By Jack Reed
When talking to students about politics and UKIP in particular, the same words always seem to emerge. ‘Xenophobic’, ‘prejudiced’ and ‘extreme’ are but a few. So it is, therefore, intriguing to learn that the party we know now was not the party initially devised by Alan Sked, when he founded UKIP in 1993. David Cameron infamously called UKIP, “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, and ironically lost out to the Leave Campaign, in which Brexit was achieved and UKIP’s central ambition was realised.
However, Sked had a different vision back in the 1990s: “it was a centre party with a declaration on every membership form that it had no prejudices of any kind against foreigners or lawful minorities. It also declared that it would send no MEPs to Brussels but give their salaries to the NHS.” So, while the aim to leave the EU has been present throughout, it is also clear that his tolerant and liberal party was dismantled following his departure in 1997.
Sked resigned from his position as leader after the 1997 election, with the electoral system and lack of funding making it, ‘a hard grind.’ However, he explains the sudden changes which occurred within the party following his return to academia: “The declaration of no prejudices against foreigners disappeared as did the ban on going to Brussels after the EU changed the electoral system for the EP in 1999 to allow almost anyone in.” These two changes are clearly significant in making UKIP the party it is today, yet neither are as important as the third change. This final change was the appointment of a new leader, whom Sked describes as, “not very bright, never very sober and someone who wanted to turn the party to the far right.” He, of course, means Nigel Farage.
Under Farage’s leadership, UKIP have become the main protest party in the United Kingdom, offering a different (and radical) approach to that of other political parties: one that has centred around leaving the EU and reducing the levels of immigration. Nevertheless, as Sked points out, these are the only two policies UKIP seem to project and, importantly, their vote in general elections has remained minimal. Why, as the main protest party, have UKIP failed to effectively influence politics through a parliamentary means? “UKIP could have had a large bridgehead in Parliament years before under intelligent, professional leadership.”
While UKIP have failed to exert their weight within the British nor European parliaments, they did have their moment of glory last June in the EU referendum, when the British public voted to leave the EU. UKIP celebrated after 23 years of campaigning for this exit, and many argue that UKIP were of central importance to the result. But were they? Sked disagrees, believing their significance was limited only to pushing Cameron into promising a referendum. “UKIP has only 17,000 members, so only 0.01% of Brexit voters came from the party. Its 3.9 million protest votes in 2015 were also far short of the 17.4 million who backed Brexit.”
Instead, Sked gives praise to Gove and Johnson, who were the leaders of the official Leave campaign. “Gove and Johnson were the stars of the campaign along with Dan Hannan, Dominic Raab, Gisela Stuart, Andrea Leadsom and others.” While Farage’s celebrations will go down in history and he smugly declared that, as usual, he had done things his own way, Sked recognizes the real reason for this separate campaign. “Farage was seen by the Leave Campaign as an embarrassment and he alienated as many voters as he attracted, especially students and young people.”
Much of the debate during and after the EU referendum has been surrounding the promises made by the Leave campaign and whether these promises will become a reality. This is a divisive issue, and Sked continues to support those who campaigned successfully for Brexit. “I think the three Brexit ministers are of high quality intellectually – Boris especially – and have a clear idea of the issues at stake.” And, while he praises the three Brexiteers, he equally criticises the role Theresa May is playing in the process, despite her recent 12 point plan outlining how Britain will leave the EU. “Clearly Theresa May is key and she says almost nothing. However, her party is pro-Brexit and Boris is probably its champion so she knows how the land lies. In any case, she has the option of fighting an election if need be against a weak and divided opposition so she can afford to be tough and keep the Brexiteers on side.”
Aside from Brexit and UKIP, there is the much bigger issue of the rise of nationalism and populism both in Britain and in other countries around Europe. UKIP are partially responsible for this, but there are also other factors to consider, namely the uniqueness of issues within certain countries that generate populist beliefs and, as Sked notes, the different political cultures that exist. “The new populism stems directly from the failure of the Eurozone and the migration crisis as mediated by Angela Merkel.” The solution? Sked sees this as simple: “the traditional parties just stick to the need to defend the failed policy of ever-closer union.”
The bigger question now surrounding UKIP is that of their existence: do they still have a place within British politics or has their purpose (leaving the EU) now been served and consequently rendered them unnecessary on the political scene? When asked if they still had a place in British politics, Sked had a one-word reply: “No.” A damning verdict from the party’s founder, but one that ultimately reflects its shift from the initial values he implemented, stressing and proposing liberal and moderate ideas, to UKIP’s desire to leave the EU.
Now that this has been achieved, Sked, who sees the current UKIP as “policyless and faction-ridden”, is calling for their departure, following, in a way, their proper emergence onto the political scene that came with the referendum. “The party has already fulfilled the mission I laid down for it. It should be very happy to have done that and should now disappear.” It’s likely, under Farage, UKIP wouldn’t have gone away, purely due to his desire to further his own career and potentially become an MP in the future. But, now that he’s gone and UKIP are left looking for a new purpose, perhaps they will fade away and be but a memory. They may claim to be pushing for a hard Brexit, but this will make little difference. As Sked puts it: “the future of Brexit will now be in the hands of others”.
Photograph: Flickr via Creative Commons