What would Orwell say? This is a question I have often asked myself down the years whilst contemplating the great political issues of the day. And it’s one I feel compelled to return to as I study the lunchtime food menu at the Moon and Starfish, Clacton-on-Sea.
That’s Wetherspoons to you and me. As the bill of fare helpfully explains, before listing the wide range of beverages, great-value meals and themed dinner nights currently on offer, Britain’s biggest pub chain boasts several drinking houses with ‘moon’ in their name.
This relates, it continues, ‘to The Moon Under Water – the name of the fictional perfect pub (in an article by George Orwell in the London Evening Standard). When the first Wetherspoon pub opened in 1979, it mirrored the style of Orwell’s The Moon Under Water’.
In that seminal 1946 essay, the great man declared that his ideal tavern would provide cheap and nutritious food (check), ensure there was space between the tables (check) and, of course, sell cheap beer (check).
There was no mention of Brexit beer mats.
Last week, Tim Martin, the chain’s founder, plonked half-a-million of the brightly coloured coasters into his 900-plus pubs. The multimillionaire Leave donor is a vocal supporter of a no-deal outcome to the Brussels talks.
His propaganda mats advocate various policies the Government should adopt, including axing import taxes on food – which would, he claims, reduce prices – and halting payments to the EU of ‘£200m per week’.
The point about Orwell’s position on mat-gate wasn’t entirely facetious. The 1984 author’s prescience was legendary. Fake news, mass government surveillance, Newspeak – all have come to pass.
And in another essay, also written 71 years ago, he berated the ‘insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously… a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time’. He argued passionately for a United States of Europe. ‘Democratic Socialism,’ he declared, ‘must be made to work throughout some large area.’
That area was Europe. No Brexiteer, he.
Martin’s empire might have been inspired by the Old Etonian’s paean to his perfect boozer, but his commitment to unilateral free trade is diametrically opposed to Orwell’s vision of a left-of-centre, pan-European organisation. If anything, his polemic mirrors the nightmarish style of 1984, the writer’s magnum opus, ushering in a dystopian version of a post-Brexit future.
This is a point well made by one of the younger patrons of the Moon and Starfish. According to Martin, eliminating food tariffs from in and outside the EU would take 3.5p off each Spoons’ meal – and 0.5p off each drink. ‘Is cheaper pub food and beer the price to pay for lower wages, poorer housing and less national security,’ asks 21-year-old George Sheers, who is nursing a pint of Hobgoblin. ‘I’d rather pay a bit more for beer and not be dead by the time I’m 45 because they’ve sold the NHS to Richard Branson.’
Experts paint an equally gloomy picture. A National Institute Economic Review study stated that ‘no deal’ would see British households’ annual shopping bills increase by up to £930 a year. And Martin’s fellow business leader, Sainsbury’s chairman David Tyler, claimed the UK would face an average tariff of 22% on food imports from Europe under World Trade Organisation rules.
Martin has form on this. It is not the first time he has used his business to deliver what he calls a ‘hard-hitting message on Brexit to Parliament’. Before last year’s referendum, he put out 200,000 beer mats – and visited 100 outlets – urging people to vote Leave. During the campaign, he donated £200,000 to his side. And he used his company’s trading statement to dismiss post-referendum warnings.
‘I don’t come into the pub with a picture of Lenin and a Communist flag,’ says George. ‘I keep that to myself.’ George’s boss, Adam Sayer, who runs a double glazing business, chips in: ‘You shouldn’t force things on people. You come here to get away from it all and have a beer with your mates.’
On the table opposite, Shirley Kelly nods her head. ‘Keep the politics outside the pub,’ she says. ‘Seriously. I won’t read the beer mat. It’s a social thing. I live on my own. I come into the pub because I like talking to everybody.’
Shirley is a strong Leaver – ‘we used to be an empire, we can be again’ – but insists that ‘politics, like religion, should be kept out of the pub.’ Two elderly couples – the McMillans and the Yates – announce they are proud Brexiteers. ‘We don’t like being run by the Europeans,’ says Richard McMillan.
However he’s not too keen on the pub’s open door policy towards children. ‘I told a mother whose kid was screaming at me ‘Can’t you quite it down?’ I’m told it’s a family pub. They should not be allowed to run around like ferals, interrupting and causing problems with people.’
Like Brexit itself, Martin and his ever-growing chain of child-friendly pubs divides people. Spoons is an extraordinary success story, built in the image of its founder: a no-nonsense, plain speaking, stop-mucking-around, eccentric-but-effective businessman. It has transformed the country’s town centres. Like it or not, it is a cultural phenomenon.
There is even a book, by Kit Caless, dedicated to its often-surreal carpets – each pub has a unique design – and the late DJ Derek Serpell-Morris always planned his reggae tours around visits to the outlets. Caless and Serpell-Morris have nothing on Mags Thomson, though – a self-confessed mega-fan who has been to every single Wetherspoons in the UK.
No doubt Mags has bumped into Tim on her travels. Since he founded the company in 1979 (his first pub, in North London, was called Martin’s Free House) the 62-year-old supremo has made a point of dropping in, unannounced, on as many of the 917 branches as he can – and he claims to know more than 1,000 staff by name. ‘We met him in London,’ Anna Yates tells me. ‘He pops in and you never know when. He’s a nice bloke. His hair’s changed since then, mind, he’s gone shorter and very grey.’
In those early mullet years, as well as being inspired by Orwell’s misty-eyed vision, the ambitious twenty-something had a point to prove. Indeed the eventual name of his company was taken from the surname of a geography teacher Martin encountered at school, who not only assured the boy Martin that he would never amount to anything in business, but was a teetotaller. ‘I now quite enjoy being criticised,’ he said recently. ‘It’s also a perverse enjoyment. I’m absolutely determined they’ll live to rue that day.’
So objections to his latest Wetherspoon Manifesto is grist to his mill. As, indeed, is the disdain of those in the chattering classes who argue that one of the UK’s most successful hospitality businesses panders to the lowest common denominator, transmutes town centres into identikit high streets and offers cheap and nasty fare.
One reviewer, writing recently in the Sunday Times, pointed out that the grub, whilst affordable, is hardly top cuisine. Spoons, she sneered, is ‘shorthand for all that’s bad about ‘British’ food and chain catering’ containing ‘all the vomitous carpets, hastily erected wood panelling, fruit machines and reproduction art a cheap beer devotee could desire.’
Clearly this is a polarising brand.
As is Martin, who cares not a stuff what broadsheet snobs think about his inexpensive burgers, syrupy cocktails, eye-catching décor or, indeed, anti-EU rants.
Like his old teacher, Mr Wetherspoon, he will prove them all wrong.
He estimates his own wealth to be around £350m, is a fixture on Question Time and other TV shows and, standing 6ft 6ins tall, is clearly a giant of the pub industry. He employs 35,000 staff. The pubs are much loved due to their low-cost policies – around £3 for a pint (in Clacton it’s even cheaper) and £4.75 for a burger and a drink deal. They are often situated in lovely buildings, stylishly-converted former spinning mills, theatres, swimming pools and banks.
Up until now he has shown a sure touch, his man-of-the-people approach inspiring high levels of devotion.
But might using his drinking palaces as an expression of his strident views now backfire? As my trip to the Moon and Starfish suggested, even Leavers are beginning to feel uncomfortable about this strategy.
After getting so many things right for so many years, what if his populist, tub-thumping, beer-mat manifesto is simply wrong?
‘If by any chance I’ve got it wrong,’ he recently reflected, in a rare moment of self-doubt, ‘I’ve not made myself look too clever.’
Anthony Clavane’s Moving The Goalposts: A Yorkshire Tragedy, published by Riverrun, is out in paperback.