Opinion: Wetherspoon is becoming the pub chain of Brexit

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

13 September 2018

How far do you think politics should impinge on your day-to-day job?

Would you, for instance, refuse to serve a Trump supporter or a member of Momentum?

Would you plaster your bar or restaurant with Confederate flags or posters supporting Hamas?

Or would you remove European products from your list in solidarity with Brexit?

I should imagine that all of you would feel that such scenarios would be either inappropriate or ridiculous.

Well, all of you except one.

Because Tim Martin, the MD of Wetherspoon, has started to make good on his threat from earlier this year to de-stock European products from the pub chain.

It is, for sure, a ballsy move – and one that has garnered his company no shortage of publicity over the last 24 hours. This may not be an accident.

Yet it would be wrong to portray this as a cynical Brewdog-style ‘shock the world and get the airtime’ gimmick. Martin really, genuinely, sees this as a valid, justifiable strategy.

And he’s consistent, too, having been strongly (some might say stridently) pro-Brexit since the start.

The question is whether he’s right to do what he has.

And I’d argue that he is not.

Firstly, surely the key job in hospitality is to be able to give your customers the best products you can for the money and/or the products that they want to see. And I’d question whether this latest move does either of those things.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to remove continental products and substitute them with alternatives. Fullers did exactly that with its non-vintage champagnes 18 months ago, replacing them with English sparklers.

But that was a measured decision based on value for money and bang for buck. They retained the more expensive vintage champagnes for customers who wanted to trade up.

In other words, their decisions were centred on putting the customer first.

But when products are added or removed for nakedly political reasons, can we be sure that the new listings are (as Wetherspoons claim) genuinely better than their EU equivalents, or are they just there purely by dint of not being European? If so, it’s as illogical as only stocking drinks from the first half of the alphabet.

And how about the ‘customer reassurance factor’?

I’m no apologist for the Cognac industry – at the cheap end, in particular, it’s dreadful value for money. But I’d question whether it’s a good idea to remove Courvoisier and Hennessy altogether and replace them with American and Australian alternatives that no one has heard of.

Whether Tim Martin likes it or not, people are reassured by names that they know, so removing them wholesale simply because they come from the wrong part of the world is as high-handed as a chef refusing to put condiments on the table. The customer can’t be right when daddy always knows best…

In justifying the move, Tim Martin says that ‘it is important to remember that 93% of the world is outside the EU’ – a statement so facile it’s hard to know where to begin. Since the continent makes a disproportionately large amount of the world’s great drink styles, to cut yourself off from it on a point of principle is as perverse as, well, voting to leave one of the richest free-trade areas in the world.

It is, of course, possible – not likely, in my opinion, but possible – that the new versions are, indeed, better and that Wetherspoons customers really couldn’t care less whether they drink Cognac or an Australian brandy.

High streets might very well soon be full of pub-going punters happily sipping away on doubles of Black Bottle, and doing Strikabombs rather than Jagerbombs – all for lower prices than they spent on those evil European equivalents.

They might even stick pins in models of Michel Barnier and sing loud hosannas for Tim Martin while they’re doing it.

But that still doesn’t make this move right.

By doing what he’s doing – and making such a big deal about it – Tim Martin is overtly turning Wetherspoon into the Pub Chain of Brexit. Support our pubs, he’s saying, and you support a Britain that wants to Take Back Control and stick two fingers up at Europe.

Going out for a beer, in other words, is now a statement of political intent – and whatever side of the Brexit debate you sit on, I can’t see why you’d think this is a good thing.

There’s enough polarisation in the world at the moment. Surely we could do without it in our pubs as well.

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