"Farage is a Del Boy who wants to get somewhere".
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"I hope and pray he doesn’t get elected": Ukip founder Alan Sked on Nigel Farage

James Nickerson meets Alan Sked, the man who created Ukip.

Professor Alan Sked, once-upon-a-time founder of Ukip, has strong views on the current state of the party. “They go to Europe, they don’t do anything, they take the money and as far as I can tell it’s all a fraud.”

This is not just one scorned man’s account of the party he created. “Two Ukip MEPs have been done for corruption and fraud and been put in jail, and a third has also been charged . . . Not one Ukip MEP turned up for the debate on standards of English required by foreign doctors in the NHS, something they are always saying kills people because the doctors do not understand English.”

Not that when Sked led the party he was a fan of the European Parliament; between 1991 and 1997, when he ran the party, they would not send candidates there. “We didn’t recognise the legitimacy of the European parliament: we’d only send MPs to Westminster. There was no reason to go there and just say ‘no, no, no, no’ to absolutely everything. And if we were forced to go we would have given our salaries to the NHS.”

Robert Smith, a Ukip founding father who is Parliamentary Candidate for Camborne & Redruth, has a respectfully different view: “The anti-European movement, when it started, needed someone like Alan Sked, who was clear-sighted enough to say we need a party that goes across all parties, which has as its raison d'être that we leave the European Union. We would have got nowhere without Alan and I congratulate him for that.”

But Smith adds: “Afterwards there was a series of fallings out and people wanted to be more politically astute than Alan. We needed to change our policy on the European Union after facing headlines stating ‘And if you want a party that won’t even go to the European Union Vote for Ukip’.”

It is not just this that has changed, Sked tells me as he points to the membership form he created. It lies among the kind of heap of files you would expect to find in the office of a history lecturer. In the years that he led the party it was a mainstream-normal-centre-of-the-road-liberal party, he says. “Our membership form said we had no prejudices against foreigners or lawful minorities of any kind at all, and we had an array of policies.”

“We had policies on housing, the welfare state, defence, crime, economics, fiscal policy. You name it. The one policy area we didn’t have a policy was immigration, because it didn’t dawn on me that immigration was a problem. Now he’s obsessed with immigration, that silly bugger Farage.”

This was not how the academic envisaged Ukip. In fact, it was originally named the Anti-Federalist League in 1991 after the Anti-Corn Law league of the 1840s that had converted Sir Robert Pell from protection to free trade and changed the history of Britain. “Unfortunately, not everyone had this historical consciousness, people associating the name with fascist leagues in France in the 1930s. This wasn’t acceptable.”

Still, for Sked, a decade of meeting European politicians, academics and bureaucrats led him to the conclusion that the EU was a burden on British finances, undemocratic and corrupt, views he still holds. This is why in 2013 he set up New Deal, a political party designed to do to Labour what Ukip has done to the Tories. While the party has ceased to exist, the history professor still vigorously campaigns for Britain to leave the EU.

“It worries me greatly, however, that Farage and UKIP could bring down the whole out campaign if there were to be a referendum. That’s why I keep criticising them and hoping they won’t get anywhere in the election because they have become so toxic,” Sked explains as he reclines in his chair. “I saw a poll that put Ukip as Britain’s most toxic brand, with the conservatives second and Marmite third. I think Farage and Ukip are seen as so prejudiced and so racist that they would completely contaminate the whole campaign, which is my great fear.”

A lot seems to ride, in Sked’s view, on how the media decide who the spokespeople for the Out campaign should be. “If the press takes an arbitrary decision that Farage is the spokesperson for the Out campaign over people like myself or Nigel Lawson, and we get side-lined, then our movement could be in trouble. The media treats him like a darling, but he’s got no mind: he’s a plank. But at least the media often build them up to destroy them.”

But Sked thinks Farage has got this kind of ‘I’m the guy in the pub with a fag and a pint’ thing going on and that is why when Ukip does shocking things nobody seems to care. Sked believes the party are trying to get what he calls the obvious loonies out, “but every week someone crawls out of the woodworks saying something like ‘African immigrants are scroungers’ or something else vile. They are against gay marriage and want to ban the burka: they say they’re a libertarian party but they’re just prejudice to the nth degree.”

For Smith, however, racial prejudice exists in every political party; “I’m not denying it exists in Ukip at all. What we do, though, is kick members out if we find out. The people I work with are not racially prejudiced; but I don't deny that there are people with these prejudices in Ukip, just as there are in every the Labour and Tory party. We’re not all swivel-headed lunatics.”

Yet, a few weeks ago Farage made a statement about how he wanted to scrap legislation that protected against discrimination at work. He says he did not mention race at all in the interview, but for Sked “it demonstrates Farage's and Ukip's obsession with race and however the statement is worded it constitutes a dog whistle signal to all racists in Britain that Ukip is the party for them. Which other party leader would play the race card in such a way during an election? Just as in 2010 when the party's flagship policy was to ban the burka, yet again Ukip is trying to turn the election debate from serious issues concerning the economy to the divisive one of race.”

The party got nowhere until 2010, when it became the default protest party of British politics when the Liberal Democrats entered coalition with the Conservatives. Voting Ukip in the 2015 General Election, however, will result in one thing for sure, thinks Sked: a raucous bunch of populists in Westminster who would be agitating for a repeal of the 1972 Accession Treaty, or a referendum, and they would team up with the Tory Eurosceptics to make sure any renegotiation Cameron made with Europe was not good enough – which is probably what will happen anyway.

Forget the party for a second though, Sked instructs me. “It’s a one man band and there’s a huge rumour in Ukip that Farage is desperate to get a peerage and he’ll do a deal with the Tories just to get to the Lords. What he really wants is social respectability. He’s a Del Boy who wants to get somewhere.”

Sked looks worried. “I hope and pray he doesn’t get elected.” He’s been informed by Craig MacKinlay, a previous Ukip candidate who is running against Farage in South Thanet, that the Tories are slight ahead, but it’s going to be close. “Nonetheless if Farage doesn’t get in, even he says that is a car crash”.

The academic is hoping for more than that; he hopes they get no seats at all. “They might end up just getting one, and I don’t think it will be Farage, I think it will be Carswell in Clacton. Current opinion polls give Ukip 9 per cent, and that’s not enough to get any seats, let alone hold the balance of power.”

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder