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Artillery Row

Wetherspoons is the heart of local Britain

Tim Martin deserves a knighthood for creating a triumph for real British society

Arise Sir Tim Martin. With his weathered face, ruffled hair swept back, and a wardrobe of baggy polo shirts he could easily be mistaken for a West Country publican or in a different age for an Elizabethan sea dog. Predictably, his ennoblement has been met with the usual sneers — that it’s only because of his backing for Brexit or that it is somehow “cronyism”

They are wrong of course. From one pub, named after a teacher who’d told him he’d never amount to anything, Wetherspoons has expanded to a chain of 800, with a turnover of nearly £2 billion, and a warm place at the heart of every British high street. That’s an impressive feat of entrepreneurship and one that deserves recognition. 

A “Spoons” is a place where you can always go, no matter where you are, and be assured of an affordable pint, no intrusive music, and clean bogs. Like a familiar armchair, it may not be the nicest of its type but it has its own battered comfort. Anyone who doubts that only needs to look at their success, the number of people who can be found in one at any time of day, or indeed at the viral American tourists TikToking their encounter with this mighty institution. 

I can’t think of any other business in the Kentish town I lived in whose opening after COVID was as eagerly anticipated as Spoons, with a queue ready in the high street more than an hour before reopening. With typical good management, security guards had even been laid on to assist the first merry post-plague drunks to their waiting cabs (I saw a woman stagger out at 3pm, blissfully and beastfully blotto).

Almost always open, warm and serving cheap food they are also a wonderful cross-section of local society. Back when I attended a regular lecture series in Cambridge, I often popped into the local Spoons beforehand to idle away the empty time between my train’s arrival and the seminar beginning.

There you could find people only one step removed from the street, neatly dressed retirees warming themselves with a hot and honest meal, students eking out their pounds, and local workers. All brought together by the love of affordable leisure in pleasant surroundings. For the elderly, especially, watching from the sidelines, it was clearly a place of comfort; more invigorating and less clinical than the chilly house or shabby care home that might otherwise have been their lot.

Nonetheless some have complained that Spoons offering a haven to the needy is somehow wrong, that only the government should be resolving the crisis of isolation engulfing us. What about all of those libraries and leisure centres sold off by councils under austerity? What of the state’s responsibility for our welfare? Wouldn’t they be full instead of Spoons if only the LibCon coalition hadn’t swept them away. 

This ignores that people have minds and desires of their own. It wasn’t just that these places crumbled due to lack of funding. After all, if they were popular enough they’d have been able to keep going on sales alone. It was that people just no longer wanted to go there.

Public libraries have been a help to people as varied as novelist Catherine Cookson and fake Tibetan sage Lobsang Rampa. As a bibliophile I have something of a love for the ideal. Yet I can’t think of the last time I used one. 

As a child certainly, then later on our family rented foreign DVDs from the library when they were hard to find, but after that nothing comes to mind. These days the internet makes it so easy to find and acquire books that the only people you see inside a library are the mothers using the facilities and the homeless less than covertly watching porn in their 30 minute chunks of allotted internet time.

Similarly leisure centres were too often nasty, unloved places. At a time when 16 per cent of the British public are gym members, there often isn’t a need for them to be subsidised. People who want exercise are perfectly happy to pay for it. Judging by Instagram, gyms are not only more ubiquitous than ever before but rather better cleaned too. 

Much of this crisis of isolation is really just greater wealth changing social structures. Instead of living with elderly relatives, as finances would have dictated in almost every prior age, it is now possible to use saved up wealth for a care home. So too do people prefer to choose their own entertainment or exercise, rather than have whatever patrician liberals would like them to enjoy. While wealth may have loosened social bonds, it also offers new freedoms. 

Attempting to preserve unwanted social structures is an exercise not just in futility but also in control. Ever since the 1990s we’ve seen the construction of a stakeholder society, in which government largesse is distributed to the kind of groups politicians wish we wanted to belong to. All too often, these groups have formed a circular lobby, petitioning the government to fund more like them while in return they provide a simulation of democratic involvement in politics. 

Rather than constructing a Potempkin civil society to force people to conform to our desires, we should celebrate Wetherspoons and Sir Tim for their genuinely grassroots service to our society. Every historic building saved by being turned into a pub, every affordable pint raised amidst the economic mess made by politicians, every genuine encounter between people in a Wetherspoons is a triumph for real society. 

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