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What’s new in Wetherspoon News? A close reading of the political magazine of our times

Someone’s gone and told the pub chain’s in-house publication about virtue signalling.

Wetherspoon News, a sort of in-flight magazine for a “flight” which consists of drinking cheap pints on your own while going absolutely nowhere at all, has long been an entertainingly idiosyncratic mix of light features of about award-winning toilets and angry polemic from the pub chain’s founder Tim Martin about VAT (ideally not having to pay it) or government advice on healthy levels of alcohol consumption (ideally not having to listen to it).

2016 was a pretty big year for the publication, available free in the company’s pubs. Not only did it celebrate its 25th anniversary, but it was of course the year of the EU referendum – something Martin has rather strong views about.

Not only were 200,000 Vote Leave beer mats ordered, but the summer edition of Wetherspoons News dedicated 15 pages to various shades of Brexit comment, including six pages of reprinted Daily Mail columns by everyone’s favourite Brexiteer MEP Daniel Hannan (“Dan the man”, comes Martin’s glowing word of approval). Plus a piece by Tony Benn, which is impressive given that he’d been dead for two years.


The Brexit issue

Martin presented his own arguments at length, which as well as the usual huffing about the supposedly undemocratic nature of the EU also include Wetherspoons not buying much European wine these days anyway, and the apparently negligible risk of France or Germany invading the UK upon the triggering of Article 50, which he appeared to believe was a serious concern of the Remain campaign.

As if the result of the referendum didn’t make the Wetherspoon News zeitgeisty enough, the latest edition contains a splendidly deranged rant by a pub landlord trainer Paul Chase, who’s heard of something called virtue signalling and is not prepared to let only vaguely understanding what it is prevent him from writing a few hundred words about why it is part of an evil plot to stop the honest British citizen from getting pissed up.


Paul Chase's op-ed

Virtue signalling is, in fairness, a bit of a nebulous concept, largely used by the deeply unpleasant in an attempt to discredit anyone doing anything nice ever: “I cannot imagine doing anything that isn’t self-serving, so therefore I cannot imagine anyone else doing it either.”

Here it is presented as a fashion statement: the UK’s Chief Medical Officer lowering recommended alcohol intake limits is compared to the trend of wearing a baseball cap. One signals being down with the apparently “pro-virtue” establishment, the other signals being down with saying “cowabunga”. Perhaps this starts to make more sense if you consume all 14 of your weekly allowed units in one go.


The latest copy of Wetherspoon News

It’s hard to determine what the readers – two million, according to the cover – of Wetherspoon News make of all this - the letters pages are full of glowing stuff along the lines of “Dear sir, I, my wife and our three large boys eat at Wetherspoons every day because it is so nice. Have you considered raising the prices because we would gladly pay double!”, presumably because you get 20 quid in beer tokens if they like your letter enough to print it.

But as big Tim points out in response to a rare negative letter begging him to stop banging on about Brexit: “Debate is the key to freedom and part of the democratic process.” Perhaps Wetherspoon News is the true heart of British democracy in 2017 after all. Hopefully Wetherspoons drinkers can look forward to reading someone from the beer trade’s hot take about fake news and alternative facts in the spring issue.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.