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Essay: Alan Sked

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  • Published: 25 July 2022*
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So wrote Alan Sked, LSE historian and founder of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), amidst the uncertainty of the hung parliament of 2017-2019. It was one in a long series of interventions made by Sked since his resigning the leadership in the summer of 1997. Sked had for over a decade sought to put distance between himself and his party.1 But this latest salvo came with the added aim of securing a place in the history of Brexit. Nigel Farage, whom Sked had recruited to the party, has dominated accounts of UKIP and the origins of Brexit. The founding is glossed over as the work of ‘political amateurs who felt intensely anxious about Britain’s integration into the EU’.2 Likewise, the authors of a recent study of the 2016 referendum summarised the party’s early history without reference to Sked:

[S]ince its founding in 1993 the party has portrayed itself as a ‘common-sense’ alternative that vigorously champions the interests of ordinary people – interests that it claims are being progressively subverted by a cartel of unresponsive cultural, economic and political elites. According to UKIP’s populist narrative, self-serving elites dominate Britain’s mainstream parties and have willingly ceded national sovereignty to the EU. UKIP has emphasized the irreversible nature of this ‘sovereignty ratchet’, arguing that as long as Britain remains a member of the EU it faces an insurmountable ‘democratic deficit’ and loss of control’.3

Such an account is not untypical of how the early years of the party and the development of Euroscepticism in the 1990s have been studied. The sense of contingent development is smoothed out into a paragraph-long ‘Road to 2016’. The pertinent historical question of why Eurosceptic activists felt so anxious remains to be historicised. This dissertation presents pioneering research, drawing upon the recently-deposited papers of Alan Sked, to unpack and complicate this narrative. Existing political science research, with its focus on sociological analyses of the emergence of a ‘UKIP demographic’, has underemphasised the role of agency and contingency when seeking to explain the rise of the party through the 2000s.4 Sked has skirted the edges of academic history.5 This dissertation puts the focus on his ideas and activism in the 1990s, recovering the political work that went into building the party. It recovers the determination and persistence that went into making UKIP – the way Sked translated ideas into something that could mobilise people and fight elections.

Literature Review

‘For good or for ill’, Robert Saunders concluded his history of the 1975 referendum, ‘the vote to leave the EU marks the end of a distinct period in British history, which began in 1973’.6 Brexit poses opportunities to historians to return to familiar events in the recent past – to historicise the activism that had for many years existed on the edges of conventional narratives of contemporary politics. It also poses the challenge of developing a sophisticated literature addressing the domestic politics of Britain’s involvement in European integration. Much of the existing scholarship concerns ‘high’ politics and diplomacy. The focus of these studies are policy debates within the British government.7 Saunders’s study of the 1975 referendum belongs to a growing revisionist history of the politics of 1970s Britain, as does Mathias Haeussler’s investigation of ‘declinism’ and European visions of modernity in popular press debates about Britain’s application to join the EEC.’8 The domestic politics of British membership in the 1960s and 1970s, then, is beginning to receive attention. Later decades, however, remain relatively under-researched.9

The scholarship that does exist tends to belong to one of three strands. The first consists of those works of intellectual history. Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce, for instance, have argued that the concept of the ‘Anglosphere’ ‘was especially important […] in giving sustenance and shape, in recent years, to the Eurosceptic conviction that the UK’s future lies outside the European Union (EU) and involves the resumption of alliances based on deep cultural affinities with other English-speaking countries’.10 As intellectual historians, Kenny and Pearce do not connect these ideas to popular politics and political activism, such as the formation and rise of UKIP. The second strand of scholarship is that of political scientists. Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s The Revolt on the Right focuses on the years between the European election of 2004 and 2014.11 Goodwin’s second book, co-authored with Caitlin Milazzo, focuses more narrowly on the activities of UKIP from 2014 to 2015.12 These studies do not make use of archival research; rather they present a thesis, based on sociological and psephological data, concerning the political implications of a widening divide in cultural values.13 The enterprise of Goodwin et al. is not to dissect critically the ideas animating this political activity, nor to recover the social and political milieu in which this movement began. This dissertation presents these missing pieces of analysis, incorporating the critical approach to ideas foregrounded by intellectual historians with an analysis of political leadership and grass-roots politics.

Accordingly, this dissertation builds on the third strand of scholarship. These are longer surveys, which set out broad thematic frameworks for understanding Euroscepticism.14 Robert Gildea and Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon have emphasised the importance of the legacies of imperialism. Kenny, by contrast, has forwarded an interpretation of Euroscepticism as English nationalism – an approach also adopted by sociologists, like Ben Wellings.15 However, the archival work of demonstrating – and complicating – these frameworks is yet to be done. This dissertation attempts to fill this gap in historical research. It uncovers the contingent nature of activists’ motivations, as well as the importance of prosaic, personal factors. The dissertation could be seen as a kind of genealogy of the word ‘Euroscepticism’. Literary critic Lionel Trilling quipped in the 1950s that ‘We cannot think modern in ancient words; we betray either the one time or the other’ – an observation historian Guy Ortolano had in mind when he noted the need to complicate ‘inherited (if not ancient) categories’.16 This dissertation uses the language of activists such as Sked to piece together the development of ‘Euroscepticism’ from a positive, idealistic (in the case of UKIP, liberal) vision of a European political system to vehement rejection of the European Union. This does not discredit the broad frameworks already developed by historians and political scientists. Rather, it begins the process of filling in the historical texture of the domestic politics of European integration. In so doing, it begins to unpack the historical problem posed by Lindsay Aqui, Michael Kenny, and Nick Pearce: how ‘sovereignty, nationhood and Britain’s constitutional order moved out from the margins of British politics’?17 This dissertation does not propose to draw a smooth line – a ‘Road to 2016’. Rather, it presents the first piece in that puzzle.

Methodology and Sources

This research is made possible by the availability of new sources. This dissertation makes extensive use of Alan Sked’s personal collection of papers, which the LSE Library archive acquired in 2018.18 This is not straight-forward biography. The dissertation takes as its methodological inspiration Philip Williamson’s use of Stanley Baldwin’s papers and Camilla Schofield’s interrogation of Enoch Powell’s collection. In both cases, the personal papers of elite politicians were used imaginatively to draw more than just a picture of ‘high’ political activity – rather, to open a window into right-wing politics and the popular politics of their time more broadly.19 This dissertation historicises and critiques Sked within the constraints of the archive he created. The circumstances of the LSE’s acquisition of the collection, Sked explains, had more to do with the fact he was clearing out his personal belongings than an attempt to secure his legacy post-Brexit.20 But the collection cannot be read without this latter point in mind – not least given Sked co-curated an exhibition at the LSE entitled ‘What does Brexit mean to you?’ using materials from the collection.21 Since resigning the leadership in July 1997, Sked has sought to distance himself from the party. He has portrayed himself as the liberal founder disgusted at his errant creation – a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’.22 There are, however, contradictions in this act of self-fashioning, which become evident when Sked’s personal collection is read closely alongside Enoch Powell’s papers.23 There are obvious gaps and silences. His collection contains many instances of fan-mail, but no trace of the hate-mail he lamented in an article for the party’s newsletter.24 This is quite understandable; the extant material in the collection remains because Sked chose to hoard it for more than two decades. But this relates to an important point: this is a personal collection, not the records of a party machine. Accordingly, careful supposition is necessary to piece together a picture of grass-roots Eurosceptic activity from the collection’s fragmentary evidence.

The task of filling in the gaps in the archival evidence is made easier by the availability of interview data. Unlike Williamson’s study of Baldwin, it was possible to interview the subject of this research.25 The data produced from this fieldwork is not at the centre of the analysis; it has been deployed to provide detail that cannot be extracted from contemporaneous sources. Memory is fallible, and without the sample of data produced by a wider oral historical project, it is prudent not to rely on this as evidence where alternative sources exist. Even beyond the fallibility of memory, there is reason to question Sked’s reliability as a narrator. Helen Szamuely, an early member of UKIP, recalled ‘his coming up with some quotation or other, and I asked, ‘Are you sure that the person mentioned said that?’ His response was, ‘It doesn’t matter who said it, just that it was said’’.26 The added complication is that this warning comes from Cranks and Gadflies, by Mark Fitzgeorge-Parker. Writing under the pen-name Mark Daniel, Fitzgeorge-Parker’s book provides facts not present in the archive, as well as some colourful anecdotes. But his sensationalist, in places baroque, prose is riddled with inconsistencies. Fitzgeorge-Parker begins by establishing his credentials as a critical friend of UKIP; he had never been a member, he claims, only a supporter who had worked for the party as a communications strategist in 2000 ‘on a one-year contact’.27 He ‘raised a glass in honour of their conspicuous victories’ – though not, one presumes, in honour of his own failed bid to become the UKIP MP for Exeter in the general election of 5th May 2005, four days after his book was published on the 1st May.28 One obituary noted that Fitzgeorge-Parker ‘appeared to struggle to distinguish truth from fiction’.29 It is fair to conclude, then, that Fitzgeorge-Parker is an unreliable narrator. Indeed, it is clear from his book that Fitzgeorge-Parker’s wider circle (including Nigel Farage) had long-standing personal grievances with Sked.30 There is much detail of petty infighting and personal feuding that one could indulge in retelling. The conclusion of this dissertation returns to these stories in its assessment of Sked’s leadership.

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