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A Controversial Knighthood?


Two 68-year-old, white, male leaders of large national networks were awarded controversial knighthoods in the New Year Honours List.

One operates an enterprise drawing deeply on national traditions and habits, but which simultaneously prides itself on being intensely local in its expression of those values. His local hubs preserve and enhance a considerable part of England’s built heritage and for many Englishmen (and women) offer what they regard as no less than their birthright.

Generally satisfactory rather than sublime, his hundreds and hundreds of outlets provide uniform services and are to no small extent regarded as valued social enterprises. Being an accessible place of retreat for as many locals as possible and being embedded in their neighbourhoods remain the guiding principles of his operation.

Regularly unafraid to be at the forefront of political and other controversies, and always ready to leverage that national influence, means that a good proportion of the population thoroughly repudiates all that the new knight represents. And it is fair to say that he has not had unmitigated success - evidence of which can be seen in communities across the country.

In many respects Covid was a real and enduring challenge, particularly for the 5,000 or so men and women on the front line a with greatest responsibility for keeping things going for the around 800,000 who visit one of the network’s community hubs every week.

That man’s name is Sir Tim Martin, and he is chairman of Wetherspoons.

Since 1992, Wetherspoon’s stock has risen inexorably - from an equivalent price of 30p 32 years’ ago the shares now trade at over £8 each with revenues nudging £2 billion a year. Having opened its 50th outlet that year, the chain now operates over 700 pubs in England alone.

In 1992, the now Right Reverend (Sir) Justin Portal Welby GCVO was also just starting out - it was the year of his ordination as deacon. By his own admission he is “accountable” for the decline in parish attendance of something like 35% (from around 800,000) during his 10 years as Archbishop of Canterbury, of which he says, “personally I count as failure”.

What is the secret of success?

The Church of England must envy the extent to which for many in Gen Z, “Spoons” is a part of weekly life, while still retaining the loyalty of its much more elderly devotees. Likewise, to have an in-house bulletin with a readership of 2 million would delight anyone in the Church House communications team.

For sure Wetherspoons isn’t everyone’s cup of (£1.50) bottomless coffee and to its more extreme critics being the home of “gammon” does not mean something on the menu (although it is- £10.65 with a soft drink) but therein lies much of its interest.

The comparison of Wetherspoons and the Church of England is not new. This piece admires the chain’s approach to carpets, configuration, chairs, coffee, children, conservation, community and communication.

Wetherspoons is a huge success and, as 2024 begins, it might be worth thinking about not just what can be learnt from its approach but also its ethos.

The pub chain’s great strengths are predictability and uniformity. Variety is to be found in its famous carpets, mix of buildings and their history, but whether it is Scarborough (The Lord Rosebery), Southend (The Last Post), or Soho (The Moon Under Water), it serves its customers according to a single national formula. And it does so honestly and unapologetically. It doesn’t pretend to offer fine dining or to be artisan. It is a pub with grub, not a fast-food place or a café.  A cathedral to all things gastronomic it is not, but going through the doors of a ’Spoons the customer pretty much knows what they are going to get. It might not be a banquet but at least its unlikely to poison them (they’re all over hygiene ratings), inevitably make them fat (they’re all over calorie counting too), con or intimidate anyone.

Cranmer's Vision?

This was, of course, pretty much Cranmer’s vision for the established church. The prayerbook, ordinal and homilies would ensure that the standard and uniformity of services was maintained to at least an adequate level across the nation. A homily might not be as good as a great sermon but it was a lot better than a terrible sermon. No one would be deceived, conned or taken by surprise. And the liturgy, while not holy writ, doesn’t have much scope for going wrong whoever’s hands it is in.

However, on any given morning in the Church of England, as it exists now, a parish church might be serving-up anything from a children’s tea party to a historic drama, a pop concert to a trade union rally, an environmental conference to a coffee morning, a circus to a recital and just about anything else. That said, the Wetherspoons' offer by no means lacks in its breadth of range but only within clearly defined, understood and accepted limits. Perhaps that is why families prefer to partake at ’Spoons than at church on a Sunday.

’Spoons does all it can to lower bars to entry. It is an oddity that those who revile it most are frequently drawn from the “elites”; those who loath its anti-Guardianista politics, who mock it as “chavvy” and “downmarket"; those who claim it is just for old men drinking too much cheap ale and immature young people drinking jugs of luminous cocktails. If the main criticism of the Church was that the self-appointed elites of society rejected it for embracing too much the poor, elderly, young, urban, disabled, lonely, cold and lost, that would indeed be a fine thing.

(Doubtless, but not necessarily, those from anti-alcohol cultures might not be the pubs’ biggest fans or find it their natural environment but that would be true of swathes of the hospitality industry. It might be interesting to analyse both how pub chains have tried to address that and the growth of such as a gelato or ramen chain).

Avoid bandwagons...

The success of Sir Tim’s business demonstrates that it is absolutely not necessary to be on board whatever is the latest fashionable cultural bandwagon. The political causes Wetherspoons adopts, and its very identity, are anything but fashionable and assertively so. The “green agenda”, identity politics, the FBPE movement and the like are not on the Wetherspoons’ menu, although of course the quiet embrace of multiculturalism very much is. But the customers don’t seem to mind that their pub isn’t “progressive”, “politically correct”, concerned with “social justice”, or whatever. Again, honesty probably plays a role - the operation leaves no doubt as to what its values are and probably, again, consistency does too - Wetherspoons have supported CLIC Sargent for over 20 years, and significantly so - raising on average about £1m a year.

The chain is relentlessly anti the relativist zeitgeist and its manifestations. After its pandemic travails, it published a “Special Edition” of its “WetherspoonsNews” with a title that sums-up with brutal honesty the crisis in the Church of England and Anglican Communion. Across a blood-red cover was a three-word headline, “Does Truth Matter?”. Over 20 pages ending with, “In this article Toby Jones [of the then newly formed Free Speech Union] takes up the cudgel and explains how he and his courageous team aim to take on the autocrats and bullies,” the question was answered in the affirmative. For a publicly listed company, with a large, young client base, to be willing to go into the arena of objective (and unpopular) truth, while laying claim to the support of a bogeyman of the left, is to say the least unusual. It is certainly hard to imagine the good old Church of England taking that approach too - Owen Jones might get an invite to Synod, Toby would not.

... but understand popular culture

Of course, Sir Tim is not the nation’s most successful publican without an instinctive understanding of popular culture. He is riding the same wave as the “New Theists”- Jordan Peterson, Tom Holland, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and their fellow travelers - the old theists, feminists like Julie Bindel and free speech advocates like Laurence Fox. Although this wave is the very stuff of the recent ARC gathering, the Church of England seems oblivious to, or maybe even repulsed by it - perhaps because waves tend to upset bandwagons. But there is no doubt, however, of its ability to unite the generations and of its attraction to and influence on young men. A case which Justin Brierley is presently making in his podcast, "The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God."

Another part of that wave is a renewed interest in “authenticity”- the obvious antidote to an atomised, virtual, airbrushed, fake online world is people getting together “IRL” and celebrating what they have in common as community. Here a virtuous circle can begin - the community celebrates its pub (with all its imperfections) and the pub its community (with all its issues) together with a shared wider hinterland.

Consider the current edition of “WetherspoonNews”. It is 116 glossy pages of the 236 outlets endorsed by the Campaign for Real Ale, articles about the doings of a few score of pubs and the history of two locals in particular, plentiful features about its staff and customers and about its CLIC Sargeant heroes, endless stories of community and charity engagement, a letters page etc all mixed in with lengthy defences of Wetherspoons policy of not admitting dogs and of pubs in general without ever losing sight of the whole business ultimately being selling food and drink.  The “editorial” is, as always from Martin himself and it is a diatribe against the pandemic “lockdowns” entitled, “Trust the people - or frighten the people”. Unsurprisingly, this is a man for whom people doing community is the non-negotiable. The magazine is an unashamed, even shameless paean to the family of the local hostelry. It spreads the good news of ’Spoons, love it or loath it, quite brilliantly.

Face reality

Despite what “WetherspoonsNews” might suggest, it is not in fact all glad tidings. Last year the chain announced the shedding of more than 30 branches across the UK - about 5% of the total. There might be lessons in that too. Wetherspoons operates in the market, alongside, not just other big pub chains, but also many smaller, independent, more narrowly focussed, and specialised pubs - both urban and, largely unlike ’Spoons, rural. Sir Tim understands that in an industry that is struggling, it is sometimes necessary to close the the most unviable outlets, however unpopular that might be with local residents and the employees, if the rest are to survive.

In all this Wetherspoons, and the like, show that it is simply not desirable, much less, necessary, to be at the cutting edge of innovation, leading trends, all singing and dancing, nor be admired by the bien pensant, to be a success. Honesty, plain and fair dealing, predictability, accessibility, good basic standards, tradition, localism and community cover over a multitude of sins.

Given that it is Dry January, and temptation must be avoided, no mention will be made of the cheap pints on offer in Wetherspoons January “sale”, but some might be interested that they are advertising a small cooked breakfast for £1.99 and a burger and soft drink for £5.49.

Why not call it research and go and see what else Sir Tim could teach Sir Justin about the Anglican future?

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