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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.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.