Brexit, boozers and the “non-conformists”

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

Tim Martin is the founder and chairman of Wetherspoon pubs. Known for being politically outspoken, his taverns have been a campaigning tour de force, with Brexit beermats and British products all the way. We sit down together to commit the mortal sin of chatting politics and the “new religion of the EU” in the pub.

We meet outside The Imperial in Exeter, a former manor-house overlooking St David’s station. He arrives on foot – “are you Ross then are you?” Extending his hand, he towers over the staff who greet him whilst rocking a pair of shorts in October.

In my previous visits to his pubs I’d always noticed how the low-light and cosy décor had the habit of making the time of day an irrelevance, like those bars at the airport. Not here though. The glass façade has other ideas. Flooded with daylight and full of chatter, we pick a table in the thick of it.

“I live in Exeter now but I lived around Dartmoor for years. I used to drink in The Nobody Inn, and The Manor Inn when I lived in Ashton. Before that I lived in South Zeal. My mother-in-law’s family go back centuries there.” Any fear of one word answers on his part evaporate immediately as he swirls his teabag. I am surprised to learn we have something in common, his old local pub is in my village.

Tim recants his favourite walks on Dartmoor, a particular path that would offer some solace in stressful times. “Cawsand Beacon, forty-five minutes up, forty-five down, I did it twice on occasion at a particularly tricky time in my life, I loved walking on the Moor.”

The expansion of JD Wetherspoon has been prolific. Around a thousand pubs now pull pints under the Wetherspoon banner. But this growth hasn’t been without casualties. With forty-five pubs closing since 2015, the space-race for new premises is seemingly over.

“What’s next? Ireland, America” – Tim answers confidently. “We’re in most towns, we’ve even opened in Okey and Tavistock, what more evidence do you need that there’s no room for expansion?” Over forty pubs now offer letting-rooms upstairs; this isn’t necessarily the direction they’re going in though. “The jury’s out on the rooms, there’s a lot of people building hotels at the moment, Premier Inn, Travelodge and the likes. We just don’t know if it’s the direction we’ll go in yet. It costs a fortune to develop them, I don’t know how we managed to spend so much on bedrooms.”

Tim regularly appears on broadcast media. As an ardent Brexiteer he’s due to talk at a number of ‘Save Brexit’ rallies, appearing alongside Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg. I ask him how this came about. “I was a member of the official leave campaign, it’s no longer around, which was a big mistake in hindsight, so I’ve always been involved in the campaigning.” As for his relationship with Farage, “I’ve met him but I don’t know him socially.”

Few chairmen would have the gall to appear alongside a politician as toxically perceived as Farage. “I don’t think he’s a racist, he’s an LBC broadcaster, if he’s good enough for LBC he’s good enough for me.” The conversation takes the odd vocal jab from a passing punter, “Afternoon Mr Martin.” It’s the kind thing that you could imagine could become quite annoying but Tim handles it with patience and courtesy.

Throughout the Brexit debate the suspected motives of wealthy Brexiteers has often been dragged into the argument. And whilst the claims of a democratic deficit within the EU are accepted by some remainers, why is it that the unelected elected House of Lords gets off the hook? Why don’t Jacob Rees-Mogg and the likes go after the second chamber with such vigour? “It’s a similar problem” Tim concedes.

“There’s a good argument for having an elected second chamber, but there is a fundamental difference.” To Tim, the ability of the EU to pass laws without a sovereign parliament to answer to is the crux of it. “The Lords still answer to our elected MP’s, Brussels answer to themselves. It’s the same with the courts, The UK court system is completely subject to Parliament, that’s not true of the EU.”

Tim hastily stands up, starts scanning nearby tables and brings back a copy of the Wetherspoon’s magazine, a glossy magazine that fuses company news and hand picked political articles from other publications. He turns the page to an article he wrote himself, with the headline decrying the “Oxbridge Orthodoxy.”

The article points out that all of the recent UK visitors to President Macron of France were graduates of Oxbridge, Theresa May and husband Phillip included. The article called it a “cosy club of the elite.” Fundamentally, Tim believes that there is an unhealthy and inaccurate pro-EU bias in key seats of power. However, there are a couple of bugs in the Oxbridge system: Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The “non-conformists”- as he calls them.

I fire some pieces of EU legislation at Tim. The abolition of mobile-phone roaming charges always seems like a good one. Can one government, post Brexit, be as effective at standing up to corporations on behalf of the consumer? “If you cede power to any un-elected body, they may well come out with the odd good thing. You could find the odd thing in the Soviet Union and say – that individual aspect is good.” Tim lists the flourishing economies of the world – Singapore, South Korea V’s North, Japan and the U.S.

“Democracy works. The EU is undemocratic, yet it’s worshipped. With the decline of religion, the EU has become a kind of quasi-religion for so many in the Oxbridge elite. The EU is a threat to the continent and the world.” Tim reminds me that he’s not known for understating his case, as he chuckles to himself.

As we’re sitting at the table a nervous looking bartender appears at our tableside, Tim offers me a drink, looks at his watch “Oh better not.” He chuckles and orders another cup to tea, slipping a tenner to the bartender.

It’s not just about democracy. Tim, unlike many other Brexiteers, passionately believes that a no-deal could be great for British business.

“We have an extensive UK supply chain across the continent, as much as any car company. It’s being sold to the people that if we don’t have a long and extended period, it will hurt us. We could leave tomorrow and there’d be nothing for us to do, it’s the same with the car manufactures. It’s a shaggy dog story.”

As chairmen of the company Tim doesn’t espouse the bland corporate-speak associated with the prototypical businessman. Often so fearful of goose-stepping into the next PR disaster, their personalities whittled down into a risk-averse shade of hearing-aid beige.

Tim is an exception to this rule. Earlier this year he deleted all of the companies’ social media accounts. A brazen move that flies in the face of any modern advertising strategy.
This move, I find out, wasn’t purely a commercial decision. “I read an article that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates wouldn’t give their children phones” he laughs slowly, with a sense of trepidation. “My nephew would come down and he’d never be off his phone. It’s addictive and bad for democracy.”

Tim’s no fan of the social media activism we’ve seen in recent years. Whilst one could make an argument that these platforms have a democratising effect on the media, it’s the outrage that seems to bother him. “You have these Twitter people acting anonymously, like a mob, it influences our MPs in a bad way.” From a commercial perspective he doubts how much influence social-media can have in his industry, the sales at the till, I am told, have his back on this one.

On the subject of democracy I ask him if he fears the prospect of a Corbyn government. “I worry about anyone who’s against the private enterprise system. It produces tax, jobs and growth. The system has some people, people like me I suppose, who are paid too much. But it’s still the best system for democracy to flourish. Anyone who travelled on British Rail back in the day, or remembers how bad the electricity board was, knows this.” Labour recently pledged that if elected they would redistribute ten percent of companies to their workers.

Tim points out that since 2004 he’s already given thirteen percent of the company to his staff through share ownership schemes.

“I think you ‘can’ tax people like me a bit more, but that’s the way to do it, not the government taking ownership of companies by force.”

After my five-minute warning Tim has to shoot off. He foists his back-pack over his shoulders. Any punter who’s lingered but pretended not be lingering has their moment to say hello.

There’s an instant warmth to this man. A profound lack of ego rarely found in someone of his success. It’s easy to see why so many people want to hear what he has to say.

His ‘no-deal’ Brexit vision may soon play out in real-time; if his optimism is misplaced, his punters will still admire him nonetheless.

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