With only three weeks to go until the European Union referendum, the arguments for Britain either staying or leaving the EU — the later dubbed a Brexit — are heating up.
One of the most prominent business figures to wade into the argument is Tim Martin, the chairman and founder of one of Britain’s biggest and most well-known pub chains JD Wetherspoon.
Martin, who is an avowed Eurosceptic and active campaigner for the “Vote Leave” side, this week spent £3,500 ($5,057) on 200,000 beer mats to put in his 920 pubs, urging people to vote to leave the EU.
Weirdly, the text on the beer mat attacks the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — known commonly as the “central banks’ central bank” — not the EU.
Business Insider caught up with Martin to hear about why he believes Britain is better off outside the EU, what he thinks about economists predicting a bleak outlook for the UK economy in the event of the Brexit, and of course why he focused on Christine Lagarde and the IMF on the beer mats.
Business Insider: What do you think is the fundamental argument for Britain leaving the EU is?
Tim Martin: Democracy — that is the fundamental issue. Democracy, prosperity, and freedom, including press freedom, are closely inter-linked and as time has gone on, the EU has switched from being a Common Market to becoming a so-called union. But it’s not a democratic one.
Laws are instigated from European Commission — who aren’t elected and can’t be deselected — and European court judgments are made by judges that we have no control over.
If we are going to survive as a human race, it will be about democracy.
The EU is not subject to normal rules, not subject to normal democratic control, and the net result — like what can be seen in Greece, Portugal, and Spain — is that the exchange rate mechanism and euro fantasy of the early 1990s can hurt your economy.
I think when you look at countries like Australia, Japan, and New Zealand etc. you will find that democracy and prosperity always go together. Just look at Japan, Singapore, and West Germany — which rose from the ashes in two or three decades after 1945.
On a personal level, I think about what is required for the future of humanity, I think it is democracy — not the Kim Jong Il the second and communist or fascist dictators running whole countries. If we are going to survive as a human race, it will be about democracy.
BI: So are you suggesting that being in the EU is like a dictatorship because of the lack of democratic process?
TM: It would be absurd to go down that sidetrack. The EU is emphatically not like those people or countries I just described.
It is impossible for an individual to know where UK laws end and European laws begin
I just mentioned that the more democracy there is, the more prosperity there is. But by reducing the level of democracy — that is a slippery slope and dangerous path.
BI: You mention that the EU is able to enact or block laws without needing consensus from Britain. Are there any prime examples you can think of that you feel symbolise or have demonstrated this lack of democracy?
TM: I think the point is that it is impossible for an individual to know where UK laws end and European laws begin.
But there have been laws in every form, employment regulations, building regulations and even fuel requirements [enacted by the EU]. I think this has created a feeling that it is very difficult to challenge the laws and there is a theory of resignation [when it comes to making changes to EU laws].
For me, the biggest thing — and one thing I feel like I fight like hell every few years over — is [pressure] from the political and business elite for Britain to take the euro. It was a year of fighting, fighting the good fight.
BI: Turning more towards the data, you have said that the Treasury’s calculation that the average family will be about £4,000 a year worse off in the event of a Brexit is “complete and utter fiction and is just massaging numbers to get the result the boss wants.“
TM: It’s true — the basic proposition is that more democracy will lead to prosperity and that’s true for countries around the world. What the Treasury did — in effect George Osborne because he is the head of it — was turn economic history on its head and said that prosperity in Britain is derived from treaties [like that of the EU].
No one has ever said that Japan became the second largest economy between 1945 and 1975 because of treaties. They did it because of democracy and an independent economic system. You never read the history books that say Japan went from poverty to wealth through treaties.
What the Treasury has tried to do is to say Britain’s prosperity is to do with treaties and therefore if we leave the EU, X, Y, Z would happen — it’s a fabrication of numbers.
BI: But there has been a range of criticism from economists, like those at the Institute of Fiscal Studies, that say that Vote Leave’s economic calculations are “completely absurd.” As the boss of one of Britain’s most prominent companies, don’t you worry that the Vote Leave calculations are wrong and you could be negatively impacted?
Economists are more prone to group-think than any other group
TM: No. The relevant economists are the ones that looked at these potential issues around the turn of the millennium in respect to the euro.
The great majority of economists — almost an identikit army — have been trying to get us in favour of taking the euro and only a small number of people like Roger Bootle and businessmen like [Next CEO] Simon Wolfson and my good self [have] said it wouldn’t work. Look what has happened to countries like Greece.
However, when you speak of economists, they are more prone to group-think than any other group and they got it wrong. As a group on the euro, they got it wrong and they got it wrong on the exchange rate mechanism and not a single one predicted the recession in 2008, so I am not in the slightest bit worried.
Look at the big picture. Economists who get it wrong, can’t see the wood for trees because of all their computer modelling and numbers.
BI: Well it sounds like you’re saying that all these economists are banding together or conspiring to deliver on one set goal. So turning towards the news that JD Wetherspoon spent £3,500 printing 200,000 beer mats for 920 pubs in Britain featuring the International Monetary Fund. Why did you target the group and Christine Lagarde in particular? Clearly you think there are a number of major issues with the EU, not the IMF which is wholly separate. Why attack it?
TM: I wrote a 2,000-word article on the whole series of arguments about the IMF. A lot of the public don’t realise that the Treasury is not independent — it is just George Osborne’s finance department. And the cornerstone of a lot of Osborne’s economic arguments about how Britain’s prosperity is based on treaties is tied into what the IMF says.
In January this year, Lagarde was put up for a second term in charge of the IMF and Osborne nominated her. They’re close friends. Then she comes out with a gloomy prognosis which helps Osborne’s argument.
The table mat is meant to show the public that this is all a stitch up and the British public should know the facts. If you have a financial advisor who is going through things that an ordinary financial advisor wouldn’t be allow to be going through [such as Lagarde facing a trial in France over a €400 million payout to a controversial French businessman who supported Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 presidential race] then they should question that.
BI: But if Britain was to leave the EU, the UK’s relationship with the IMF, which you described, wouldn’t necessarily end. The IMF is separate to the EU.
You will always get idiots in office
TM: No, but it’s a sign of the arrogance of office. In fact, it’s what Shakespeare says [in the play Hamlet] “the insolence of office.” [A Brexit] would be a detachment from the European elite that Osborne and Cameron are part of. Also, it shows the temerity of nominating someone as a financial advisor with this [Lagarde’s trial] over their head.
BI: But what if there was a Brexit and the IMF was just as close and involved with Britain’s Treasury as it was before?
TM: I said this before — “you will always get idiots in office.”
If Britain leaves the EU, it doesn’t mean there won’t be idiots around but what I want people to do is to have the power to put people in parliament and elect politicians they want. I want the public to influence power through the ballot box.
BI: So what are your immediate expectations if Britain was to leave the EU in June?
TM: I think if Japan and Germany, for example, can rise from the dust in a few years, Britain can. The UK’s position at the moment is one in great wealth, international trade, and historic democracy and [leaving the EU] will take the UK a great leap forward.
We will improve financially, in business and wealth, and freedom if we leave the EU. There’s no need to be scared.