Sheffield pub-goers debated Brexit with JD Wetherspoons boss as part of a UK-wide campaign calling for a no-deal.
Sheffield voted to leave the EU by a close 3.8 percent difference in the referendum. Two years on, in a pub in the city centre it is clear there are many who still strongly believe in Brexit, despite calls for a second referendum and the ‘shambolic’ handling of negotiations so far.
A crowd packed out a section of the Banker’s Draft, on Market Place, to hear Tim Martin, the founder and chairman of the pub giant, argue for a no-deal Brexit. It comes eight days before MPs vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
“There’s nothing to fear from a no-deal Brexit,” he said.
“A lot of people think it’s a cliff edge or a walk through hell after the way MPs talk about it but I think it’s completely untrue.”
He argued there may be economic benefits to leaving the EU without a deal and said the UK should instead adopt a free trade approach such as countries like New Zealand and Canada.
Mr Martin added that sticking to the decision may benefit democracy, help regain control over things like fishing grounds and slash import taxes.
The visit to the Steel city is part of his UK-wide tour over winter, in which he aims to speak at more than 100 of his pubs and chat to customers about their views.
He said: “A lot of people think it’s a slightly eccentric approach but it raises quite a lot of questions that don’t always come up if you restrict yourself to London or the national press and I think the more debate there is the better.
“The reception has been generally very good, the pub population mostly agrees. I’ve had some opposition as well, some of it quite vociferous as you can expect but I think overall people accept the principal of debate.”
Mr Martin, who also writes about Brexit in his Wetherspoons magazine and put 500,000 ‘Brexit beer mats’ on pub tables across the country, said in Greater Manchester, for example, he had to cut his speech short due to people arguing over him and not allowing him to speak.
The crowd in Sheffield was predominantly white, older men, and, after talking with several people in the audience, it was apparent they supported Mr Martin and were also staunch supporters of exiting without a deal.
Some admitted the handling of Brexit post-referendum had been ‘shambolic’ but believed it was better than remaining in the EU or having a second vote.
Elsewhere in the city there have been protests and calls for a second referendum to allow people to change their minds following more research and seeing the reality of the deals available.
For example, a report published after the vote showed areas that voted leave, such as Sheffield, would be hit worst economically by Brexit and Sheffielders travelled to London recently to join a 700,000-strong march calling for a second vote.
But those who turned out for Mr Martin’s talk were mostly in favour.
Jody Holland, aged 19, studying politics at the University of Sheffield, said: “Brexit should reassert the UK’s sovereignty on the world, and it should allow us to pursue a course that British people want.
“I would say I am quite left-leaning but I am still pro-Brexit. Hopefully Brexit would be the opportunity for Britain to restructure itself in a much more sustainable and equitable manner. I’m against drastic change but I think a no-deal Brexit would be the best way to deliver on the promises made. I think although it would be a shock to our economy, it would eventually be a good thing.”
John Trow, aged 66, retired corporate adviser, said: “Of course the negotiations are an absolute shambles and have been for two and a half years now when it should have been much more precise and clear-cut.
“The conversation has also been far too frequently set on the economy only when there are so many other aspects that made people vote leave, like sovereignty.”
Lesley Elliott, aged 63, retired teacher, said: “The issue of is a very important one, because would you like to be told exactly what to say, do and how to do it by somebody you didn’t know? That’s how we feel about the EU. We want control over what our country does.
“Theresa May was always a remainer so she doesn’t have the energy to see the vote through. Her deal suits the EU, it doesn’t suit us, she doesn’t stand up like a good negotiator and say it’s not good enough.”
John Thurley, aged 72, retired businessman, said: “Sheffield is a fantastic city for producing steel and other things, we make the best steel in the world, we are a business and we should be open to trade and I think the EU is stopping us from doing that.”
Tony Nemeth, aged 61, chauffeur, said: “I believe we should be a sovereign country, it’s nothing to do with immigration, I believe we should make our own decisions and have our own laws. I love Europe to bits but I think we should be independent.
“We also shouldn’t have a second vote if we haven’t implemented the first. We have had a people’s vote. The only way we should have a second vote is if this doesn’t work.”
Gavin Felten, chairman of democrats and veterans party, said: “What we want is what we voted for: to leave the EU. We voted to leave, period. A no-deal is best. It was a massive shock on the night that Sheffield voted to leave but our MPs are being undemocratic in not honouring that.
“Considering the disgusting behaviour over the past couple of days, does anyone genuinely think a second vote would be civil? It would be a nightmare. I genuinely worry about the state of the country at the moment.”