Matthew Lynn

Tim Martin isn’t a Brexit hypocrite

Tim Martin isn't a Brexit hypocrite
Tim Martin (Getty images)
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Heinz is expanding a huge factory in the UK. Tesla is reportedly scouting the north for locations for a new car or battery plant. Even the pound is bouncing to three-year highs. 

It has been a difficult few weeks for some hardcore Remainers. Still, at least there is finally something to cheer them up. Tim Martin, the pugnacious founder of the pub chain JD Wetherspoon argued today that the government should relax immigration rules to ease a shortage of labour. 

For the dwindling band of believers in the EU, it was a gotcha moment. At last, one of the leading backers of our departure from the EU was experiencing some ‘Bre-mourse’. 'Brexit fantasies succumb to Brexit reality,' tweeted the former editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber. 'You couldn't make this up!', said Gina Miller. Tim Martin was trending on social media – and so was the 'Brexit Reality' hashtag.

But hold on: there is nothing hypocritical about Martin’s position. It is perfectly possible, as he himself pointed out, to be both in favour of the UK controlling its own immigration policy and to be in favour of higher level immigration. 

It's true that some people may have voted to leave because they don’t like foreigners, and didn’t want so many of them coming into the country. But many more – and especially those in the business community – supported our departure because they wanted an immigration system designed to fit the needs of the UK rather than offering unlimited rights to anyone who happened to be born in the EU.

Of course, pub chains like JD Wetherspoon are clearly going to face a problem, if, as seems likely, they face a shortage of staff. Many British businesses, especially in sectors such as hospitality, had become completely hooked on low-cost Polish, Czech or Hungarian labour. 

Only last week we learned, with an update of the official figures, that there were a million more EU citizens in the UK than anyone realised (5.3 million have applied for settled status; the Home Office previously estimated that the number of people eligible for settled status would only be between 3.5 million and 4.1 million). 

With caps on the numbers, it is going to be difficult to fill all the vacancies. How do we respond to that? Well, we could relax visa restrictions, as Martin argues. Or Martin could invest more in technology, with robot bartenders, and perhaps automatic vending (after all, if petrol stations can have pay at the pump, why can't pubs as well?). Or he could raise wages, since paying more for something always increases supply. Or some pubs, as well as coffee shops, and tanning salons, and other low-wage, labour intensive businesses, might have to close down, because they either can’t find staff, or can’t afford higher wages.

We can, and probably should, debate these points. It is an important issue, with lots of arguments on both sides. But the position of those attacking Martin seems to be that a company like Wetherspoon’s should be allowed to import unlimited amounts of cheap foreign labour without any form of democratic debate or control. 

Martin might, or might not, win his argument about allowing more bar staff happy to work for minimum wage into the country. We will see. But there is nothing wrong with him asking for that, while also believing the decision should be made in Westminster rather than Brussels. And those arguing otherwise are making themselves look very silly.