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21 June 2016

Wetherspoon’s boss wants a Brexit debate but his customers can’t even vote

A beer man’s fight for democracy falls flat.

By Julia Rampen

Tim Martin, the boss of pub chain Wetherspoon, cares a lot about the EU referendum. An outspoken Brexiteer, he has printed beer mats criticising the International Monetary Foundation and turned the summer edition of the pub magazine into an EU referendum special. 

Drinkers who rifle through the six pro-Leave and four pro-Remain articles will come across headlines promising “the REAL reason charities, quangos and lobbyists are desperate to keep Britain in the EU” and another slamming “Brexit’s Project Fib”.

Martin believes the EU referendum debate is a perfect pub conversation. But the drinkers in Wetherspoon tell a different story. 

On the final Sunday before the vote, the Wetherspoon in Holloway, North London was surprisingly tranquil. Pensioners sat alone on tables with a paper and a pint. Families tucked into the last of the Sunday dinner. The magazine – which is read by 2 million customers – dotted the tables. 

In his foreword to the magazine, Martin slammed the EU for being “fundamentally undemocratic” and a system that handed power to an “unelected elite.” But of the seven Sunday drinkers I spoke to, though, four could not or would not vote. 

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A father and son declared themselves completely sick of the whole situation. Neither planned to vote. “I am not going to vote. I am going to vomit,” the father declared. The son shrugged. “I’ll still be paying taxes. It doesn’t make a difference to me.” 

Another drinker backed Leave, because he didn’t like the idea of other countries making his laws. But he had not registered to vote. 

Florence Marty, a full-time carer, wanted to vote but could not. She was French, but had lived in the UK for 43 years. 

“I think it is wrong,” she told me in her still-distinctive accent. “Somebody from Australia who will not be affected has a right to vote, because they are part of the Commonwealth. 

“If I had a right to vote, I would vote to remain. Whatever happens, I don’t think it will affect me personally, but I think about the next generation. They’ve already scrapped second languages in the school curriculum.” She hadn’t read Martin’s magazine. 

I did come across one British Remain backer intending to vote – history graduate Richard Pegrum. He didn’t like Martin’s beermat attack on the IMF: “It’s nothing to do with the EU.” 

Perhaps the revolution was raging in other branches of the pub chain. But here, the drinkers just seemed weary. A few tables away, a man reading a newspaper hadn’t made up his mind yet. But he wasn’t about to listen to Martin. “He doesn’t like the EU, but he likes the free movement of labour,” he said. “There are certainly part of the EU that are good and parts that are bad.”

But he did agree with one thing – Wetherspoon should be a good place to hold a debate. “You have got a certain level of society,” he explained. “If your job has been moved abroad, if the industry has collapsed, you will eventually end up in Wetherspoon.”