This interview took place in October 2008.
It’s actually very hard for Nigel Farage to give a bad interview. He is the kind of character who always has something interesting to say. Indeed sometimes he says far too much for his own good. Politics needs characters like Farage. He clearly adds to the gaiety of our political life, but he’s also the very definition of a conviction politician. Yes, like any other politician, he has an ego, but he is refreshingly honest about the fact that he likes a drink and has an eye for the ladies. I’m not sure if I can think of any other politician who’d front up like that.
Nigel Farage’s trouble is that he is trying to do the political equivalent of herding cats. His party was once described by David Cameron as being full of ‘fruitcakes and nutcases’. Cameron may have been exaggerating for dramatic effect, but there was an element of truth in what he was saying. Fringe parties are always open to fanatics being able to rise to positions of power very quickly, because they are often the only ones with the time and the money to follow their passion. They can be obsessive in pursuing their agendas and can be hugely disruptive and destabilizing. Nigel Farage’s first term as UKIP leader was full of instances where senior UKIP figures tried to destablise him. Eventually, he decided enough was enough and left. There were other reasons too, but that must have been an important consideration.
How do you think the role of UKIP has changed in the last five years?
The increase in MEPs we got was across the water. In terms of what we have done in the European Parliament we are without doubt the leaders of the Eurosceptic movement in the European Parliament. Our two biggest achievements were firstly the French referendum, and secondly the Irish referendum. We played a big part in both. The role in the Irish one was rather bigger than people have yet realized.
In what way?
The eight page info booklet we, as the Independent Democratic Group, sent to every household in Ireland had a big effect. It was very well put together and very strong. While Declan Ganley is being portrayed as the CIA funded bad boy [by the Yes campaign] we’re not terribly popular either. I was quite happy when the Taoiseach got up in the Dail and said that I and my fellow bunch of ‘extremists’ had subverted the political process in Ireland.
So you weren’t part of Ganley’s No Campaign?
Doesn’t that illustrate the problem the Eurosceptic movement has always had, in that it is so splintered?
Quite the reverse. For years we have been told that you can’t fight a referendum campaign unless you are all under one big tent. And then there’s the argument about who is the person with the biggest ego who is going to lead the umbrella group. What the Irish campaign proved is that this view could not be more wrong. We had Sinn Fein doing their own thing, getting their vote out on the simple question of Irish nationality, you had Ganley fighting a completely brand new type of campaign in Ireland, talking about an overregulated European model, globalisation, the fact that the Treaty takes things too far and appealing to a business and conservative audience. You had the InDem campaign and we campaigned chiefly on the lack of democracy but we also went into the Charter of Fundamental rights because of the abortion issue. There were lots of different campaigns and degrees of cooperation. Ganley and the InDem group had discussions but they were separate campaigns and it worked a treat.
So in the unlikely event of a UK referendum do you think that would be the model here?
I am convinced now that there is no problem if we have four or five different No campaigns. The PPERA also allows for more than one campaign. What is your prediction about what will happen now to the Lisbon Treaty and what do you make of the Conservative stance on this? It’s funny, isn’t it, that David Cameron is doing what we expect the Conservatives to do – to try and sound skeptical enough to keep people in board.
Do you not believe that he is a Eurosceptic?
God, no. You must be joking! You’ve got to be having a laugh! I remember being on Eurostar when the Tory leadership election campaign was on and Dan Hannan was on the train. I told him I couldn’t believe he would support Cameron. I said we all know what David Davis believes in private and really is on this and many other subjects – localism and liberty etc. I sa ‘why on earth are you backing Cameron?’ He sa ‘Nigel, because Cameron has made the one deliverable promise. Not some vague idea about what might happen when he is PM, but a deliverable promise which will happen within weeks or months. He ratted on it and he’s saying it will happen after 2009.
Which is why David Davis never matched the promise – because he knew it wasn’t deliverable.
It ain’t going to happen after 2009 either. Secondly, we saw Cameron abandoning the Tory pledge to withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy. Howard had been quite strong about it. I had pointed out that you can’t do it without unanimity, but at least he was strong on it. Apparently, Cameron says we are now going to negotiate the CFP from within. Well, the very best of British to him. He presents again and again things which he would do as Prime Minister, which are completely outside the jurisdiction of the British government and British Parliament. Never once does he ever say that in fact all of this is covered by EU law. So I don’t believe he is Eurosceptic. If he was, then he could kill the Lisbon Treaty today.
I think you are missing the Realpolitik of this. In his heart and in his gut he is indeed a Eurosceptic, but because of all the traumas the Tory Party has gone through over the last 15 years, it is a subject which dare not speak its name. I can understand and sympathise with that. There’s nothing to be gained by him making a big song and dance over it at the moment.
Other than he has the power to kill the Lisbon Treaty. If he had said we do not recognize the legitimacy of it because the Labour government was elected with a specific manifesto pledge to have a referendum, he could kill it.
We can agree on that, but legally it was a different document even though the substance was the same. The Labour manifesto didn’t say the ‘EU Constitution’, it said the ‘EU Constitutional Treaty’. How can anyone argue that this is not a constitutional treaty? Cameron has had the option of killing the treaty available to him for the last six months.
If Cameron wins the next elections with a big majority he will have a mandate to do just that – and be far more trenchant than he could be with a small majority?
Look at his track record and the type of people he has close to him. I see no evidence to have confidence in that point of view whatsoever. He believes in EU membership. That’s where we part company. Your definition of ‘eurosceptic’ means come out of the EU, whereas the normal definition does not mean that. The world has moved on. We could have been having this conversation in 1992 and I would have accepted that view. Nearly two thirds of Britons say no to political union and yes to alternative trading arrangements. If Cameron says we should be part of the EU and says no to alternative trading arrangements, then how is that different to the LibDems or the Labour Party?
If you aim is for Britain to withdraw from the EU you will never achieve that with UKIP. You are never going to form a government and you’re not likely to get MPs.
There are more ways of winning great political battles without forming a government.
But why not admit that UKIP is a pressure group, not a political party? The only way to achieve your aim of withdrawal is to do it from within one of the other political parties.
Oh Lord, that hasn’t worked terribly well, has it? None of the pressure groups in this area have achieved a damn thing. The only person who achieved something was Jimmy Goldsmith. If he had worked from within the Conservative Party we’d have joined the euro in 1999. Because he worked outside the system, he put the fear of God into the Conservative and Labour Parties, got them into a half nelson so they promised there would be a referendum before we joined the euro. It was that, and that alone which kept us out.
I can see the logic of that, but surely you would accept that the Conservative Party overall is a far more Eurosceptic party now than it was in 1992?
If UKIP hadn’t been there, the Conservative Party probably wouldn’t have reached that position. UKIP’s achievement has been to take an argument that was considered to be mad and bad and to turn it into a mainstream political argument.
You talked about the mad and the bad. Were you talking about some of your own MEPs?
When you go from a small number of people to a larger number you attract a few people you would rather not have had.
You mean, 20% of your MEPs? How did they get selected in the first place?
Well, I’d rather we got rid people who have transgressed than do nothing. It’s part of the weakness of being a small, grassroots based party where a con man can come along and con people. We have to accept what the weaknesses are. It’s also the weakness of being a totally democratic party. We are completely one man one vote. There is no preferential treatment for existing MEPs or party officers.
So entryism is quite easy? You face it at the moment with the BNP don’t you?
Entryism is one of the biggest dangers we face and we have to be very alert to it. We have had problems with the BNP but in terms of scale it is minute. If it was greater we would know. There is plenty of intelligence out there. We have been successful in dealing with the problem but it is depressing that the problem keeps coming back.
But people have been quitting UKIP because they say it’s not the party they once joined and has been taken over at a grassroots level by people who do not have views they can associate themselves with.
I haven’t seen much of that. I think I know what’s going on in the party at grassroots level. The BNP issue is there, and I know it’s there. We have made it clear that nobody with any past links or associations with the BNP is going to be a candidate or party officer for UKIP at any level. No exceptions, no exemptions. We have said to a lot of people, no, we’re not having you. End of conversation. We are a non racist, non sectarian, pro libertarian outfit. We are so far away from the image of the authoritarian right on issue after issue.
Apart from Bob Spink [the Conservative MP who defected to UKIP]…
Bob is an individual and that’s fine.
What about the new Libertarian Party? That is a threat to you. You have lost people to it.
[shrugs]. Of course. People join organizations and they think that they are destined to lead these organizations and when it doesn’t work out they seek pastures new. You get thwarted ambition. Outside the three main parties you find this all the time. It tends to be people who have got a lot of time and the reason they have got a lot of time is that they are no use at anything else. They haven’t got a proper job, they have never achieved a damn thing in their lives and they see joining a political party as a way of putting something on their headed paper. It’s human nature. When they find they don’t do as well within UKIP as they ought to do, they are happy to go off somewhere else. You’ll never stop that. We have suffered as a party from the angry old man syndrome – people with too much time on their hands and have a wholly negative view of the world.
But isn’t that a good description of many UKIP members, certainly a few years ago? Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells?
That’s right! When UKIP started, it was exactly that! We were dominated by half colonels and the Second World War generation. They were fantastic people…
But they’re not libertarians, and that’s the point I am making…
And that’s how the party has changed. You go to a UKIP meeting or the conference and you will see that the party has changed in quite a big way, especially in the last two years. Not in terms of numbers, but the type of people. It has become a lot younger and more professional. We have a youth wing now and we’re setting up groups in universities. There will always be a libertarian-authoritarian division. I am encouraged by the quality of the people we are now attracting. I am 44, the chairman is 31 and the General Secretary is 27.
It’s a very male dominated party, isn’t it?
Too much so. I was critical of the Cameron approach to the European candidate selection and I have always felt positive discrimination was demeaning, but when I looked at our results I began to wonder whether we should have done a bit of it ourselves. Marta Andreasson is the one female candidate we have in a winnable position. There are other women on the lists and there are more women on the NEC, so it is changing, but not fast enough… I have tried very hard to get us away from being negative and constantly outraged. I think I have achieved some of it but we have further to go. I have to think about this a bit more.
Is it a problem for you that you are the only recognizable face of UKIP? You’re the only one who gets any media coverage.
Not quite true, but yes, it is a problem. If in the punter thinks it’s a one man band it’s a problem, but it’s also a problem in the organization.
Have you ever thought to yourself since you became leader in 2006: why am I doing this?
Every month when I get my bank statement. What keeps me going is that I genuinely believe in what we are doing. The longer I go on, the more I see the true nature of the EU, the more I feel that someone has to stand up and shout about it. I believe if you want to change things and have an influence over public opinion you won’t do it from within a major party. I could have said to hell with this, I want an easy life and go and rejoin the Conservative Party and bite my lip. But I believe in what I am doing.
Do you get a fair crack from the media?
From the broadcast media, when it’s related to Europe, yes, I think we do. If the News at Ten are doing a European question then they will come to us. They wouldn’t have done that ten years ago. But the media can be very ignorant on European issues. I rang the Today Programme about the European Arrest Warrant recently. The researcher hadn’t a clue what it even was.
What personal strengths have you brought to the role of leader of UKIP?
The ability to work hard, the ability to communicate. Getting round the country doing meeting after meeting is hard work. Being able to enthuse. Hopefully, the ability to speak clearly and put arguments across that people can understand.
What about your weaknesses?
I have many of those [laughs]. I think … er… there are some within UKIP and outside who say that, well, he’s a drinker and a smoker…
You have been in the papers a couple of times with regard to your drinking. Is that an issue?
No, not really. I live the way I live. To hell with it. If people don’t like it… If I can’t go for a pint or two after a hard day’s work, then something’s not right.
If I can delicately point out that there have been stories of it being slightly more than a pint or two…
[giggles] Well, these things happen. There was one incident when I fell asleep in bar, yes, but in my defence I had genuinely not got home until 1am the previous night after a meeting in Hampshire and been up at 3.15am to get the first plane out and I was done for.
Do you get embarrassed by those sort of stories, or just think, oh sod it?
I don’t let it worry me too much.
I can tell. Sticking on the leadership question, there seem to be some plots to oust you at the moment. Is this BNP inspired? Why do people want rid of you.
Not totally. But there are people who think the BNP should move on from the immigration issue to take over the anti Europe argument too. So some people are doing whatever they can to destabilize UKIP. There are many in the BNP who believe that if UKIP disappears the BNP will be the main beneficiary. In truth, it would be the Conservatives, or the Don’t Votes. So there has been a campaign, chiefly through email, to undermine everything we do. And they have managed to pick up one or two useful idiots along the way. It has been a problem and I could give you a couple of names of people who are not UKIP members but they are doing this and fomenting discontent from within. But what do you do when the person causing the problem is an unemployed and unemployable misfit? I have a reputation for ignoring it and getting on with the job, but there are other people in the party who it has really upset.
You were delighted when Bob Spink defected to you, but he doesn’t share all your views, does he?
No. Absolutely not. We had a long conversation before he joined and I wanted to be clear about what we were getting. I knew his stance on 42 days, but we are not a party that wants to whip everybody so there are issues where Bob and I don’t agree, but there are many where we do.
Is he a rival to you?
I don’t know, is he? If he is, that’s great! If we have some proper competition within UKIP, that’s great. We need it.
What are your realistic expectations in the 2009 European elections? You got 16% and 9 MEPs last time. You’re not seriously expecting to beat that, are you?
That depends. The potential to do it is there, because there are a greater number of people out there who agree with the stance that we’ve got. We have been around for a few years, people have seen us in the local papers. It’s too early to say. The biggest single factor is whether we can raise enough money, early enough, to fight the right campaign.
Now, a very important question. Have you and President Medvedev ever been seen in the same room?
This is a great one, isn’t it? I wondered how long it would be. When I first saw him I knew what would happen.
He’s not exactly a libertarian, is he?
Not exactly! Although I am very strongly opposed to the policy we are pursuing towards his country, This desire to expand the EU and NATO to take in the Ukraine and Georgia is mad. I have felt this ever since the wall came down. I am not a supporter of Putin or Medvedev but we shouldn’t be trying to provoke them.