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Robert Kilroy-Silk: the godfather of Brexit

The political elite was once as worried by Robert Kilroy-Silk as the media was captivated by him. The millionaire talk-show host transformed Ukip and railed against the disconnect between Westminster and the people. So what happened to him? 

One evening in late May, I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognise. There came a low, menacing growl from a man with a Birmingham accent: “You’re a bullshitter, Patrick Maguire.” There followed a brief silence, then I realised it was Robert Kilroy-Silk. He seemed affronted to be recognised. “How did you know?”

It has been a decade since Kilroy left public life, apparently for good, after what seemed to have been a brief and disastrous second career in politics. In January 2004 he had been sacked as host of Kilroy, the BBC daytime chat-show that, over the course of 17 years, had made a millionaire media celebrity out of a maverick former Labour MP.

The cause of his downfall was a bilious Sunday Express column, in which he described Arabs as “limb-amputators, suicide bombers, woman repressors”. After an outcry – a kind of analogue Twitterstorm – Kilroy was abruptly cancelled. Kilroy, meanwhile, was denounced as a racist.

Rather than seek penance, he embraced his pariah status. In Februry 2004 he joined Ukip, a party still confined to the fringes of British politics, and transformed its fortunes. In the 1999 European Parliament elections the party had won three MEPs, all in the south of England, and just under 700,000 votes. In 2004, with Kilroy on the campaign, Ukip won 12 MEPs across all but one of England’s eight regions, and 2.7 million votes. In the East Midlands, his patch, it surged from 54,000 votes to 366,000. For the first time in its history, Ukip was a truly national force. Political scientists called it the Kilroy effect. Most significant was its reflection of growing disenchantment with New Labour and the perceived political correctness Kilroy had martyred himself in defiance of.

Yet within a year he had fallen out with his colleagues, most notably a young Nigel Farage, failed to seize the Ukip leadership, and set up his own populist outfit, Veritas (“the straight-talking party”), which crashed and burned in the 2005 general election.

By July 2005 Kilroy had quit party politics and saw out the rest of his term as an independent MEP, with several weeks of it spent as a contestant on the 2008 series of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! (he was voted out first). Infrequent TV interviews on politics followed, as did a handful of self-published novels on consensual adult incest and forced adoption, before he disappeared.

Now, if he is remembered at all, it is as a national joke – and not a particularly funny one. Mention his name online and you will likely get one of two responses. The most common is a video from Shafted, his critically panned and hastily cancelled ITV gameshow, in which he warns contestants that they must decide whether to “shaaaaaare” (a serene Kilroy opens his hands), or “shhhaft!” (a scowling Kilroy dishes out a slow-motion punch). The second is more blunt: is that guy still alive?

On the day of our phone conversation, I had sent a message, via his agent, asking for his first print media interview since 2011. I wasn’t expecting a reply. My request was badly timed. ITV had just cancelled the Jeremy Kyle Show after the death of a former guest, and my interview request – in which I suggested Kilroy was ultimately responsible for Brexit – must have seemed provocative (or “bullshit”). And he couldn’t quite believe that I wanted to speak to him about a political career that had by any objective standard been a failure.

Yet I wanted to know where Kilroy had gone, and what he thought of the Britain that had taken the political path he urged 15 years ago. He invited me to visit him at home near Plymouth. Signing off, he added: “I’ve got a lot that I want to say.”

***

Robert Kilroy-Silk, 77, lives in a gothic manor beside the River Tavy, on the outskirts of Plymouth. It felt about as remote from Westminster as one could be in England, and I couldn’t help but imagine Kilroy as a sort of Byronic exile, brooding on an isolation imposed as much by himself as by the BBC and Farage. He stood alone on the doorstep as we pulled up. Three buttons of his Ralph Lauren shirt were undone; his tan undimmed; the old angular face (once described as the most handsome in the Commons) looking a little crumpled, but not quite his age.

Chez Kilroy – decorated by Jan, his wife of 56 years – is tasteful: no chintz, no huge oil painting of the man of the house. I had been warned that Jan could be intimidating. She is Kilroy’s gatekeeper, closest aide and fiercest defender: it is rare that an interview with him does not feature her too.

Summoned by a Tarzan-style call from Kilroy, Jan arrives barefoot and offers to make tea. My cup rests on a book of Egon Schiele prints. Are they fans? Kilroy, by now nearly horizontal on the sofa opposite, answers in the affirmative. Jan – whose self-painted copies of portraits by the American society artist John Singer Sargent decorate the house – complains that Schiele’s nudes are creepy. “They look a bit tortured,” she says. “Like me, Jan,” Kilroy replies, reaching out to hold her hand. I can’t work out whether this is a joke.

His accent isn’t quite as strong as his wife’s, whom he met at Saltley Grammar School, in inner Birmingham. They have two grown-up children and five grandchildren. (Kilroy also has a third child, 33-year-old male model Danny Beauchamp, from a brief affair in the 1980s. In 2008 he described Kilroy as “a dickhead”.) Unlike Jan, Kilroy failed the eleven-plus and was admitted late to Saltley Grammar to study for his A-levels (he would go on to LSE). The documentarian Norma Percy, a university contemporary, once said that the early educational setback explains his entire career: one long attempt to prove the establishment wrong.

How has Kilroy filled his days since 2009, when he left Brussels? “We’re very busy,” he says. “We travel a lot, go to the theatre, opera, ballet. Life’s been very full. I haven’t got enough time to do all the things I want to do.” It doesn’t sound like politics is one of those things, or, indeed, that he misses it at all. But his answer is surprising.

“Yeah I do,” he says. “But then I was never really kitted out to be a party politician. We’re involved, in the sense that we watch every bloody news bulletin, and we read the newspapers, and we have strong views on everything. And I get angry and very frustrated about things. The most important thing is all the attacks on free speech, which to me is fundamental.”

It did lose him his job, after all. Something about Kilroy’s brief second life in politics has long fascinated me. He is the first politician I remember. For a time in 2004, his fight to wrest control of Ukip from Farage and Roger Knapman, a dreary former Tory MP who looked like the manager of a provincial supermarket, seemed to be the only thing on the news. I remember the launch of Veritas – Kilroy railing against the political mainstream as he promised an end to spin.

He didn’t reappear in the news until 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn ran for the Labour leadership. The two came to blows in the House of Commons in the 1980s, and newspapers dredged up reports of the incident and presented them as surreal curios. Yet Corbyn’s slogan – “straight talking, honest politics” – was similar to the one Kilroy had used for Veritas. Quite funny, but it spoke to something more profound.

In the mid-Noughties, Kilroy’s message – that Westminster, Brussels, their elites and their cosmopolitan sensibilities did not work for ordinary people – was easily dismissed. Now, the anti-politics he preached is everywhere. The Ukip he helped create dragged the Conservative Party further to the right, eventually delivering a referendum on EU membership – and a vote to Leave. Increasingly, reading about his political moment feels like reading about ours: a culture war waged by a celebrity populist, empowered by his pariah status, against the political establishment – with Europe as its proxy.

“All our freedoms… come from being able to speak your mind and say what you want without offending anybody,” he says. “I’m not talking about hate speech, but people have got to be allowed to be offended and upset by what people say. I was brought up on Milton and John Stuart Mill. And Areopagitica: ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.’ That’s my philosophy.”

What makes him most angry is his belief that many of these “attacks on free speech” come from the left: “Good people giving way, and compromising. Good people who know better.”

Those people, he says, include the Labour Party he once represented in parliament. First elected as the member for Ormskirk, Lancashire in February 1974, he was an unapologetic nuisance, campaigning from the back benches for penal reform, civil liberties and other deeply unfashionable causes, including against the so-called tampon tax – the VAT levied on sanitary products that campaigners still want abolished today.

He corresponded with Myra Hindley about prison conditions on parliamentary notepaper. His speeches were essentially invitations to pass him over for promotion: in one Budget debate, he accused James Callaghan’s government of following Tory orthodoxies on the economy. He attributes his quixotic record to a desire to help the underdog – a sort of working-class honour code. “We’re not coat-holders in this family,” he says.

By the 1980s Labour was trapped in opposition and Kilroy, it seems, became bored. Overlooked for a shadow cabinet post, he faced a draining fight in the Merseyside seat of Knowsley North, which became his constituency after boundary changes in 1983. The hard left were determined to deselect him, and Kilroy was determined to resist. Eventually, in 1986, he brought the fight to an abrupt end when he quit for television – a decision for which contemporaries who supported his rearguard action against the ultra-left wing group Militant, such as Neil Kinnock, have never forgiven him.

He was, according to Kinnock, already an unpopular figure among colleagues. “He was rather full of his own importance,” the former Labour leader told me in an email. Yet he wasn’t entirely unmourned. “Parliament itself has lost a formidable penal reformer who bravely took up practically every unpopular cause,” Frank Field, another Merseyside MP targeted by the hard left, wrote ruefully after Kilroy’s resignation.

Forty-five years on, Kilroy – who still identifies as a Scouser – says his election as a Labour MP remains the proudest moment of his life. He shows me a picture of him and Jan on the campaign trail with Harold Wilson. “[To paraphrase] Trollope, ‘The greatest honour any man can have are the letters M and P after his name.’ You can’t have a greater honour than to represent your own people.”

***

In his 17 years on television, Kilroy came to notice something about his people: they were, he believed, being ignored by their politicians, particularly his former colleagues. Kilroy, which at the time of its cancellation was pulling in one million viewers a day, is misremembered as a British Jerry Springer Show, or a Jeremy Kyle prototype. It had its fair share of family drama, but there was plenty of issue-led discussion: acid house, child killers, the Krays. A fairer comparison might be with BBC Two’s current affairs show Victoria Derbyshire.

As his guests slugged it out over the state of the country four mornings a week, Kilroy says he noticed a “great disconnect” between the “real people” on his show and Westminster, “particularly on immigration and race. Immigration, oh! You could see that boiling for months and nobody was addressing it. It wasn’t an issue, they said: you’re a racist. Everyone was called a racist. It was terrible.”

That sentiment eventually drove him to Ukip, a move he profoundly regrets: “It’s the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.” There were other chances to revive his political career: William Hague and Sebastian Coe invited him to join the Conservative Party in the late 1990s, though he turned them down. He was also offered a peerage, though he won’t tell me by which party.

Kilroy’s decision to stand for Ukip came at a low point: he had just been sacked by the BBC and, he admits, had nothing better to do. He had not expected to win, but Jan – who herself nearly stood against Michael Heseltine for Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in 1997 – convinced him. He earned the party a level of support it had never enjoyed before. But on his election as an MEP, he discovered that his new colleagues were, as David Cameron later put it, “fruitcakes [and] loonies”.

When he heard what Ukip’s MEPs had to say on “abortion, homosexuality, hanging, their attitudes to women”, Kilroy realised that he had more in common with Labour’s chattering classes than he would have cared to admit. “I didn’t know those kinds of opinions and attitudes still existed. We were part of that bloody metropolitan elite. From that moment, I wanted out. I handled it really, really badly. I find all that thing totally embarrassing. It was the worst moment of my life.”

The divorce was long and messy, which Kilroy partly attributes to Farage, then Ukip’s chief whip and éminence grise. Kilroy attempted to canvass support for a leadership challenge, only to be rebuffed: Ukip, still less than a decade old, was suspicious of outsiders. Kilroy wanted to start a populist revolution, and win seats in Westminster. Older hands in Ukip essentially saw themselves as a Tory pressure group.

He also believes Farage felt threatened by his celebrity, and says the Brexit Party leader as good as admitted as much. “Nigel wasn’t known, and I was this celebrity. Don’t judge Nigel by what he is now, because he hadn’t become what he is now. And he was pissed off.” He is at pains not to sound too disobliging, though Farage doesn’t return the favour: in 2013 he described Kilroy as “completely crackers”.

If his exit from Ukip was bad, Veritas – launched, like a bad joke, at a Leicestershire golf club – was ugly. He says he was wrong to start his own party: all its candidates lost their deposits in 2005, apart from Kilroy, who quit less than six months after promising he would take the fight to the “supercilious metropolitan elite” – a line that feels like it could have come from Michael Gove during the Brexit referendum campaign. “Clearly that was a stupid thing for me to have done as well,” he says of Veritas now.

But was it? For a time, the political establishment was as worried about Kilroy as the media was captivated by him. The BBC ran an hour-long fly-on-the-wall documentary on his time in Brussels: Kilroy: Behind the Tan. Writing in the New Statesman, Nick Cohen suggested he could become Britain’s Silvio Berlusconi. After Ukip’s surge in 2004, the Conservatives lurched to the right on Europe: John Redwood, the hardest Eurosceptic of them all, was recalled to the shadow cabinet. In 2005, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown campaigned in Erewash, the Derbyshire seat where Kilroy stood for Veritas.

Now, with every Boris Johnson policy announcement, I return to the Veritas manifesto – whose contents Kilroy tells me he can’t remember: a document whose authoritarian, Eurosceptic populism bears more than a passing resemblance to our present government’s platform. It called for a kind of British “Poujadism”: Brexit, lower tax, higher pensions, more cash for the NHS, tougher sentences for drunks and paedophiles, and more bobbies on the beat.

The media populism Kilroy pioneered is now government policy. Veritas could also sound positively Corbynite: “We will listen and engage in a conversation with our compatriots. There is a magical mood out there for change. No more lies, evasion, spin.”

I suggest he was prescient, but he is dismissive. “You’ve got to be on time. You can say ‘let’s leave the EU’ in 1983, and nobody gives a bugger. But in 2016, that’s the time. It’s all about timing. It’s the right time for whatever it is. Being ahead of your time is as bad as being behind the times.”

***

Could Robert Kilroy-Silk return to politics? It sounds as though he wants to. He wishes he still had a platform, even though he would “get crucified” for his views.

“Perhaps I’m a masochist? Because I did the things that nobody else was talking about. There are lots of things that make me think: I wouldn’t have let that happen if I was in parliament. I cannot believe the Windrush scandal. That’s what really makes me angry. It’s the injustice. The unfairness… They’re just in the grip of the bloody force of the bureaucracy. And there’s nobody coming on a white horse and saying: ‘Get the fuckers out!’”

But who would have him?

Kilroy’s politics, such as they exist, are heterodox. He likes nationalised utilities and railways. Is he still a man of the left?

“I don’t know what that is!”

Would he reject the label populist?

“No! You see, there’s another word. People think they destroy you with labels. I won’t be destroyed. I won’t be called a racist, because I know I’m not. I know everybody likes to think I am. Why would I want to hide?”

He continues: “I don’t answer to anybody. I’m my own man. I’ll say what I want to say. This is what I couldn’t understand when people would accuse me of things. If I want to tell you that, I’ll tell it to your face, to your eyes! I don’t have to lie, I’m not in anybody’s pocket.”

He did, he concedes, think about ringing Farage when he heard about the Brexit Party, for whom he voted in May’s European elections (he’s not sure if he would do the same in a general election). He is in favour of a no-deal Brexit. He doesn’t trust Boris Johnson but thinks “he’s the best we’ve got”. All of which makes him eminently qualified to be a Conservative MP.

But he feels like a man out of time. “A guy suggested I should be on Facebook… He said: ‘You’d get thousands of followers!’ But we’d have an awful time, I suspect.”

He endured worse than the milkshakes right-wing politicians have been doused with in recent months – in December 2004, he was covered in a bucket of manure by a protester outside a recording of Radio 4’s Any Questions. “Oh, you like shit, do you? Let me give it to you back,” Kilroy responded, smearing it over his assailant’s face.

He fears that the instinct to retaliate – at Labour’s 1985 conference in Bournemouth, he punched a man through the window of his hotel lounge – might disqualify him from modern politics.

“If anybody threatened me, I’d want to go and sort them out – that’s how I was brought up. I’d want to go and grab them by the scruff of the neck and say: ‘Go on, say it to my face.’ Not being able to do that would probably give me a bloody heart attack.”

I wonder aloud whether, if Kilroy was sacked from the BBC and started Veritas today, he would be more successful.

“But who cares? Who’s interested in what I have to say? Who wants to know?”

***

As US soldiers made their way across Europe in the 1940s, they left a curious graffito everywhere they went: a crude drawing of a bald man with an implausibly long nose peering over a wall. Beneath it were three words whose meaning was never really established: “Kilroy was here.” Nobody really knew who or what Kilroy was. In 2019, reflecting on how Britain got to where it is now – governed by a television populist, on its way out of Europe, riven by endless culture wars, distrustful and contemptuous of its politicians and media elites, with its provincial towns pitted against its cities – those words feel more apposite than ever. The name “Kilroy” feels like a nonsense word again.

Jan believes her husband was ahead of his time. It is hard to imagine Ukip exploding into the political mainstream without him. And without that, it is hard to imagine the Conservative Party promising a referendum, won by the Brexiteers.

Does he agree? “It’s not for me to say. Other people will tell you.”

Reticence was not what I had expected from Kilroy. But his appetite for self-reflection, if not self-flagellation, surprised me. On television and in politics, what looked like an affected frankness was his most potent weapon for exposing the deficiencies of others: be they muggers in his BBC studio, or Tony Blair. Now, denied an audience, he finally sounds like he really means it.

There are flashes of the old performer: he talked about Brexit with a theatricality that made me wonder where the camera was. But after ten years in exile, his harshest words are reserved for himself. Robert Kilroy-Silk, who on his first day as a Labour MP told a documentary crew that he would one day be prime minister, now describes himself as a failure. I asked whether he felt he had fulfilled his potential as a politician. “I haven’t fulfilled my potential as anything,” he says, flatly. “It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy.”

***

After I met Kilroy, I spent a few afternoons in the British Library reading his books: Hard Labour, a 1986 memoir of his fight with the Militant tendency on Merseyside; The Ceremony of Innocence, a 1983 novel about a renegade Labour MP, William Barnes, who hates the police almost as much as he hates the Trots; and Socialism Since Marx, an academic treatise on left-wing politics he wrote in 1972, while still a Liverpool University lecturer. (There is no autobiography as “nobody will publish it… because of Ukip and BBC stuff”.)

Each book is characteristic: the prose is overcooked and seethes with contempt for establishment wisdom. Socialism Since Marx is the most revealing, its final paragraph introspective: “Socialism and poetry are alike. They both combine a description of the present with an intimation, at least, of its potential for the future. The last word, then, should be Robert Browning’s: ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.’”

Kilroy ended up living by those words. Most of what he reached for is now gone. The political career is over, unacknowledged by a generation of politicians who owe more to it than they realise, and he lingers in the public consciousness only as a joke figure, humbled by posterity. In some ways he is back where he started, having failed the eleven-plus: keen to participate but barred from entry. But he says he is happy.

“I’m anonymous. It’s nice. It’s good. Nobody will believe me, but I’m not bothered about fame – I like the money… I’m more interested in what I got out of it, which is this!” He gestures to the house around him. “My family was the most important thing. That’s what I was taught: put the bread on the table and a roof over your head. I’ve always taken that seriously… I’m very lucky, because I’ve got her. She makes everything worthwhile. Whatever I do, it’s OK. I’ve got Jan.”

Though he wishes he were ten years younger, so that he might campaign for the Brexit he helped make happen, Robert Kilroy-Silk’s reach no longer exceeds his grasp. He has vanished from the public eye, and his ultimate ambition is to disappear completely. “I shall be put in the sea,” he said, just before we parted. “I shall be cremated, without any ceremony. Nothing – straight from the bed to the crematorium. Then I’d like somebody to put my ashes in the water at high tide… In the Tavy, at high tide.” 

Patrick Maguire is a New Statesman political correspondent

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

This article appears in the 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control