As referendum day approaches, politicians and economists are at loggerheads, hotly contesting the pros and cons of exiting Europe.
It’s a critical time in the nation’s history. But for pub trade bosses trying to judge which option suits their business best, the slanging match is generating far too much heat and not nearly enough illumination.
Keith Knowles, chief executive of Beds and Bars, is, is unimpressed. “I’m a trained pilot and a trained yachtsman. Nobody gets into a boat or a plane without all the information they need on the weather, sea conditions, flight path, what height you’re flying and so on. If you apply the analogy to Brexit, we just don’t have the information. And we don’t know what the alternative looks like.”
He’s not alone in his frustration. Fellow Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) members feel equally in the dark, says chief executive Kate Nicholls. “We still have not been given a huge amount of information from either side of the debate”, she says. “More information on the look of the political and economic landscape post-referendum is needed. A recent survey we carried out showed that 55 per cent of ALMR members feel only a little informed at this point.
“The overwhelming majority of licensees simply don’t feel as if they have sufficient information to make an informed decision for their business – they can have a personal view, but that can be different from their business position and they just don’t have the facts about what staying in or leaving would look like.”
Banging the Brexit drum
Nonsense, says JD Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin. “It’s not that unquantifiable, there’s lots of information. We trade with many countries already, and we’ll continue to trade with Europe. Lots of countries have free trade agreements with the EU — Canada, Norway, Switzerland, for example — and they’re more prosperous than France or Germany.”
For Martin, the real issue is about sovereignty, which he believes promotes better decision-making and economic prosperity. “Democracy is the most valuable thing of all. If we don’t like David Cameron, we can arrange for his removal. It’s important that we can fire them.
“There’s a whole raft of legislation – human rights, employment – that emanates from Europe. Our own elected government was unable to remove a tax on tampons – how pathetic is that!
“The main thing we want control over is who will come to work in this country. We may respect Turkey, for example, but if several million of them come over here, we wouldn’t be able to cope.
“And more democracy means more prosperity. Britain and the European Community is like South Korea versus
North Korea; West Germany versus East Germany; America versus Russia over the past 100 years.”
Martin dismisses the Confederation of British Industry’s backing for remaining in Europe and the open letter to The Times from business leaders such as Greene Kings’s Rooney and (“in a personal capacity”), Diageo’s chief executive Ivan Menezes and SAB Miller’s chief executive Alan Clark.
“Big business? They’re intellectually lazy!” says Martin. “When do you ever see any articles from them about their reasons for remaining? These are the same people who wanted to join the Euro!”
An industry wanting in
Yet for all Martin’s scorn, it’s hard to find many pub trade bosses backing his views. In another recent open letter, organised by the Vote Leave group, 250 bosses from all sectors backed Brexit, but alongside Martin were just two other members of the licensed trade — hospitality entrepreneur Luke Johnson and nightclub operator John Hayes.
And the ALMR survey which reported members feeling uninformed, nevertheless revealed that nearly two-thirds wished to remain in Europe (mirroring the result when Britain last held a referendum on whether to leave Europe, in 1975).
Phil Thorley, operations director at Thorley Taverns, is one of those in favour of staying. “I’m political with a small p,” he says “but I always prefer to change from the inside. So stay and make things better, rather than shout through the door from the outside.
“I’ve spent 20 years working with the ALMR because I believe you can’t change anything unless you’re at the same table. As Churchill said, jaw-jaw rather than war-war.”
That said, he doesn’t believe “the sky would fall in if we left”. And nor does
Stonegate chairman Ian Payne. “I really don’t see there’s any problem if we left. I can’t see any impact whatsoever – not even on employment or immigration. You’re going to be regulated wherever you are. Most of the red tape we face – licensing and health and safety – is UK-imposed. So we’re not worried as a business, either way.”
Business as usual
More importantly for Payne, “Project Fear”, as the Brexit campaigners have labelled the government’s “Remain” campaign, is not affecting business.
“The Euro debate is certainly not stopping people from going out. Most of our customers will be totally oblivious to it. I don’t think anyone’s saying, ‘I’m not going down the pub tonight, I’m worried we might pull out of Europe’! They’re more likely to be discussing England’s chances in the European Championship in the summer.”
Keith Knowles is not so sanguine. “If we split away, I see it as alienating us from the rest of Europe. And there’s a risk it could endanger the stability of Europe — even [lead to] the break-up of Europe — and that has to affect the UK.”
As someone who employs staff in London and Europe made up of 82 different nationalities, there’s another issue that concerns him too.
“No politician has had the balls to say ‘We need immigration’. Yet we know the UK population is declining. Who’s going to do the jobs unless we have people from Europe?”
Like most people, Knowles is no fan of the European Community’s regulatory regime. “It’s not democratic. Structurally, it’s not user-friendly. The auditors can never sign its books off. There’s corruption. And there are many irritations. For example, we’re trying to offer breakfast for free in Berlin but there are problems with VAT. They don’t understand the concept of free.
“But it’s really no worse than dealing with the council over a delayed planning application in Shepherd’s Bush. And we consider ourselves as a European business, not a UK business. So to jump into the abyss without knowing the facts would be madness.”
His chairman, Tim Sykes, agrees – reluctantly. “I don’t like ‘Europe’. If it was just my heart, I’d vote to leave, like a great many of my generation. Younger people are more accepting – they see themselves as European.
“But from the perspective of the business, I’ll vote to stay. In truth, it’s a fear factor vote, rather than a positive yes. Better the devil you know, but I say that with a marginally heavy heart.”