Tim Martin speaking at the Cambridge UnionSophia Ho

Tim Martin, the founder, owner, and proprietor of Wetherspoons, enters the room in exactly the way you would expect: pint in hand, smiling jovially, red in the face. Six-foot-six, mulleted, and cheery, he flops into a chair to answer my questions about his beloved chain of pubs.

I begin with the obvious question: is he familiar with Cambridge’s own The Regal?

“I certainly am,” he replies with a smile. “It’d been run until very recently by a manageress who’d worked for the company for nearly 25 years. She started working on the bar, fantastically successful, and ended up running one of the busiest pubs in the world. She’s now moved on to a pub in Huntingdon so I just hope it runs as well.”

And is it his favourite Wetherspoons? He laughs, before declaring that is “like asking Tiger Woods who his favourite woman is, there’s so many it’s impossible”. That laugh, loud and often wheezy, it is a constant feature of our conversation.

It re-emerges when I ask him about the recent brawl in the Trowbridge Wetherspoons. “I couldn’t believe it,” he admits, chuckling. “I happened to be on holiday [but had] a quick look at The Guardian, Telegraph, the Mail, and I thought I just cannot believe it. It was quite an entertaining fight actually: the thing that got me was the music kept playing and there was a guy going with drinks, you know, as if to say, ‘out of the way’.”

Clearly, Martin is immensely proud of the successful business he has constructed. Yet it could be argued that he took a risk associating himself and his pubs with such a politically divisive issue as Brexit, strongly and vocally backing the Leave campaign. He dismisses this, noting he has “alienated most of our customers years ago anyway so they are sort of used to me ranting on. So I get away with it.” He laughs, “I don’t know how.”

Martin is adamant that he made the right choice, recounting how his first involvement with the European issue in the 1990s came almost immediately after the proposal of the Euro.

“I said, to quote John McEnroe, ‘you can’t be serious’, and that was my first ever campaign [and] I did approximately the same thing as I’m doing now,” he tells me. “Then the next thing after that was the EU debate when I didn’t say anything at all. Only when David Cameron said it needed fundamental reform – which I think most people in Britain agreed with – then came back and instead of saying, ‘I didn’t really get fundamental reform but I think we should still vote to remain,’ he said, ‘we got fundamental reform,’ he proved himself to be a liar to most of the British people and that’s when I got involved.”

I am interested to hear his views on immigration because Wetherspoons, which is famously good to its staff, employs thousands of European citizens. Did he consider what would happen to them, I asked him, when he decided to back Brexit? 

“Well, I tried to make it very clear to our own staff”, he responds, somewhat ambiguously. “It’s nothing against Europeans, it’s about democracy, and I’m a 100 per cent that you can stay in this country and I will campaign for you to stay in this country.”

“I haven’t had one person complain”, he continues. “We’ve got 37,000 staff and maybe 2-3,000 from the EU and not one person has complained.”

"You need quite a reasonable level of immigration to add a certain element of dynamism to the economy"

I push him further on this, noting that their right to remain in the UK cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, I point out, it is also likely they will have suffered from both uncertainty regarding their position in addition to the increase in xenophobic attacks in the aftermath of the referendum.

“I think there’s a little bit of uncertainty,” he agrees hesitantly, “but I don’t buy the thing about xenophobic attacks. I’ve had one report where someone went into our pub in Hastings where we’ve got a Polish manageress and said ‘I hear you’re going to have to go home,’ but he was the one who had to go home, not her!” he laughs. “I haven’t seen it in our pubs. I think the British people are pretty fair and they appreciate the work that’s done by the Polish guy who served me in Pizza Express earlier on today and I don’t think there’s that much xenophobia.” He shrugs. “I take it with a pinch of salt.”

On immigration generally, he is more confident. “My personal view,” he explains, “is we need the optimal level of people coming into the country and that – I haven’t investigated it very thoroughly – is about the level we’ve had in recent years. So I think you need quite a reasonable level of immigration to add a certain element of dynamism to the economy and I think that’s the lesson of looking around the world.”

Martin adds: “I’m definitely pro-immigration but I think what you don’t want is some random guy who hasn’t been elected in Brussels saying, ok, you know, yes to China - nothing against the Chinese - but it’s not a practical proposition is it, or India, 1.3 billion people they can all come and live here.”

I express my confusion at this, pointing out that these were the countries with which Brexiteers want to forge relationships. He replies that “we certainly want to make links with them [but] there has to be a level of pragmatism.” 

The conversation turns to UKIP, about which Martin is indifferent. “I’ve never actually paid too much attention to UKIP,” he comments, “and I would take them at their word that what they want is independence. Obviously, they’ve got some pretty right-wing members and it may well be that old Farage is quite right-wing. But I think people overestimate it, though I guess by aligning himself with Trump he’s sort of proven the point. I don’t really have a view”.

“I think the benefits to the country are more if I keep doing my job than if I try to become an MP for some part of Cambridge.”

He has, though, I remind him, shared a platform with Farage. Martin nods, remembering that “he gave a good speech. I mean he didn’t go round, when I heard him, saying ‘I hate foreigners’ or anything like that, you know his pitch was that we want independence”.

We turn to discuss whether he would consider running for office. “Well,” he replies, “I had a word with the Queen and she said that whereas Mr Trump may be the Head of America, you’ve got no chance, pal.”

He laughs before continuing. “No, I’m a one-trick pony and I’m too old so I think not politics for me. I think the benefits to the country are more if I keep doing my job than if I try to become an MP for some part of Cambridge. Probably wouldn’t even get elected!”

As we are almost out of time I ask him, as a keen reader of the Wetherspoons News, why the magazine so often identifies politicians as having been educated at Oxford and Cambridge and if it is meant in an accusatory way.

His response is qualified. “University education is a double-edged sword,” he declares, “because it’s supposed to produce incredibly independent thinking. But, in a way, it can easily produce the opposite because you’ve got a group of lecturers, you’re working like buggery and when, you know, you hear certain views, you haven’t got time or energy to argue with the Professor.”

I have to get in one final question. £18 million was wiped off the prices of Wetherspoons shares in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote. Did this make him think twice?

“One week after that article came out they went back above where they were before,” he retorts dismissively. “And sales and profits have been strong, so our share price is 30 per cent higher than it was before the campaign started and the economy’s been quite strong, which is helpful for pub companies.”

He shrugs. “If it changes, eventually economies always go down hill don’t they, if the economy changes any time soon then people say, ‘Well I told you it was Brexit’.”

But for now, Martin is happy with the choice he made and ends the interview just as cheery as he started it. As he makes to leave, pint glass still in hand, I ask if I can get his autograph and he is happy to oblige.

‘Best Wishes to a Groovy Dude,’ it reads.

It is like Martin: sweet and slightly bewildering