Of all the traditional pub chains to be found in the United Kingdom, perhaps none is more famous than, or as ubiquitous as, J. D. Wetherspoon. Its nearly 900 pubs can be found across Britain and Ireland, in repurposed movie theaters, post offices, banks, and churches. Some of them even double as hotels.
But what makes the chain so well known, paradoxically, is just how unremarkable it is. ’Spoons, as its regulars affectionately call it, is immediately recognizable for its plain, understated atmosphere. There is no music and only simple furniture—nothing with a whiff of added expense. It’s the sort of place where anyone can go for a decent pint and a quick meal at a reliably low price. A beer, for example, can cost as little as £3.50 ($4.50) at a ’Spoons in central London, compared with nearly twice as much elsewhere in town. In an era when pub closures have become the new normal in Britain—more than 11,000 have been shuttered over the past decade—this level of affordability can’t be taken for granted. And though Wetherspoon has faced its own share of economic uncertainty in recent years, in many ways it embodies much of what the ideal of the pub symbolizes in Britain: a place where people—irrespective of class, wealth, or political persuasion—can go to socialize, relax, and have a drink.
More recently, however, Wetherspoon has become something seemingly antithetical to Britain’s pub tradition: political. The 2016 Brexit referendum transformed the pub chain into an unlikely battleground in the fight for the U.K. to leave the European Union—a cause championed by its founder and chairman, Tim Martin.
The 64-year-old entrepreneur was one of the few big business leaders to support the “Leave” campaign in 2016, and has since emerged as one of the loudest voices in favor of Britain leaving the EU without a transitional withdrawal deal. (Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiated agreement with the EU has thrice been rejected by British lawmakers, forcing her government to seek multiple delays to the U.K.’s exit from the bloc.) Martin is regularly given a platform on British television-news programs and at pro-Brexit rallies. When he isn’t out pushing a no-deal Brexit, he can be found promoting his cause to his customers: Each of his pubs is supplied with several copies of his in-house, pro-Brexit magazine Wetherspoon News, and drinks are often served on his “No Deal” beer coasters.
Martin’s rise to national prominence is emblematic of a new class of nonpoliticians who have emerged as a result of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. But it also reveals another unexpected outcome of Brexit: the politicization of almost every aspect of British life. Families have been torn apart. Friendships have been ruined. And one of the country’s most treasured social institutions, the pint at the pub, has been compromised.
I first met Martin in early April. To the disappointment of many Brexiteers, the British government had obtained a short extension to the country’s original March 29 exit date to give Parliament more time to find a majority to support May’s Brexit deal or another viable alternative. Those efforts ultimately failed, and what began as a brief, time-limited delay is now projected to be much longer: Without enough lawmakers willing to back the prime minister’s deal or countenance leaving without one, the EU granted Britain a further extension to its departure date, which has now been postponed until the end of October (with the option to leave earlier if a deal is reached).
Unlike the majority of British business leaders who have voiced alarm over the fallout of a no-deal Brexit—a scenario in which Britain would find itself suddenly subject to different rules, tariffs, and regulations than its largest trading partner—Martin is not worried. In fact, he is campaigning for it. On a two-month “Free Trade Tour” of 100 Wetherspoon pubs, which concluded earlier this year, Martin made the case for Britain severing ties with Brussels. “My motivation was to try and contradict the ‘London-media view’ that no deal was a bad thing for the country,” Martin told me at the Metropolitan Bar, a cavernous Wetherspoon pub near London’s Regent’s Park. “To go around and say that free trade—which is no deal—is better than Theresa May’s deal.”
At first blush, Martin seems an unlikely figure to be at the center of a divisive political campaign. He towers at 6-foot-6, and his casual polos and trademark shaggy gray hair set him apart from his ideological counterparts in Westminster. Unlike the majority of those who have emerged as key figures in the Brexit debate, Martin isn’t a politician. He doesn’t belong to any political party. He lacks political aspirations. When I asked him how he got so involved in the Brexit debate, he described it as happening almost by accident. Though he made his views on the EU public through Wetherspoon News, Martin said they didn’t garner much media attention until just before the Brexit vote. “Three months before the referendum, a journalist asked me, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘I think we should leave because [the EU] is undemocratic,’” he said. “And it just took off like a rocket, in the funny way that some things do.”
Martin’s public backing of Brexit culminated in a £212,000 donation ($310,000) to the official “Leave” campaign, an enormous sum in British politics, making him one of the biggest financial backers on either side of the referendum. He was among plenty of high-profile business leaders—from the entrepreneur Richard Branson to the inventor James Dyson—adding their voice to the national debate. Unlike many of them, though, Martin didn’t stop promoting his cause when the vote ended, a decision he said stemmed from his belief that Brexit wouldn’t be delivered unless it was campaigned for continuously. “I’d hoped after the referendum that I could stand back from it,” he told me.
Ostensibly, Martin’s decision to use his pubs as a pulpit to espouse his political views is a risky one. Only a quarter of Britons agree with his argument that a no-deal Brexit would be a positive outcome, according to a recent survey by the British pollster YouGov. Twice as many think the opposite. Among those who disagree with Martin is a group of Wetherspoon employees, who in January launched a petition calling on their boss to remove his “pro-Brexit propaganda from the workplace.” When I asked Martin whether he worried about alienating Wetherspoon customers who disagreed with him, he said it would only be common sense for him to consider that. “I’m running a business, so I’m very concerned about it,” he said, adding, however, that he wasn’t aware of many customer complaints.
Pubs have never been completely devoid of politics. The London-based Institute for Public Policy Research noted in a 2012 report that “in the 18th century, working men’s clubs, unions and Jacobite clubs made pubs their meeting places,” with different political groups often meeting at opposing public houses. During the Second World War, the British politician and novelist A. P. Herbert described pubs as being “the one human corner, a center not for beer but bonhomie; the one place where after dark the collective heart of the nation could be seen and felt, beating resolute and strong.” Even today, British politicians have taken to pulling pints in their local pubs to prove that they really are just like everyone else—the equivalent of American presidential hopefuls visiting diners and kissing babies on the campaign trail.
In general, however, contemporary pubs have largely served a more social purpose: to be a place where people can go to eat, drink, and engage with others in their community. For many places across the country, the pub is not only a major driver of the local economy, but also a place where people can relax and feel included. Though politics may feature in a pub’s weekly quiz—a British staple, where customers compete in a multi-round general-knowledge contest, all while sipping on pints and eating the pub’s food—it hardly defines the institution.
Martin concedes that inserting politics into his pubs made him uncomfortable at first. “I don’t mind going and talking on television, but to actually go into a pub and start saying, ‘Hello, I’m Tim. I believe in Leave. Would you mind listening to me?’ is quite near the knuckle because you’re sort of invading other people’s space,” he said of his pub tour. “Like you’ve butted into someone’s conversation.”
Ultimately, though, it’s an intrusion that he believes is necessary. “If I’d come in and said, ‘Vote Labour’ or ‘Vote Conservative,’ that would have been a different kettle of fish,” Martin said. “But this is a constitutional issue about the future of the country and about democracy … So I felt it was something that overrode normal political issues.”
With Britain’s exit date from the EU now pushed off until October 31 and a no-deal departure firmly rejected by British lawmakers, it’s unlikely that Martin’s vision for Brexit will come to pass. In other ways, though, he has already begun shifting away from Europe—or, at least, its products. In September, Wetherspoon announced that it would replace the German Jägermeister and French brandies it carried with alternatives from the United States and Australia. The move followed a similar decision made by the pub chain in July to end the sale of champagne and German wheat beers at its bars. The point of the move, Martin said, was to push back against “threats” that Britain could face channel port disruptions and food shortages as a result of a chaotic no-deal departure—a concern that has been raised not just by analysts, but also by the British government’s own advice.
Overall, Martin has had the luxury of not having to worry too much about the consequences of his political actions. While more than 300 pubs have been shuttered in Britain in the past year—in part because of rising costs and changing drinking habits—Wetherspoon’s sales have increased by 5 percent.
“If my customers hit the roof and said, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ I might have had to stop,” Martin told me, before adding: “Here we are, sitting here in the heart of ‘Remain’ London, and [Wetherspoon News], which couldn’t be more pro-Brexit, is on every table. And no one’s come up and said anything.”