I've got an idea for a Demos project, for when their new director arrives clutching his new liberal agenda: it's called 'Wetherspoons Democracy' and looks at Britain via the microcosm of Wetherspoons pubs.
Indeed, I had a veritable Charlie Leadbeater moment when wandering down Old Street at around noon yesterday. Leadbeater is the master of experiential political philosophy - finding moments of miniature political crisis in everyday settings (in the original sense of the word 'crisis'; note how we have become fixated on only the third of these definitions). The beach typifies a problem of self-organisation; a piano-teacher typifies a crisis in professional and amateur identities.
Old Street Wetherspoons was at the peak of its powers as I walked past. Through the wide open windows I could see people slamming coins into slot machines, tucking into £2.99 fried breakfasts, arguing with each other, staring into space and arguing with themselves. But most of all, drinking - pint upon pint of cheap beer, very very cheap beer. No doubt there were cheap alco-pops involved too. Outside, in a miniature example of al fresco London of which Lord Rogers should be proud, there was a small fenced-off area in which people could stand, sit and crouch to smoke cigarettes.
It's odd that in the space of my adult life, the scene that I apprehended has gone from being an entirely legitimate, potentially laudable example of consumer capitalism, to being a socio-cultural problem to be solved, if not necessarily by the government, then by someone. Viewed positively, here is a source of community for elderly people, a place to eat and drink that doesn't mock people with its prices, a culturally-inclusive and inter-generational space in which nobody is judged or asked to move on, and a reliable brand. Viewed negatively, it is pumping 'negative externalities' into society - obescity, lung cancer, alcoholism, low aspirations, lower surrounding property prices.
Lets suspend judgement as to whether the government is right to view things in this latter sense. What's interesting is that, as the more lucrative ends of consumer capitalism and service production have absorbed radical emancipatory philosophies within them, it's now at the lower end of the market that genuinely heterodox, disruptive, autonomous forces are alive. Wetherspoons is, in certain respects, an unknowingly democratic space. A few hundred yards down the road in Hoxton, 'radical', 'creative' forms of democracy are at work, that produce all manner of 'positive externalities' - tourism, contained diversity, rising property prices, with little harm for anyone's health or cost for the state. A couple of miles north, Stoke Newington nimbies work round the clock to prevent chains from encroaching on their hallowed turf, under leftwing radical rhetoric, but with rightwing exclusionary goals.
Wetherspoons is a model of market efficiency. Prices are low, economies of scale are passed on to consumers and people are offered real choice, on the assumption that they are intelligent enough to deal with it. The New Labour retort to such economic libertarianism is that we also have something called the NHS which mops up the mess these choices create. Maybe there aren't principles at stake here after all, just costs. But unforseen by the architects of New Labour, this is surely where British politics is most critical right now, and where liberals, paternalists and, no doubt, soft paternalists need to test their arguments. Over to you Mr Reeves...