Meet the man behind Brexit: an interview with Dr Alan Sked
The GRI sat down with Dr Alan Sked to discuss his founding of the UKIP (UK Independence Party), why he became Eurosceptic and advice for the next generation of civil servants. Dr Sked founded UKIP as a centrist, progressive and tolerant party, but left when he believed the party was heading to the far right of politics.
Dr Alan Sked is Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics (LSE) and a world-renowned historian of the Habsburg Empire. Dr. Sked earned his D. Phil at Oxford University, having been supervised by renowned historian AJP Taylor.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GRI: What motivated you to get into politics and what led you to create UKIP?
Dr Sked: I got involved in politics in my mid-teens. I was already a big fan of everything historical. I had great history teachers at school and I guess politics was just contemporary history to me. Also, although I was raised in a conventional pro-Labour working class household (council), my maternal grandfather was an outspoken opponent who expressed differing views and my scholarship in a private school in Glasgow also gave me access to other points of view. However, the emergence of television and televised political programming introduced me to Jo Grimond, the charismatic Liberal leader who led a Liberal revival in the 1960s. I was impressed enough with him to join the Scottish Liberal Party . I even campaigned for David Steel in the famous Roxborough, Selkirk and Peebles by-election in 1965, which he won.
I stayed with the Liberals and became President of the University of Glasgow Liberal Club, President of the Scottish Liberal Student Association and Treasurer of the Scottish League of Young Liberals. I even hosted Grimond at the University of Glasgow.
After spending doing my D.Phil. at Oxford I was asked to stand as a Liberal candidate in Paisley in the February 1974 general election, which I did. I was only 23 and lost my first deposit there. But again, I had fun.
I was disappointed with the Liberals and left them when they merged with the SDP to form the Liberal Democrats. I then became a Eurosceptic and hated their ideological Eurofederalism. I was much more sympathetic to Mrs Thatcher in her growing battle with the EU and by then I had become Head of the Interdepartmental European Studies postgraduate M.Sc. program at LSE. This is what I built in the greatest of all British universities. I directed it for a decade from 1981 to 1991, taught the domestic and foreign policies of major European countries, selected the student body from around the world, marked thousands of dissertations and master’s exams, and co-chaired the seminar of LSE European Research. In 1989, I concluded that British membership of the EU was madness. The organization was, in my view, clearly bureaucratic, undemocratic and debauched. It brought us no benefit and wasted our money. For example, at a seminar, a senior EU official said that the construction of roads in member states should be determined by the Commission since “all roads must lead to Brussels!”
This is why I became a founding member of the Bruges Group set up by Oxford and LSE scholars to promote the principles set out in Mrs Thatcher’s famous speech in Bruges in 1988. Soon I was the leading polemicist and pamphleteer of the group, who became the country’s leading thinker. Tank. I have become a public figure.
One of my Bruges group’s pamphlets, titled “Cheap Apologies”, revealed that, despite what the German government said, the German constitution provided no reason not to send troops to fight in the first Gulf War. Needless to say, it ruffled a few feathers. Later, a German ambassador shouted at me, “I know who you are, Dr. Sked. I know all about you.’
In any case, relations between the Bruges group and the German government were never restored. The lowest point came when I kicked a German foreign policy adviser out of my office at the LSE. He didn’t listen to a word I said, although he supposedly came to hear my point.
By the end of the Gulf War, Mrs. Thatcher had been replaced by John Major. Quickly dissenting from his agenda, he traveled to Germany proclaiming that Britain’s future “lies at the heart of Europe”.
The writing was on the wall. I was convinced that with Major in No10, the Brugge group could no longer advance the cause of Euroscepticism. Moreover, there was now the Treaty of Maastricht to fight. So I concluded that only a new political party could exert enough pressure on the Conservatives to get us out of Europe. So I founded the Anti-Federalist League (AFL) in the fall of 1991.
The AFL contested the 1992 election and two by-elections in 1993. But since its name confused people (it was reminiscent of the Anti-Corn Law League of the 1840s which converted Tory Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel from protectionism to free trade), we changed it in the fall of 1993 to UKIP. He stipulated in his membership form that he had no prejudice against foreigners or ethnic minorities of any kind and that he would not sit in the European Parliament. Things changed after 1997 when I resigned from management.
What are the positive aspects of Britain’s exit from the European Union?
Dr Sked: The main positive benefit of leaving the EU is the restoration of British national sovereignty. We are once again a self-governing country with an elected government responsible for policy to the British people alone and if they are not happy the people can remove that government at a general election. It was not possible in the European elections to change the government or European policy. Again, under EU membership, EU directives and regulations approved by majority, over British objections, were approved by Westminster without any debate as delegated legislation. This no longer applies. Nor do we have to make net contributions of billions of pounds every year (£11.0 billion in 2018) to unelected foreign bureaucrats to invent laws that I believe are designed to ruin us (like the Common Agricultural Policy, Common Fisheries Policy and others; luckily we never joined the euro.)
In short, we have become a normal autonomous democracy. It is true that there are still issues to be resolved, particularly with regard to some of the finer details regarding Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the major objective of Brexit has been achieved.
Economically, Covid has clouded the picture. Yet the catastrophe predicted by the Remainers has not happened and we are the fastest growing economy in the G7. The city is flourishing. We have seen these two giants of European capitalism – Unilever and Royal Dutch Shell – move from the Netherlands to London. Royal Dutch Shell even dropped “Royal Dutch” from its name. Finally, we have sign approximately seventy free trade agreements worldwide, including renewal or continuity agreements. It is a triumph because the mainstream media narrative assured us that a breakthrough of this magnitude would take decades.
Is there any advice you could give to young people who wish to enter politics – perhaps qualities they should seek to develop or certain realities to bear in mind?
Dr Sked: My advice to a young person entering politics: qualities to develop and realities to keep in mind.
Perhaps I should start with a quote from Lord Salisbury, the Conservative Prime Minister. When asked what advice he would give to a young person who wanted to do good in the world, he replied, “Be prepared for a life of bitter disappointment.” My own story disproves this. My political career consisted of co-founding the Bruges group and then founding the AFL which became UKIP in order to put pressure on the Conservatives to leave the European Union. Leaving the EU is precisely what happened. Cameron called a referendum under pressure and Brexit was achieved. So I feel like I succeeded. And, suddenly, I am far from disappointed.
So what qualities should an aspiring politician cultivate? Well, honesty above all else, especially honesty with yourself. It involves realism. And it inspires confidence in others. Self-mockery and a sense of humor often follow. Both are absolutely necessary. These in turn bring resilience, which is just as necessary since little in politics is achieved quickly. Tools of the trade to be acquired include eloquence, a good memory, a quick wit, good manners and a concern for not being long. A Conservative politician once advised me to always arrive at a meeting fifteen minutes late, and without having used the toilet. This would ensure both a sense of audience anticipation and the inability to talk too long.
Realities to keep in mind include the fact that not only will your opponents scrutinize your every word, but also your rivals within your own party. The latter will be more determined to pull you down since your success prevents or postpones theirs.
One last tip. To be successful, you need a compelling story to support your application. You must have an intellectually convincing record to which passing disputes can adhere.
What moment(s) have you been most proud of in public service?
Dr Sked: Found and lead a political party, co-found and dominate the country’s leading think tank. Also, losing Arch-Federalist Chris Patten from his seat in Bath in 1992, thus preventing him from succeeding Major as Prime Minister. In my opinion, if he had succeeded, we would have joined the euro. (I played a role in his loss of the election by forcing him to publicly state that he would not apologize for the poll tax, not by the few votes I won.) Coming in fourth behind the three main parties in two hotly contested by-elections (19 candidates in Newbury!) in 1993 thus enabling the AFL to survive and become UKIP.
Building a national organization for UKIP by founding one constituency party after another, developing intellectually coherent policies on a wide range of issues (but not immigration, which I do not consider controversial), developing a national constitution and party rule book, acquiring a party seat at Regent St., thus bequeathing to my successors the complete organization of a modern political party. It was no small feat. Indeed, it is unique in British politics. This was only possible because as a respected academic and public figure through the Group of Bruges, I had the necessary public and political credibility. Nobody else could have done it. Nobody else did.
– Edited by Rachael Rhoades, Editor-in-Chief