After lockdown are you going for a drink at a Wetherspoons pub?
I’m in a dilemma.
On the one hand I recognise it offers perhaps the best choice of beers, ciders and food on the High Street. Definitely at great prices.
As a company I admire their commitment to preserving local history and historic premises. (The ‘Prince of Wales’ near Cardiff station, for example, is a superb restoration) and have an excellent system of continuous improvement.
And I respect how they encouraged a debate, presenting both sides about Brexit at its pubs (while its founder was a lead figure in the Leave campaign.) I rate its company magazine, ‘Wetherspoon News’ as a superb example of a writing for ‘ordinary working people’.
And the Wetherspoons chain is helping to keep alive a great British tradition, the pub, where sadly an estimated 2,500 pubs shut down in 2020. The pub is a critical community asset. In every major British soap opera, the pub, the ‘Queen Vic’, ‘The Rovers’ or the ‘Woolpack’ is central to the community.
It was however, the comments made by Wetherspoons’ founder Tim Martin’s at the first Lockdown was announced that really angered me. I read how he considered not paying suppliers, nor seemingly not caring about his staff. As a point of principle I was going to boycott Wetherspoons pubs.
Despite this, I will however, be going into Wetherspoons – and looking to take other middle-class friends with me, for a very important reason.
It offers one of the best cocktails available – not of drink, but of a sea of humanity. If you want to mix with a wider range of people I know of no better place than a Wetherspoons. (I come from a working-class background, university education, professional job and comforts like wine, means I would now be labelled differently).
Wetherspoons’ premises are clean, well-run and offers great value food, comfortable for any self-respecting middle-class person. Yet, its cheap prices though, attracts in a number of its pubs, what some middle-class people might consider a ‘rougher element’.
So what this have to do with making the world a better place?
We are witnessing a world of increasing distrust, division and tribalism.
The age of social media has accentuated the trend to mix with PLU’s – ‘people like us’ – and less with those unlike us, creating a vicious circle of decreasing tolerance for non-PLU’s as we love in our bubbles, our echo chambers of confirmatory evidence.
I’m passionate that a society that doesn’t talk to each other, tolerate one another, nor collaborate cannot tackle the big challenges it faces, whether that’s the climate crisis through to how do we get out of the disruption caused by pandemic.
Yet we are witnessing what our social enterprise Grow Social Capital calls a Tsunami of ‘UnSocial Capital’.
We define UnSocial Capital as anything that stops or undermines the ability of people to connect with one another, do shared activity together, or engage with their wider community. Stuff that generates an atomized an insular society. A ‘Me’ rather than ‘We’ approach.
There are three key drivers behind the torrent of increasing UnSocial Capital.
Our first ‘monster’ is the surprising idea of convenience; things that make life easier, more comfortable, or more self-indulgent. Often these come at a cost, to the environment but also a cost on community relationships and wider common good.
I love curry. Wow! Isn’t it great how, with a phone call I get my takeaway delivered to my home. Convenient and easy. As a result, it means however, I connect less with the outside world. The chance meeting with someone you may know or even strangers. One less active citizen in our high streets who might have spotted something, or by my presence add to social good in some way. I would have even met the people at the curry house.
There is a social cost to my curry at home indulgence.
Lockdown aside, the trend to home eating is nibbling away at the numbers going to restaurants, creating a world where we socialise less communally with others, diminishing the chances of encounters with people unlike us, ostensibly safe in our comfortable cells.
A second factor is how we’re becoming less tolerant of ambiguity, driven by an innate desire for consistency in our thinking and actions. Everything has to be right, match our prescriptive view of the world, where we align all we do with our world view. All leading to a line of logic that if I disagree with the founder of Wetherspoons I do not go to his pubs.
This is not saying you shouldn’t have principles or align what you think or do or live by them. It’s where the third dimension to the growth of UnSocial Capital kicks in: the need for all of us to live life with bigger dashboards.
We need to factor into our judgments the need to invest in, nurture and grow social cohesion – the stuff that holds us all together, the glue, without which we fall apart, diminished, fractured an unable to reach higher for the universal betterment of our society.
And we need a bigger dashboard that registers wider dimensions, factors in social cohesion, as well as greater sensitivity to nuance, shades of a grey and other tones, in a non-binary, non-Black/White world.
And this is where we need to be more comfortable with what we call the ‘Meatloaf Syndrome’. Yes, like Meatloaf we need to accept that two out of three ain’t bad.
We need to learn to be comfortable about being uncomfortable. Which means doing things where a pragmatic judgment has to be made. It’s not about being hypocritical, or abandoning principles, yet investing your decision-making and choices with a reference to social cohesion and being open to understanding.
We need to do things that don’t necessarily add up to everything being aligned, everything conforming to what we believe it ought to be. And that we need to mix with a wider circle of people who are different to PLU.
So yes, I will go to Wetherspoons, despite vehemently disagreeing with its founder. And yes, I will take others there too, hopefully to extend their social comfort zones.
I truly hope this doesn’t appear condescending or patronising about the patrons of Wetherspoons. Unlike the Victorian ‘poverty tourists’ who went on organised tours of the slums of London’s East End to gawp at the poor, my idea is about growing people’s social norms, so that they become enmeshed, at one with a wider mix of people than they are currently mixing with. Thus growing their capacity to have greater empathy, and being more open to understanding of people currently unlike them.
Firstly, we all need to recognise that UnSocial Capital exists and every micro decision we take can add to its growth.
Secondly, by living more purposeful lives we can create a more tolerant, caring society.
But sometimes you need to do things, like drinking in a Wetherspoons, that doesn’t add up to the perfect score, yet helps feed a greater good, a world of greater social cohesion.
As Meatloaf would say, ‘two out of three ain’t bad’.
UnSocial Capital is being explored in a week-long series of free events for Social Capital Week. Find out more here.