(Top photo: Tim Martin, by JD Wetherspoon/PA Archive/PA Images)
We all know what Tim Martin, the multi-millionaire owner of Wetherspoons, does not like. Tim Martin does not like tax hikes. He does not like Christine Lagarde of the IMF. He certainly does not like faceless Brussels bureaucrats. But do you know what Tim Martin hates? What Tim Martin actually hates is a dinner party. Here he is on them in 2005 when he was campaigning for Britain to remain outside the single European market:
"It's my idea of hell. Saturday I like to play a game of squash. Go to the pub. Have a few pints. Shoot the breeze or sit in a quiet corner and read a paper. I like to go to dinner with the missus. Or other people. But dinner parties are the great middle class trap."
On Friday he condemned Philip Hammond's 2017 budget as a "dinner party budget", which would punish ordinary people who like to go to the pub, while rewarding the elite who favour dinner parties – which are "no doubt the preference of the Chancellor and his predecessor". The next day, it was reported that prices in his pubs would increase.
Martin is a man whose views and actions impact millions of British people in a tangible way. How he chooses to run his pubs affects their social lives, what food they eat, their levels of disposable income. His contribution to the Brexit campaign was significant: a £200,000 donation, 200,000 pro-Brexit beermats distributed, an impassioned editorial in the Wetherspoons News. In the immediate aftermath of the vote Martin lost £18 million in shares, but he stood by it. What he thinks matters.
To cook a meal for one's friends at home and drink wine alongside it is not an elite activity. I suspect Martin does not have the kind of dinner party that I throw in mind when he speaks about them; to me, a dinner party is when I have ten people over for a one-pot stew accompanied by an ailing salad, with the expectation that we'll all have two bottles of Blossom Hill and a box of Amber Leaf each. It's cheaper than the profligate mania I enter into in a pub after 10PM.
The perception of the dinner party stagnates in oddly dated imagery, a queasy mesh of Richard Curtis and Bridget Jones, of Tony Blair and Giles Coren. It suggests north London, worthy food and conversations about the ethics of sending one's children to private school. But dinner parties of all types, from my ratty kind to the primo Ottolenghi sort, have something in common, and that is privacy. What goes on in a dinner party anyway? Why does it all have to be so sealed? And what exactly are they saying about the rest of us?
The dinner party is necessarily exclusive. There is no responsibility to your wider community other than not waking up your neighbours. Its privacy is a rude rebuttal to the offerings of the public house, which is inclusive, transparent and democratic. Martin loves democracy – he pleaded his faith in it in his pro-Brexit literature. When objections were made to the dissemination of that material in his pubs, his response was that any political material encouraged democratic debate. And to be fair to Martin, his pubs are as close to genuinely democratic as any commercial enterprise can be. If you can afford a drink at all, you can afford a drink at Wetherspoons. Unless you start on someone you don't have to leave until you're kicked out, alongside everyone else, at the end of the night.
Privacy, though, is what rich people have. The greater your wealth, the less you are required to engage with other people. Money allows you to go through life interacting as much or as little as you like; without it, you find yourself meshing with others in all sorts of ways you might not otherwise choose. Needs erode privacy, because you are constantly made to ask for things. Is it this that makes Martin so loathe the dinner party – the implied snobbery of opting out of the pub's social contract? Martin, after all, appears to subscribe to Orwell's romanticised working class fantasy pub, where salt-of-the-earth barmaids are stand-in mothers and children roam free in the garden cheerfully eating pork pies.
While Martin despises private dinner parties, he is devoted to the private market. He named his political heroes once as Churchill, for his wartime leadership, and Thatcher for her commitment to privatisation and the free market. He came out in opposition of the living wage in 2015 after a fall in Wetherspoons' profits, and has been a fierce critic of the extra tax pubs have to pay compared to major supermarkets selling the same products.
His hypocrisy here goes without saying; the tax increases he wishes to see implemented in supermarkets would have the inevitable effect of raising their food prices, penalising the working class Wetherspoons everyman he claims to be defending.
There is a further complicating factor to all this, which is that Wetherspoons often function in much the same fashion as a public resource – or rather, they step in at the point where public resources fail. People who would otherwise be in a bedsit all day or wandering the streets go to Wetherspoons. They're not the only people who do, of course, but chances are if you go to your local at 12PM on a weekday you'll see the same set of faces.
When I was depressed and at my poorest, having just moved to London, I would sit there all day nursing filter coffee refills and applying for jobs. I could have done this in my bedroom, but there is value and dignity in having a reason to get dressed and say hello to another person. When we're in the pub, we're visible. We're legitimised. We're real. Someone has seen us that day, and known that we exist. This is the function of public spaces.
I don't say this to praise Tim Martin. The problems with having a pub stand in for necessary social support are many and glaring, not least the health effects and normalisation of alcoholism. The fact is, the same self-concerned capitalist instinct that drives Martin is what shapes a society which leaves an excess of vulnerable people to be soaked up by the market. Until we have a socialised state with adequate public resources, there will be people who need a place to go; people Martin claims to stand up for; people who aren't invited to dinner parties.