Alan Sked probably doesn’t fit the stereotype of a Brexiteer.
A self-proclaimed liberal who is vocal critic of racists, he has also been one of Britain’s preeminent academic experts on European history and politics. At Oxford, he was taught by the legendary British historian A.J.P. Taylor, who influenced Sked’s internationally lauded work on the Habsburg empire.
Yet Sked may have influenced the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union more than nearly every other person in Britain. That’s because in 1991, he founded something called the Anti-Federalist League. Today, that political party is better known by as the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP.
Sked resigned from UKIP in 1997, long before it came to national and now international prevalence, returning to his academic life. In the years since, his divisive, attention-grabbing successor, Nigel Farage, led UKIP to become the country’s preeminent protest party. Many blamed Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2014 pledge to hold a referendum on E.U. membership on pressure from UKIP ahead of a hotly contested general election.
Sked, however, didn’t like what Farage did to his party, and he’s been very vocal about it. Farage, Sked has said, is a “dimwitted racist” and a “silly bugger” who played on people’s fears about immigration rather than real problems with the E.U. “The party I founded has become a Frankenstein’s monster,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean Sked has abandoned his E.U. skepticism. In fact, his students at the London School of Economics complained that his hatred of the E.U. was too evident in his classes, which seems to have led Sked to refocus his academic work on U.S. politics. In 2013, he founded a new political party dubbed New Deal, which was designed to be a left-of-center anti-E.U. party. But he soon abandoned his plans to care for his mother in Scotland.
WorldViews spoke to Sked in Scotland by phone on Wednesday about his thoughts on Brexit, Farage and what comes next for Britain. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, is below.
WorldViews: What was your instant reaction when the results came out?
Alan Sked: I was deliriously happy. I thought that we would do it, so I was very, very happy.
WV: Have your feelings about the vote changed at all over the last week?
A.S.: No? Why should they?
WV: I mean, what’s going on politically right now…
A.S.: No, it’s what I expected. I presumed that if the vote went to exit, David Cameron would resign. I thought [pro-Remain chancellor] George Osborne might have the decency to resign, as well, but he’s clinging on for reasons I don’t understand.
I understood there’d be a change of government that would require the election of a new Tory leader and new prime minister. I knew that would take a little bit of time, a few weeks anyway. I’m not surprised by that.
I’m slightly more surprised that the Labour Party found the guts to move against Jeremy Corbyn, although I feel that he could get reelected by the neo-Trotskyite membership. Then the Labour Party will have to split. I can see them beginning to fight over who will get the name Labour …
WV: What did you make of the official “leave” campaign and Cameron’s role in it?
A.S.: What struck me was that the European Union gave him next to nothing — no concession that he could serve to the British public. When he came back with his reform package, it was so meager that it got rubbished by the whole British media. I don’t think the E.U. can complain that he lost the referendum, having given no ammunition to the guys firing blanks among the campaign.
… The second thing was that given that, he didn’t try to put forward any positive vision of Europe. There was no sense of we should stay in the E.U. because the European future was going to be a wonderful place or do wonderful things for us.
He used so many scare tactics in the first two weeks that he had nothing left to say in the second part of the campaign. They’d all been used. The third world war, the failure of the world economy – we’d expected him to forecast the invasion of Martians or something.
WV: Is there an argument that Corbyn and the British left weren’t really committed to the campaign?
A.S.: Most of the parliamentary Labour Party were committed, but the new leadership was certainly only half-hearted. Some of the trade union representatives spoke out. The left was fairly absent during the campaign. You had Gordon Brown, who is about as popular as poison in England, coming in and trying to reinvigorate it. That didn’t work. There were these rumors that Corbyn had actually voted to come out.
The curious thing in this campaign, compared with the 1975 referendum [on membership of the E.U.’s predecessor, the European Economic Community], was that the Liberal Democrats or the Liberals were missing. Part of the Tory Party was missing. The Labour Party was missing. So it ended up being a battle on screen between one part of the Tory Party and the other: the government versus the majority, as far as I could see. Even the Scottish Nationals were very muted. I live in Scotland now, and there was very little of a campaign here and a third of Scottish Nationals voted to come out. Nicola Sturgeon didn’t want to be seen to support Cameron.
WV: I know in the past, you’ve criticized Nigel Farage’s rhetoric. He wasn’t part of the official leave. Were you more comfortable with the rhetoric of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the official campaign?
A.S.: More or less. They said take back control, this that and the other. A lot of people talked about the single market, but no one actually pointed out that the cost of a single market was really the loss of our independence. The “remain” campaign mantra was that in order to trade with Europe you had to be a part of Europe. No one says that in order to trade with China you have to be part of China! We don’t have to be part of America! It all sounds rather stupid and illogical.[The Leave campaign] didn’t stress that it was illogical. I’d have pushed that a great deal more: that trade really wasn’t the main thing, that it was the political objective of having a European central superstate.
WV: Have your thoughts on Farage and UKIP changed at all in the aftermath of the vote?
A.S.: No. For 20 odd years I’ve been Farage’s main critic. He loathes me, and I loathe him.
He played a minor part in the campaign. I think to some extent it was counterproductive. There were loads of young people in particular who said they didn’t want to be in the same camp as Farage, otherwise they would have voted to leave …
I didn’t object to his poster. I thought the poster was accurate. It was a picture of refugees trying to get into Europe saying “Breaking Point.” You know, it was a breaking point. It completely obliterated the Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Agreement, and it completely broke [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel. Before the refugee crisis she was supported by 66 percent of Germans, and afterwards 66 percent want her to resign. It seemed to me it was perfectly accurate.
WV: Was immigration really one of the key aspects of the vote in the end?
A.S.: It seems that way. It wasn’t my key issue, but I can see why a lot of people thought it was. With the population of Britain projected to go all the way up to 80 million in 2050, and a third of a million coming in each year, with practically no houses being built and doctors waiting lists being closed, schools are under strain with thousands of kids coming in who don’t speak English. It’s bound to be a problem.
WV: Do the reports of a spike of racist incidents worry you?
A.S.: Yes. Of course I worry about it. I condemn it unconditionally. It’s done by individual nasties — to say that 17 million people who voted to come out are somehow connected to these people … I think its a great smear on the British people.
WV: Do you think Boris Johnson is the right man to lead Britain, or is it someone else?
[Ed. note: Johnson announced the day after this interview that he would not seek leadership of Conservative Party]
A.S.: I’d be happy if Boris got the job. Boris is actually extremely intelligent. … He’s also got a personality that appeals to parts of the country that other Tories don’t appeal to …
I think it’s important that whoever takes over the leadership of the Tory Party is a Brexiter. I think it would be difficult for someone who hadn’t been in the “out” camp to suddenly take on the leadership of the party. The people who voted for Brexit simply won’t have any faith in them. They’ll expect a double cross.
WV: Is there a compromise option that both the majority of leave and remain camps could be happy with?
A.S.: It’s difficult. I think what they will try to do is get a free trade treaty. Not to get into EFTA or anything, just to get a free trade treaty with Europe. The best thing for everybody would just be if we got a free trade treaty with the E.U. that abolished all tariffs on everything. Absolute free trade with Europe. Once we’re out, we can abolish the external tariff that applies to the E.U., and we can import cheap fruits from North America, South East Asia, get cheaper goods from the rest of the world, which right now is subject to an E.U. external tariff.
WV: Have you been surprised by the levels of anger and sadness from the remain camp?
A.S.: Yes. I’ve been rather surprised by the self righteousness and the self pity that’s been pouring out of remain. You have to accept the democratic decision. If Scotland had voted 52-48 for independence in 2014, nobody would be saying that Scotland should not be independent.
Now, because the E.U. is being kicked out the picture, all these people who never in a million years believed it would happen and who believe that they are culturally somehow superior to the plebs who voted to get out, they are now in high dudgeon and saying that those who voted leave are either racist or idiots or mentally retarded or poorly educated or whatever it is. The fact that Britain is a democratic, self-governing country doesn’t seem to have crossed the minds of these people.
WV: From what I’ve seen, most Americans seem to be shocked and think its a bad thing that most Britain’s decided to leave the E.U. …
A.S.: Well, I get the digital edition of the New York Times – sorry I should have got The Washington Post, but for some reason I got the New York Times as I’m a liberal. The editorials and columnists in the New York Times just don’t understand Europe and don’t understand Britain. They see Europe as an equivalent to America in 1776, and the member states of Europe who should all get together and form a federal union.
… In fact, Europe is an emerging empire, and what’s happening is that Britain is decolonizing and doing what Britain did in 1776, getting its freedom and its liberties.
WV: Donald Trump is one of the loudest supporters of Brexit in the U.S. Do you see any parallels between what his rise and that of Brexit?
A.S.: Obviously people are feeling that the elites have betrayed them and that they have an agenda that is nothing to do with raising the standard of living of ordinary voters. That the elites belong to an international elite that thinks that national electorates are somehow beneath their dignity as people whose ambitions ought to be recognized.
I think there is some comparison, though I think [laughs] those people that voted for Brexit had a much more rational argument in mind and had a much more rational critique of their circumstances behind them when they actually went to the polling booth.
I don’t see a lot of the Trump supporters and a lot of what Donald Trump himself is saying as basically rational.