Wetherspoons founder talks booze and Brexit
‘What we have to do is assert our independence’
Tim Martin looks and sounds like the epitome of a pub landlord; genial, loud, full of strong opinions. That’s because he is one, so to speak; he’s the founder and chairman of Wetherspoons, the enormous pub chain.
Martin might have swapped pulling pints for pushing pens a long time ago, but he’s retained many of the qualities that make a good landlord – most importantly, an ability to understand what the average Briton wants.
That includes Brexit, the reason he’s speaking at the Cambridge Union. Unlike the vast majority of other captains of industry, Martin was a vocal and enthusiastic Eurosceptic long before the referendum; on June 23 2016 it turned out that a majority of the country agreed with him. But he clearly isn’t a small-minded xenophobe.
Instead he offers up an argument predicated on ideas of freedom and liberty; ‘we must assert our independence.’ Indeed he argues that immigration – within limits – is a good thing for Britain, and claims that ‘the British people accept the principle of immigration…the main economic engine we need is a slightly growing population.’
What Martin hates about the EU, then, is not immigration – it’s a perceived democratic deficit. He has very little time for the ‘unelected President Junker making decisions’, and argues that a key part of any Brexit deal should be that ‘we make our own laws in this country.’ His ideal model is, perhaps surprisingly, countries like Singapore or South Korea – states whose adoption of democracy propelled them to economic success. ‘Democracy is economic steroids’, he says on more than one occasion, and he seems to believe that Brexit offers a unique opportunity to actualise a democratic future.
It’s all sounding a bit familiar, isn’t it? Loud-mouthed businessman with unusual hair, involving himself in populist rhetoric – we could be talking about Donald Trump. So does Martin have any plans to follow Trump’s lead and go into electoral politics? He laughs when I ask him: ‘I think I’m a one-trick pony, and I’m too old…the benefits to the country are more if I just keep doing my job.’
And what a job it is. Wetherspoons employs thousands of people – many of them EU nationals, incidentally – and takes in over a billion pounds every year from Britain’s drinkers. But it’s an increasingly tough business to be in. It’s estimated that 29 pubs close every week, and many areas have essentially seen the pub business wiped out or forced to totally change. In part that’s down to greater awareness of the effects of drinking on health, but Martin also observes – somewhat ruefully – that ‘millennials do drink less.’
Still, he’s an optimist about his business – ‘I think that there’s definitely a future for pubs. Nonetheless, he’s critical of current government policies which he argues are making his company less effective. ‘You’ve got to equalise VAT and business rates between pubs and supermarkets…pubs are taxed much more heavily per pint than supermarkets. And if that goes on forever it’ll put a lot of pubs out of business.’
Martin definitely seems more comfortable talking about business than about politics; at heart he’s still a man who deeply enjoys the dirt-under-the-fingernails element of commerce. And he clearly believes that business holds lessons for politicians. Speaking about the Prime Minister’s attempts to negotiate the details of our departure from the EU, he defends her caginess, saying that ‘Theresa May cannot say exactly what kind of deal it’ll be – it’s simply not possible in negotiations.’
But when I ask him if he’s broadly behind her approach to Brexit – one which seems likely to entail a fairly clean break from Europe – he doesn’t seem too concerned with the details. ‘Do you think I go reading her speeches?’ he asks rhetorically. When I press him, he argues that ‘I don’t like the term “hard Brexit” – what we have to do is assert our own independence.’ Beyond that, Martin doesn’t seem too concerned – at one point even argues that ‘trade deals aren’t as big a barrier as has been made out’, a pretty bold claim by any standards.
Again we return to Martin’s rather syncretic idea of what Brexit should look like. Unlike Nigel Farage – whom he describes as ‘pretty right-wing…by aligning himself with Trump he’s kind of proven everyone’s point’ – Martin opposed the EU out of purely pragmatic grounds; he genuinely thinks it’s best for his business and best for the country. ‘Britain’s a good democracy; it could be a better democracy,’ he says, and there seems little reason to doubt his sincerity. Throughout the interview he keeps returning to the idea of freedom – ‘freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to highlight political skulduggery.’ That, to Martin, is the main motivator for his opposition to the EU.
Passionate internationalist yet trenchant Eurosceptic, Tim Martin is living proof that Leave voters ought not to be reduced to caricatures; they’re far more varied than you might think.