The Brexit debate is often framed as a vicious bout with liberal Europhile centrists in one corner and conservative Eurosceptic nationalists in the other. Anyone in between is knocked out of view.
You would be forgiven for thinking there was no other position to take. It’s one of the great twists of British politics that UKIP was founded by a centre-left LSE professor who speaks German and lives in Islington.
Alan Sked is the man who launched UKIP as part of his personal battle to take Britain out of the European Union. He taught European history and politics until he retired in 2015. He was sceptical that the country had really narrowed on the EU.
“The debate can’t have narrowed that dramatically,” said Sked. “A majority of the country voted to come out, and the majority of people in the country can’t be far-right or right-wing.”
“You can’t write off Labour Party supporters,” he stressed. “Huge numbers of Labour voters supported Leave. Millions of them, especially in the north.”
“The Leave activists, on the other hand, have disappeared from the Labour Party,” Sked said.
Tell that to Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn, who to this day refuses to let the party go Remain, precisely because of the Leave sentiment that persists in the party.
They may not be as many as Sked suggests, but they leave the left-wing Labour leader fearful of fully embracing a pro-European position, one which he has historically rejected anyway.
When I first reached out to Sked, the EU elections were still being fought on the issue of Brexit and Labour would haemorrhage votes due to Corbyn’s stance.
Sked gave me his two cents on the strange state of British politics.
“The European elections will be seen as a special referendum on Brexit,” Sked predicted. “The Tories and Labour will have to define new positions.”
“Labour will probably go for a second referendum to cull the Lib Dems, and the Tories will elect a new leader and try to take a stronger position on Brexit to put a stop to Farage,” he added.
Those words turned out to be very prescient. Not only is Boris Johnson sleeping in Number 10. Jeremy Corbyn is fronting a platform for a second referendum. Meanwhile, it’s unclear where Sked can hang his political hat.
How Europe Defines UK Politics
In the European elections, Alan Sked cast a reluctant vote for UKIP – the party which he founded more than 25 years ago – but he’s no fan of Nigel Farage or his many successors. His politics are liberal democratic, pro-migrant and centre-left.
Except, that is when it comes to the European Union. Sked says he is opposed to the European Union for constitutional reasons.
Sked claims he’s invested in the idea of British parliamentary sovereignty and sees the EU as eroding the independence of the country and its democratic institutions.
Yet, it was for this reason, Sked was not a fan of referenda.
“I didn’t believe in a referendum. I believed in parliamentary sovereignty and I didn’t want a referendum. My idea when I founded UKIP was that we would get a majority in Parliament and we would repeal the 1972 Accession Act.”
“Until the Lisbon Treaty, there was no formal mechanism to leave the European Union,” said Sked. “The only way was to repeal the act that took us into the EU.”
Once upon a time, the British left was the most Eurosceptic force in the country and the right was on the side of an ever-closer European Union.
This has been turned around in the last 30 years, and it’s worth asking how this happened.
As a historian and a political campaigner, Sked is the unusual position of being well placed to tell this story. He traces the record of Conservative Europeanism to the post-WW2 period and the ties between a future Tory leader and a Frenchman with ideas about world government.
Harold MacMillan met Jean Monnet in Algeria during the Second World War. The two of them wanted European integration. Monnet would later help design the European Coal and Steel Community to overcome trade tensions between France and Germany.
Yet it was actually MacMillan’s idea first. He had advocated a similar association before the war and argued for a free trade area while in Churchill’s post-war cabinet. His ambitions were thwarted.
“After the war, Churchill wanted Europe to unite but he didn’t see Britain as a part of it because he saw us as part of the English-speaking peoples,” said Sked. “Eden was dead-set against it. The one person who was mad for it was MacMillan.”
At the same time, the US was in its rise to hegemony and began to consider its options for redrawing the global order. The idea of a united Europe was an attractive possibility for post-war strategists.
“The Americans went from mad isolationism before the war to desiring world government by 1945,” said Sked. “Setting up the United Nations was seen as a step towards world government.”
“The US thought the UN could preside over regional federations,” he said. “The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe would be one bloc, and Western Europe would be its own federation. Of course, this broke down when Stalin conquered Eastern Europe.”
What followed was the Cold War and the struggle between two parallel forms of global governance. In the midst of this, Jean Monnet set up the Action Committee for a United States of Europe with US funding.
“The US was paying the European federalists to make the case. Churchill was dropped because he wasn’t for Britain being a part of a ‘United States of Europe’,” said Sked.
“The theory was that Britain would fill the vacuum left over by France and Germany to link up with the Benelux countries.”
The US feared there was a lack of leadership because of the rise of Charles de Gaulle in particular. MacMillan and Heath hoped the UK could take the lead. So did US strategists. So did Monnet.
“The real significance of Suez is that it brought MacMillan into power and he went on to win the 1959 election,” said Sked. “He set up committees to get Britain into the European Economic Community.”
However, the UK would not join the common market until the early 1970s. French opposition to the British joining being a key factor. De Gaulle wanted to maintain French prestige and was sceptical of all international institutions, but he was also mortal.
Once de Gaulle was gone, President Georges Pompidou agreed to let the UK join if it accepted certain conditions. By this time, one of Jean Monnet’s friends was in power in Westminster.
“Ted Heath would have done anything to get us into Europe,” said Sked. “He did do everything he could to get into the European common market.”
Fast Forward to Brexit
Things began to turn in the late 1980s. The Thatcher government was triumphant but divided over Europe. Despite having backed the single European act, Margaret Thatcher was more and more critical of the project. She found herself on the marginal side of a fight in her own party.
Just as Thatcher was turning against Europe, the Labour Party was moving away from its anti-European past and embracing Jacques Delors as the man who could help thwart the right-wing government in London.
“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels,” Thatcher said in the so-called Bruges speech.
Patrick Robertson founded the Bruges Group, along with Alan Sked and Norman Stone, in 1989. The group chose its name to honour Thatcher’s speech in the Belgian city. The purpose of the group was to push the Tories further into Euroscepticism.
In just two years’ time, Thatcher had been ousted by pro-European Conservatives and replaced with John Major. “All those Tories who hated Thatcher loved Europe. All the dries and the wets,” Sked remarked.
Sked had launched the Anti-Federalist League (AFL) to go much further than the Bruges Group. It would soon morph into something else. “After I realised the Bruges Group couldn’t do anything, I set up the Anti-Federalist League and later it became UKIP,” he reflected.
“Once I set up UKIP, that became the centre of attraction,” said Sked. “UKIP, plus the Thatcherite wing of the Tory Party, were the real engines behind the pressure on the Major government.”
What would follow was a long battle over the future of the Conservative Party. It would eventually explode into a full-blown civil war after Major relied on Labour support to rush the Maastricht Treaty through Parliament.
Yet the Eurosceptics were divided. Alan Sked was ‘retired’ from the Bruges Group after he showed up Major on more than one occasion. There was competition for which group should lead the opposition to Europe and who would set the agenda.
“When I set up UKIP in 1993, Patrick Robertson wanted to destroy it because of the publicity we were getting,” said Sked.
“During the Bruges Group days, Robertson got to know Jimmy Goldsmith – who was supporting the group – the two got along very well because they both spoke French,” he said. “Later, Patrick convinced Goldsmith to front the Referendum Party.”
James Goldsmith was the hot-headed, eccentric billionaire, who pioneered the hostile takeover. He was now wracked with cancer and apocalyptic fears of globalism. So he decided to put his money towards Britain’s exit from the EU.
“You saw Goldsmith in interviews with big bulging eyes and a suit that was too big for him because he was dying of cancer, which nobody knew at the time,” said Sked.
The Referendum Party was the political force that put the idea of a referendum on the map. Robertson and Goldsmith decided to pitch the referendum as an impartial, democratic end. Of course, the real agenda was always to take Britain out of the European Union.
Neither the Referendum Party or UKIP made gains in the 1997 general election. Instead, Tony Blair won a landslide on an unapologetic pro-European platform and the Conservative Party were rushed out of government after years of infighting and sleaze. But the struggle was not over.
Alan Sked was thinking it was time to reach out and try to build an alliance with his rival. He passed a private letter to Goldsmith through right-wing media entrepreneur Taki Theodoracopulos.
Sked was campaigning on his own dime. UKIP was not a large party and lacked the funding it needed to breakthrough. Goldsmith was a billionaire in need of a new party. It was clear the two could be allies.
Goldsmith said he was happy to work together and suggested they discuss the plan when he returned from his holiday in France – he died of stomach cancer a few weeks later.
By this point, Sked was physically and financially exhausted. He decided to pack up. His last decision as UKIP leader was to expel Nigel Farage. Now more than 20 years later, the retired professor can see another twist in the tale.
“Farage gets the credit, though it was really thanks to the Lib Dems and their suicidal embrace of David Cameron that we got a referendum,” said Sked. “Thank you, Sir Nick. If you hadn’t been such an idiot and trebled tuition fees, you might have been able to veto the referendum.”
“This is how history works,” he concluded. “Quite often it’s the accidental or unforeseen consequences of policies.”
For the person who parented the Brexit process, to fob off responsibility for the referendum to the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, is, of course, an ironic attribution.
But, given Sked’s own contradictory politics, it makes sense. The Lib Dems’ mirror his own, in much the same way that Corbyn’s ambivalence about the EU does.
The question is whether Alan Sked will be able to live with the demons he unleashed in UK politics. That is his burden to bear.
Photograph courtesy of Euro Realist Newsletter. Published under a Creative Commons license.