Singular man of sceptical faith

April 11, 1997

Alan Sked does not look like a politician or sound like an academic but he is both. Lucy Hodges talks to him about his political party and his loathing for the European Union

Alan Sked was getting out of the shower when I pressed the buzzer of his mansion flat. "Hold on while I throw some clothes on," he shouted down his entryphone. So I held on in the gloom of his hallway, wondering whether I was about to meet a new breed of politician, one that oversleeps and is utterly careless of the impression he makes.

The answer was yes. Alan Sked may be the leader of the UK Independence party but he earns his crust as an academic, teaching international history at the London School of Economics. Right now he is having the time of his life with the party he set up four years ago to ensure the future sovereignty of the United Kingdom.

Given his loathing of European government, it is odd to discover that Sked's roots are liberal, not conservative. His interest in politics dates from his youth. At the age of 14 he joined the Young Liberals in Scotland, becoming president of the League of Scottish Liberal Students, and, finally, a Liberal candidate in Paisley while he was a post-graduate at Oxford.

His great hero was Jo Grimond. After that he thought he had got politics out of his system. Anyway the Liberal party began to go downhill after Grimond, he thought. So he devoted himself to his studies, first at Merton College Oxford where he completed a DPhil and then at the LSE where he got a job as a lecturer. "I found the Hapsburg empire much more interesting than the Liberal party - and for that matter more alive,'' he says.

During the 1980s Sked honed his knowledge of Europe, becoming head of the European studies programme at the LSE which he built into the biggest postgraduate programme on the European Union of any UK university. It meant he had to read up on the EU in a way he had not before. He met people who worked in the commission and he read hundreds of masters theses on the EU.

"I decided the whole idea was mad. I became so sick of Europe after ten years and it did seem so fatuous supporting all the myths about Europe - that it was a cure-all and a great ideal for the future whereas in fact in practice it was a kind of sotto governo of corrupt bureaucrats who are a danger to democracy," he says. "I couldn't understand why free people like the British should spend Pounds 10 billion a year to pay unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats to make up barmy laws for us."

You see, Sked does not talk like an academic. He breaks all the rules, makes wild generalisations and laces the whole with flippant remarks. At the LSE he became so anti-EU that his students began to complain. One student told him that, with views like his, he should resign immediately. In the end he so incensed a couple of students that they complained to former LSE director John Ashworth, who set up an enquiry. Nothing came of it. But later, after he had been on a sabbatical, Sked returned to work to find he was no longer required to teach European studies. Nowadays he teaches the history of the United States and a course on the history of race, sex and slavery. And he manages to fit that into two days a week.

In 1989, he joined the Bruges Group, named after Mrs Thatcher's famous anti-European speech, and ended up virtually taking it over after writing the group's most controversial pamphlets. The irony was that he was not a Conservative like most of the other members. Eventually he was pushed out after putting out a press release critical of John Major's handling of the Gulf War. It contained the question: "Was the overthrow of Mrs Thatcher paid for by the blood of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis (ie Kurds)?'' Sked was accused by Kenneth Minogue, chairman of the Bruges Group, of having become a real embarrassment to John Major. But Sked comforts himself with the notion that he did save quite a few Kurds.

Knowing that the Bruges Group did not want to put up candidates against the Conservatives at the general election in 1992, Sked set up the Anti-Federalist League. He stood against Chris Patten in Bath and takes credit for helping to boot out of his seat the man who is now Hong Kong governor. At an election meeting Patten was asked "Will you apologise for the poll tax?'' Patten gave a waffly reply. Sked sprang to his feet and asked the question again. Whereupon Patten said "No''. The next day the newspapers were full of Patten's refusal to apologise for the poll tax. Soon after Patten was defeated.

Later Sked fought two by-elections for the Anti-Federalist League, first at Newbury, and then at Christchurch. He came fourth out of 19 at Newbury and fourth out of 14 at Christchurch, coming only 500 behind Labour on both occasions. Those figures were good enough for him to start a new party, he decided. So, the UK Independence party was born, the only party in favour of complete withdrawal from the EU.

Sked is proud that within three years - with no millionaires or professional politicians - he has founded a national party with branches from John O'Groats to Lands End, national headquarters in Regent's Street, a national newsletter, an annual conference and elections. "In fact it's a democratic miracle," he adds. Membership is 16,000 and costs Pounds 10 a year. All staff are volunteers and the party is fielding 200 candidates. When he talks about Europe he begins to sound deadly serious. It is quite bizarre that we are not engaging in an earnest debate about European monetary union when within weeks of winning the election a future government will abolish our currency, he says. But it is not only Europe that gets him going. Sked is against a written constitution, devolution for Scotland and proportional representation. He is also anxious about what Labour would do to the House of Lords, not because he thinks you can defend the upper house but because he is worried about the shape of any reform.

Just before Easter his latest book was published. An Intelligent Person's Guide to Post-War Britain contains some good Skedisms, mostly made at the expense of his erstwhile colleagues, the Liberal Democrats. "Naming ten famous Liberal Democrats is like naming ten famous Belgians or ten famous Albanians. One always gets one or two.'' Jokes apart, Sked regards this book as a serious analysis of what has gone wrong in modern Britain. One of the great disasters under Mrs T. was the bureaucratisation of education, he argues. Universities suffered in particular. "The end result is we all spend too much time on administrative processes, too much time on reviewing everything, too much time on making sure we get the right points for teaching and research in academic exercises which are usually a farce.

"All this leads to second-rate work being published, people listing everything from their telephone number to minor book reviews instead of proper publications, and people being paranoid because they don't get their four pieces in for the research assessment exercise.'' When does the academic-turned-politician find time to write? Late at night, he says. The 90,000 words of his Intelligent Person's Guide were produced in three months. His first book was about the way in which the Hapsburg monarchy was saved in 1848; recently he has written another book on the decline and fall of the Hapsburg empire 1815-1918. His Penguin Post-War Britain, A Political History, 1945-1992 is a classic, now in its fourth edition, co-written with Chris Cook. Whatever happens to Europe and the UK Independence party, words will not fail Alan Sked.

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