying to order a pint of beer in a Yorkshire pub in the 1970s, only to be told by the landlord that she could have a half, but he wouldn’t let her have a whole pint. It seems a safe bet that neither a flat white nor a panini was available, either.
Part of the Wetherspoon mythology is that Martin took inspiration from George Orwell’s famous description of his imagined perfect pub, “The Moon Under Water”—there are now more than a dozen in the Wetherspoon stable with this name. Orwell’s romantic essay has dated somewhat, inevitably. A pub today does not need the division of “a public bar, a saloon bar, a ladies’ bar, a bottle-and-jug and a dining room.” Otherwise, Martin endorses its basic tenets—in particular, the absence of music—and the idea that the public house is a public good. “If you’ve ever spent a week in a Swedish town with no pub, in the middle of winter,” he says, “then you’ll see how life can be a lot duller without a pub.”
While it is undoubtedly in his financial interests to say so—Martin is worth £448m, and earns an annual £324,000 salary—he seems sincere when he says he is proud to look around his pubs and see a broad mixture of punters, however they voted in 2016. “I think historically a lot of very good pubs did exactly this—they got people to mix in a convivial atmosphere. Everyone likes it—everyone gets fed up with hanging around with the same old people.”
It’s easy to charge Wetherspoon with blandifying a declining, powerfully British cultural institution. It’s easy to make the case Martin should stop feverishly propagandising for a no-deal Brexit in every inch of his 900 pubs. It’s certainly easy to make the case that Wetherspoon employees should be able to afford their rent, and dinner, and a haircut.
But even if you agree with those criticisms, something special has emerged inside this pub chain in the last few years, whether by accident or design. If the pub is a space that reflects the society around it, the increasingly rare and cheery diversity of the Wetherspoon clientele ranks as a positive. Look around an average Wetherspoon, and you could believe that the culture wars supposedly tearing Britain apart are only skin deep. But maybe that’s just the cheap beer talking.