Confessions of a British Politician: I Created a Monster

In 1991, Alan Sked founded an anti-EU party. Now he's horrified by what it's become.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage, beside a portrait of Britain's House of Lords (Toby Melville / Reuters)

When I was a teenager, I wished for many things. I was determined to be a historian like my intellectual idol, A.J.P. Taylor, whose television lectures on British and European history held me spellbound. I wanted to lead a political party and deliver speeches to adoring supporters. These were big dreams for a working-class kid from Glasgow whose family had never sent anyone to university.

And yet the dreams somehow came true. I went to Oxford for my doctorate and even got Alan Taylor as my supervisor, before joining the faculty of the London School of Economics. I also established a political party, UKIP, whose goal was to halt the European Union’s encroachments on British democracy and whose fortunes now constitute one of the major storylines of Britain’s general election on Thursday.

But I no longer recognize the party I founded. In the years since I stepped down as its leader, UKIP has become a vehicle of the far-right, obsessed with race and immigration. Ironically, the party has recently drawn strength from the very European Union it opposes, and its current status as the United Kingdom’s most toxic brand threatens to undermine the case for British withdrawal from the EU. The party, in other words, could destroy the cause for which it was created. My dream has turned into a nightmare.

* * *

During my first years at LSE, I was a euro-federalist—a supporter of European integration—and a member of the United Kingdom’s Liberal Party, which I had joined as a teenager and for which I had been a parliamentary candidate in 1970. I had also voted “yes” in the 1975 referendum on U.K. membership in the European Economic Community, a forerunner of the EU that Britain had joined in 1973. A youthful idealist, I believed that European unity would promote peace, prosperity, and democracy on the continent instead of the pacifism, relative economic decline, bureaucracy, and corruption that it all too obviously represents today.

By the end of the 1980s,  my faith in the European Project had disappeared. I now considered the quest for European unity a threat to British parliamentary democracy and the country’s financial well-being. Directives and regulations from the EU capital of Brussels, formulated by bureaucrats and rubber-stamped in secret by continental politicians, could not be challenged in the House of Commons, however much they cost the British taxpayer or however impractical they were. Britain’s contributions to the EU budget ballooned. The cost of living rose due to European agricultural policies, and the United Kingdom’s fishing fleet, stocks, and communities receded. The bloc wielded little international influence, and its leading member states could not agree on foreign and defense policy.

And so I left the Liberal Party and, in 1989, helped found the Bruges Group, set up to propagate Margaret Thatcher’s euroskeptic ideas as set out in 1988 in her Bruges Speech, in which she declared that she had not “successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state.” Most members of the Bruges Group were committed Thatcherites, which I could tolerate. But when Thatcher was replaced as premier by fellow Conservative John Major, who declared that Britain’s place was “at the heart of Europe” (had he ever looked at a map?), I decided to form a new political party that would aim to take Britain out of the European Union and run candidates against all the established parties.

I began simply, in 1991, by writing a letter to the Times of London asking people to join the cause, and then contested the parliamentary seat belonging to the europhile Conservative Party Chairman Chris Patten in the 1992 election (I lost, as did Patten, who was booted out of office for shepherding through Thatcher’s hated poll tax). I had called my party the Anti-Federalist League after the Anti-Corn Law League of the 1840s, which had persuaded Prime Minister Robert Peel to favor free trade over protectionism and changed British history. But few picked up on the historical allusion. In 1993, the party’s name was changed to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) so that its main objective—the U.K.’s independence from the EU—could be immediately understood.

Between 1993 and 1997, I spent most of my time as leader building up the party’s national infrastructure and developing policies on a range of foreign and domestic issues. The party did not formulate policy on immigration, which, at the time, wasn’t politically controversial, in part because most EU countries were prosperous and there was little migration within the union. In fact, UKIP’s party-membership form during this period stated that its members had no prejudices against foreigners or minorities. UKIP would contest elections for the European Parliament (as it did in 1994) to mobilize support and test the party’s organizational skills. But since the party did not recognize the legitimacy of EU institutions, it would only send elected lawmakers to the U.K. Parliament. The salaries of any UKIP members elected to the European Parliament would go to Britain’s National Health Service. UKIP would take no money from Brussels.

Alan Sked, founder of the UK Independence Party, in 1996 (Reuters)

I led the party through 1997, when UKIP, in its first general election, fielded 197 candidates with a budget of about £40,000. We were opposed not only by the traditional parties but also by a new one, the Referendum Party led by the billionaire James Goldsmith, who promised to spend £40 million on roughly the same platform as UKIP’s, including a referendum on EU membership. Ultimately, both parties achieved very few votes and no seats, though the Referendum Party outpolled UKIP. In the wake of the election, future party leaders including Nigel Farage, the current head of UKIP, challenged my stewardship. A UKIP member was outed as the research director of the far-right British National Party, and the party appeared poised for a turn to the radical right. Exhausted, and expecting Goldsmith to lead the euroskeptic crusade, I resigned UKIP and quit politics. Goldsmith died a few months later, and his party ceased to exist.

* * *

In the years since my departure, UKIP has gradually raised its profile. Today, some commentators believe it poses a challenge to Britain’s established two-party system, in which Labour and Conservatives collect the vast majority of votes and one of them forms a majority government.

If so, this is not on account of UKIP’s intellectual sharpness. UKIP has become an extreme nationalist and populist party, fixated on immigration and on leaving the EU so that the United Kingdom can regain control over who crosses its borders (immigration has recently returned as a divisive issue because of increased emigration from poor, ex-communist countries that have entered the EU, coupled with the economically disastrous consequences of European monetary union). Every other day, it seems, one of UKIP’s candidates or members is quoted issuing slurs against blacks, Asians, Muslims, and gay people. During Britain’s last general election in 2010—at the height of the international economic crisis—UKIP’s flagship policy was “ban the burka.” Farage himself has described the party’s 2010 manifesto as “486 pages of drivel.” And this time around has been no better. To cite just one example: In March, the conservative Mail on Sunday reported that “UKIP’s official general election candidates have been caught posting racist and offensive material on the Internet revealing disturbing links between Nigel Farage’s prospective MPs and far-right groups,” adding that “at least six UKIP candidates have circulated or endorsed material from the British National Party and other nationalist splinter groups with racist neo-Nazi agendas.”

UKIP’s newfound prominence is the result of two factors. First, in 1999 the European Union changed Britain’s voting system for the European Parliament to a proportional-representation model, creating a situation in which any party receiving roughly 2 percent of the vote in a given region is able to dispatch a member of parliament (MEP) to Brussels. In response, UKIP ditched its original opposition to sending representatives there and became Britain’s default protest party in European Parliament elections. Its MEPs—who make up about a third of Britain’s MEPs—play no constructive role, have appalling attendance records, and miss key votes, but milk the parliament’s generous expenses system to acquire as much money as possible. Farage himself boasted several years ago of having amassed £2 million in such allowances, and two of UKIP’s MEPs have been jailed for fraud. But since no one in Britain knows or cares about what happens in Brussels, the party’s behavior didn’t prevent it from topping British polls in last year’s European elections.

It took longer for UKIP to gain traction domestically. But after the Liberal Democrats—a fanatically pro-EU party that is moderately free-enterprise, with a social conscience—entered a coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010, UKIP slowly replaced the Lib Dems as the default protest party at home as well as in Europe. In 2014, UKIP gained its first seats in the British Parliament when two Conservative MPs defected to Farage’s camp over Prime Minister David Cameron’s dithering position on Britain’s relationship with Europe. UKIP has blamed the effects of the 2008-2010 economic crisis—including a lack of housing, rising welfare bills, and stagnant wages—on the recent surge of immigration to the United Kingdom, despite research indicating that the country’s immigrants are often young and ambitious, and contribute much more in taxes than they take out in benefits (UKIP has also implicated the European Union in these economic woes, since U.K. immigration policy is bound up with the EU’s principle of freedom of movement). There is certainly a debate to be had today about British identity and Britain's role in Europe and the world. But that debate has more to do with groups like the Scottish nationalists than with UKIP. And UKIP’s leaders have not contributed intellectually to this conversation.

Ahead of this week’s election, UKIP’s support in opinion polls is hovering around 10 to 15 percent. Practically speaking, and despite all the media hype surrounding the party, UKIP will be lucky to send even a handful of MPs to the British Parliament—I hope it gets none—and will likely have little leverage in Westminster after the vote relative to other smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats or Scottish National Party.

Indeed, if David Cameron forms the next government, UKIP’s most consequential impact on British politics could involve the debate over holding a referendum on the United Kingdom’s future in or out of the European Union—a referendum that Cameron has promised to stage but that Labour opposes. UKIP’s rise has actually coincided with an increase in support for remaining in the EU. Many people, I imagine, would not like to live in an independent Britain dominated by people like Nigel Farage. If Farage leads the “out” campaign in a future referendum, I predict it will be lost.

A party that was once moderate, outward-looking, and devoted to preserving parliamentary democracy has mutated into a conduit for right-wing xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, racism, and the denigration of immigrants. At the same time, it has gone native in Brussels, reaping the financial benefits of representing the U.K. in Europe while doing nothing constructive in the European Parliament—not even showing up for key debates to advance a euroskeptic point of view.

To my great embarrassment, UKIP has become my Frankenstein’s monster.