Just in case you hadn’t heard, on 23 June the UK is holding a referendum on its membership of the European Union. This fact may owe something to the frustration felt by one academic as he sat in a London School of Economics seminar room during the 1980s.
Alan Sked, who founded Ukip but now laments the party’s course under the “awful” Nigel Farage, spoke to Times Higher Education as he prepared to give a lecture at the LSE on “The case for Brexit”.
When Professor Sked started his 10-year spell as head of European studies at the LSE in 1981, he was a “Liberal federalist” (he had stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberals while a DPhil student at the University of Oxford).
The now emeritus professor of international history at the LSE recalled that he chaired a series of seminars featuring an “endless stream of European bureaucrats” and politicians from Brussels.
“I was drawn into the wider EU stuff by the research seminar and meeting all the different speakers,” Professor Sked continued.
“At the end of it all, by the end of the ’80s, I had become convinced that the whole system was mad, undemocratic, a waste of money, profligate, a bad bargain for Britain both economically and politically; and I became a Eurosceptic.”
Professor Sked became a founder member in 1989 of the Bruges Group, which now describes itself as a “neoliberal thinktank which researches and publishes against European federation”.
When leading Conservative MPs in the Bruges Group became “too close” to the non-Eurosceptic Sir John Major after he took over as party leader and prime minister, Professor Sked “thought the only way we are ever going to convert the Tories to real Euroscepticism and taking us out is by starting a new party”.
So in 1991, Professor Sked founded the Anti-Federalist League. The name was “based on the Anti-Corn Law League which converted the Tories from protectionism to free trade in the 1840s”, he said.
However, he said that such historical knowledge is “very rare”, so in 1993 the party changed its name to the catchier United Kingdom Independence Party.
Professor Sked led the party until after the 1997 general election, when he stood down. While taking a high profile in national media and appearing on television in party political broadcasts, he was still working at the LSE.
Although academic colleagues “ignored” his political activities, he detected a different attitude from those higher up.
“I was turned down for a chair at one stage by LSE,” said Professor Sked.
He claimed that a senior figure at the LSE told him that “if I wanted a chair I would have to tone down my views on Europe. I didn’t tell him to go fuck himself, but from the look on my face he probably got the message. That meant I had to wait another 10 years before I got a chair.”
Professor Sked has previously described Ukip as “a Frankenstein’s monster” – a clichéd analogy but one that fits for an entity disowned and hated by its creator.
So does he regret creating Ukip?
“I don’t regret creating the party,” replied Professor Sked. “I think my long-term strategy of putting pressure on the Tories to convert the Tories has worked.
“I think the vast majority of Tory party members are now Eurosceptic…probably half the party [MPs] are for coming out.
“So the original strategy of putting political pressure on them to get to this stage has actually worked. I almost feel responsible in a way.”
But under Professor Sked, Ukip “weren’t interested” in immigration, “never said anything about race or Islam” and was “a kind of liberal party”, he said.
“Farage took two or three years to really get control of it [after Professor Sked stepped down] and since then it’s turned nasty,” he added. “The main thing it’s not only nasty and full of all sorts of creeps, it’s totally amateurish.”
Professor Sked argued that “had a successor of mine been intellectually credible and been prepared to organise the party properly, [Ukip] could have MPs galore by now and be a real influence in the House of Commons. Farage can’t get elected and he can’t get anyone else elected.”
He stressed that the rise of Euroscepticism stems from more than individual personalities, highlighting the EU’s 1999 decision to switch to a proportional representation list system in European Parliament elections, which allowed Ukip to gain MEPs on small vote shares and thus gain precious media attention.
Nevertheless, does he feel that he played a significant role in reaching the position where a referendum is being held?
“I played my part,” replied Professor Sked. “If we come out, maybe one day I should write a little pamphlet called ‘The EU: My Part in its Downfall’.”