Ukip’s founder and staunchest critic; Professor Alan Sked, who envisaged a mainstream democrat party, is unimpressed with its far-right stance and apparent rise in stature
It says something about a political party when its founder compares himself to a monster-creating character in a Mary Shelley novel. “I sometimes think of myself as Dr Frankenstein,” says Alan Sked, professor of International History at the London School of Economics. “So far I think ‘it’ can be contained. I attack ‘it’ in the press all the time. The “it” Sked refers to is the party he founded some two decades ago, the UK Independence party (Ukip), which campaigns to get the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Originally started by Sked in 1991 as the Anti-Federalist League, ‘it’ was renamed to Ukip in 1993. “We changed the name to the UK Independence party in this room,” he says. “Well there were less books and we sat around the table. After a while we went to the common room at the end. Ukip started here.”
I look around my surroundings in wonderment at the historic significance of the place — if you can call the founding of Ukip a historically significant event. Some of its critics might describe the event more as a dark spot in the history of UK politics. Sked’s office is pretty nondescript, filled to the brim with books, and gives the place the appearance of a small library. He confesses he has a lot more books at home, and dreads the day he might get sacked or retired and is asked by the university to take the books home where he doesn’t have the space.
Ukip has been in the media spotlight recently following strong performance in local elections where they won almost 150 council seats. Although Ukip came in behind the three major parties, it was still an outcome which took many observers by surprise. After all we are talking about a party which was branded by one senior cabinet minister only last month as a “collection of clowns”, and whose leader Nigel Farage once called for the burqa to be banned in Britain.
But analysts are beginning to take Ukip more seriously these days. The BBC political editor Nick Robinson has described the May election results as “the day Ukip emerged as a real political force in the land”. Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, a leading political scientist, said Ukip have been given “an opportunity to become England’s fourth party” while Farage has called it a “shockwave through the establishment”.
Yet one person who remains cool and unimpressed is Sked. “It has hardly set the world on fire,” he tells me. “There is no great enthusiasm.” To argue his case he points out at the dip in voter turnout. “Seventy per cent of the population did not bother voting and were not attracted by Ukip at all. Out of the 30 per cent that did vote, 75 per cent did not either,” he says. “I think it is just a protest vote. Some people vote for them because they think they are anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-foreigner — it is just people who are against life. People who just think everything sucks.”
Sked left Ukip in 1997 after being dismayed over infiltration by right-wingers. “I have never had anything to do with Ukip since except criticising all the time because when I founded it, it was a democrat central mainstream party with no prejudices against anybody,” he says. “And then suddenly Farage and his friends turned it into a far-right and what I think is an extremist and racist party. Farage at one stage told me that his father had been a candidate of the National Front. And he wanted his father and other former National Front candidates to be Ukip candidates. And I said, ‘Forget about it, it’s never gonna happen, you got no chance, we are just not having these people in the party including your father.’ At that point Farage said to me, ‘Alan you needn’t worry about the nigger vote. The nig nogs would never vote for us.’ I was astonished — I thought really?”
His criticism of the party has brought Sked his share of hate mail from Ukip loyalists. “There was a letter from someone in Canterbury the other day saying, ‘We are bored by your attacks on Ukip. Either suck your dummy, shut up or throw up’ — and this kind of stuff,” he breaks into a laugh. “At least I know I am annoying them.”
However, where Sked and Ukip still have common ground is their dislike for the EU. He sees it as a system where British taxpayers give billions of pounds every year to unelected bureaucrats who then make laws designed to have a negative impact on the UK .“I agree in coming out of the European Union,” he says. “I have always agreed with that. But if we came out of the European Union to be governed by people like Farage, I would be scared out of my wits and probably emigrate. I am not sure which would be worse, rule from the European Union or rule by people like Farage and Neil Hamilton and idiots like them.”
To say Sked sounds less than enthusiastic about the present leadership of the Ukip would be an understatement. In the course of the interview he described Farage as a “nasty piece of work”, “always drunk”, “racist and right-wing”, and “one-man cult” who dominates Ukip “like Stalin dominated the Communist Party”.
Last month, Farage’s statement that a young Margaret Thatcher would be more likely to join the Ukip than a Conservative Party led by David Cameron and that his party are the “true inheritors of Thatcher” raised eyebrows. Sked tells me he knew Thatcher from his days as a member of the Bruges Group, named after the former prime minister’s famous speech on her vision for Europe in Belgium in 1988, in which she had memorably said: “Mr Chairman, you have invited me to speak on the subject of Britain and Europe. Perhaps I should congratulate you on your courage. If you believe some of the things said and written about my views on Europe, it must seem rather like inviting Genghis Khan to speak on the virtues of peaceful coexistence.”
Despite her views on the EU, Sked is adamant Thatcher would not have become a member of the Ukip party. “The idea that she would ever be anything but a member of the Conservative Party, I think, is outrageous because she wouldn’t join Ukip because Ukip is led by uneducated, xenophobic morons and that wasn’t Thatcher’s style,” he says. “She was highly educated, intelligent and I think she would have been disgusted by Farage, Neil Hamilton, Lord Pearson, the people that are the nutters on the top of Ukip. They are far too extreme for her. She wasn’t an extremist.”
Thatcher would occasionally come to Bruges Group meetings where they had dinner and which is where Sked met her. On one occasion he had the chance to sit next to her for four hours. “Conrad Black, the newspaper proprietor who was sent to prison, was on her other side and she had an argument with him about [John] Major in the first two minutes and she didn’t speak to him again,” he recalls. “And so she spoke to me for the whole evening. And I had about four hours quizzing her about this, this and this. She was highly intelligent.”
One of the last times he saw the former prime minister was after the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 which led to the creation of the EU. “She said, ‘Alan, they have given everything away, absolutely everything, and this was done by a conservative government,’” he recalls, repeating her words: “a conservative government, a conservative government! She was spitting the word ‘conservative’ with contempt. So she actually did come to loath Major and his people but she still remained a Tory.”
Sked used to be a European federalist and was old enough to have voted “yes” in the 1975 referendum over Britain’s membership of the now defunct European Economic Community. Between 1980 and 1990 he became head of the masters European studies programme at LSE. During those ten years he met lots of people from Brussels, politicians from Europe, and read countless university theses on European Union. He was even chair of the research seminar on the European Union. And he came to the conclusion that it was “mad”, didn’t work democratically, cost a fortune and the UK would be much better off leaving.
Yet despite his hostility towards the EU he is dismayed by what he sees as the misguided policies of the party he founded. “The last election, when we faced a huge economic crisis, what was the major policy? Nothing to do with economics, it was banning the burqa. And you thought this applied to about 0.5 per cent of women in Britain. Why are you worried about this? Besides, if they want to wear a burqa why shouldn’t they?”
Over the years Ukip has faced accusation of having an undercurrent of racism and Islamophobia. The party’s former leader, Lord Pearson, once invited Geert Wilders to visit the UK to show his anti-Islam film “Fitna”. One Ukip parliamentarian denounced “Muslim nutters who want to kill us and put us under medieval Sharia”. Only recently Ukip had to suspend a canvasser who allegedly posted jokes on Facebook about destroying mosques, setting Muslims on fire and posting images of American President Barack Obama and the First Lady as chimpanzees.
Outside of creating hysteria over immigration, Ukip isn’t exactly known for formulating strong policies usually expected of a political party which has serious standing with the voting public. “Farage and his people have actually never done anything themselves,” Sked says. “They haven’t produced policies, they concentrate on getting into the European parliament which they don’t believe to get the salaries, the perks and you know the expenses and the pension. And Nigel Farage has claimed £2 million [Dh11 million] in expenses.”
The Ukip website describes the party as being “libertarian, non-racist”. There seems to be a whiff of the American politician Ron Paul in Nigel Farage. Like the leader of the Ukip the former Congressman has faced accusations of racism over some controversial content in his newsletters from the early Nineties, yet has a certain appeal among libertarian voters. Farage recently met Paul during a conference in Chile. The Ukip leader tweeted about the occasion: “Had dinner with Ron Paul last night. 100 per cent genuine and a real pleasure.”
Is Farage a sort of British Ron Paul? “No, I think Ron Paul is more educated,” replies Sked. “Farage never went to university. When he was candidate in the very beginning in the 1990s he used to stick things through letter boxes with stuff he kind of wrote himself. And I used to get these letters from party headquarters: ‘I am very glad your candidate in Salisbury believes in education but until he learns how to spell it I am not voting for him.’ Two or three letters insinuated that Farage’s command of English was not very good. I took him to my office and tried to explain to him English grammar and spelling. For about two hours I tried to tell him the difference between ‘it’s’, with an apostrophe, and ‘its’, without an apostrophe.”
It must be a constant embarrassment for Ukip members to have their own founder denounce them publicly, even being reminded of the fact by the leader of the Tories. In 2006, David Cameron, who was then in opposition, famously described the party as “a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”. Afterwards, on coming under predictable fire from Ukip, Cameron had refused to budge, saying: “I don’t think I’m saying anything that hasn’t been said before. Ukip have some issues — not least that their own founding member Dr [Alan] Sked left the party because he thought they had been infiltrated by the far right.” However, following the recent surprise performance at the local elections Cameron appeared to have backtracked somewhat, saying, “It is no good insulting a political party that people have chosen to vote for.”
Looking ahead, Sked is sceptical of the appeal Ukip and its outspoken leader Farage will have among mainstream voters. “He is not going to be in any pivotal position after election,” he says. “His influence will be merely taking votes away from the Conservative Party. And from his point of view that is self-defeating because it is only the Conservatives who are promising a referendum on Europe. So if David Cameron doesn’t get returned you get a Labour or Lib/Lab government who don’t hold a referendum. Then Ukip has actually cut its own throat.”
From Gulf News. Report by Syed Hamad Ali. 30.05.13.