is for some a heroic defender of precious freedoms, but for others he’s an impertinent embarrassment. On 2 December 2011, Huw Spanner sat in the winter sunshine with the sometime leader of the UK Independence Party outside a Westminster coffee shop and found him wanting out.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Let’s begin with the English Civil War, which you invoke several times in your autobiography, Flying Free1Published in paperback by Biteback Publishing on November 10, 2011 – a conflict that pitched brother against brother, Christian against Christian. You describe yourself as a Cavalier –
I know. I know.
– and yet you say: ‘We fought a fierce and bloody civil war … to be rid of an arbitrary and capricious monarch.’ I’m curious to know which side you would have joined.
Well, I’m Cavalier by instinct and by lifestyle. I mean, I don’t like Roundheads. You know, you can be Christian and fun or you can be Christian and, like Cromwell, be deeply puritanical and want to control everybody. So, yes, the Civil War is terribly important but I accept that there is a minor conflict in my mind on it.
Ultimately, the importance of the Civil War and the republic and what happened in the 1680s is that we put together, I think, a constitutional settlement as good as anything in the world, really. We had a system of government that we all understood. We all understood. OK, there wasn’t full emancipation, but from then on general elections really mattered. And my argument is that since [Britain joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union, in] 19732The year that Edward Heath’s government took Britain into what was then the European Economic Community that has gradually been diminishing, to the point now where it doesn’t really make any difference who’s in No 10. I mean, it doesn’t matter to the City any more whether it’s Tory or Labour.
That war was very much about values as well as interests, and it split the population in two. Do you think it is ever possible for a political party to represent everyone?
It would be silly to say that – you could never, ever represent the whole country – and since I was elected to the European Parliament I’ve always said that I’m not going to represent the whole constituency (and remember it’s vast – six million voters), I’m there to represent the people who voted for me and to use that position to try to persuade others that we are actually right.
But the interesting thing about [the UK Independence Party] is that it attracts an incredibly diverse range of people. We pick up what I would call ‘patriotic Old Labour’, we pick up classical liberals who hate the big state and believe in individual freedom and we pick up traditional Tories who believe in the country. And don’t forget that when we started [in 1993], only about six of us in the country believed in this.
You write entertainingly about your upbringing, and with some insight. You refer at one point to ‘values which I had cherished since childhood’. What do you see, looking back, as the influences that formed you?
I think I believe in things that perhaps might be called slightly oldfashioned these days. I believe in punctuality, I believe that manners are rather important –
Difference is wonderful. All my life I’ve been fascinated by people of different countries, different classes. I like people
Except towards [Herman Van Rompuy,] the president of the European Council? You told him to his face he had ‘the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk’.3On February 24, 2010, he told Herman Van Rompuy, the first full-time president of the European Council: ‘We were told that, when we had a president, we’d see a giant global political figure. … I’m afraid what we got was you. … I don’t want to be rude, but … you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk. … You appear to have a loathing for the very concept of the existence of nation states. Perhaps that’s because you come from Belgium, which of course is pretty much a non-country.’
Well, you know, this is all rather silly, isn’t it, because, actually, calling somebody ‘a damp rag’ is a pretty minor form of abuse compared with what happens every Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions.
My family, both my mother’s side and my father’s, were very patriotic people. They believed in this country, they believed that the sacrifices they’d lived through through two world wars, awful though they were, had been worthwhile to keep our freedom and democracy. When I was small, you could never spend time with my grandparents without them talking about the past. One of my grandfathers was wounded in the Great War, in a very nasty action in which the corporal got the VC.
We were basically, on both sides, traditionally Conservative – but all mega-Thatcherite, because that was a breath of fresh air.
You say that even as a boy you ‘despised’ John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’…
Yes. All this ‘Imagine there are no countries’, the idea that we all be the same, always struck me as bizarre. You know, we should be rather proud of who we are and what our history is. You see, the reason, in the end, that the European project can’t work – just as communism could never work – is that, whether we like it or not, mankind is tribal. I admit to being tribal.
Though you recall that you fell in love with Portugal at a very young age and for many years were more interested in ‘abroad’ than in Britain.
Well, there’s no contradiction in that. Remember that 1960s and ’70s England was very different to now, wasn’t it? I remember going to France when I was 13 or 14 and somebody putting a bottle of Perrier on the table. Fizzy water? We didn’t do things like that. So, I think you can like and celebrate differences between peoples whilst understanding what you are yourself. Differences are wonderful. All my life I’ve been fascinated by people of different countries, people of different classes. You know, I like people. I’m a naturally pretty gregarious sort of person.
John Major famously said that his heart sank every time he left Britain…
Yeah, I don’t understand that. I don’t get that. I mean, it depends. I don’t like going to Brussels, because it’s a horrible, crime-ridden dump: the sky is grey, the buildings are grey, the people are grey, it’s ghastly! But every month when I go to Strasbourg, a little bit of me is still quite excited about going there. Because I love it.
You certainly don’t come across as a ‘little Englander’ – and yet you do remark in the book that Imperial weights and measures are ‘infinitely superior’ to anything that ‘Napoleon and his bureaucrats’ –
Of course they are. Absolutely! Absolutely!
Would you like to go back to pounds, shillings and pence?
They’re not weights and measures.
OK, do you really cherish stones, pounds and ounces?
Absolutely! That’s my system, I love it.
So, we all have to know our 14 and 16 times tables…
Absolutely! A very good thing, too. I mean, I’m saying it slightly tongue-in-cheek – slightly tongue-in-cheek – but I do actually thoroughly object to the idea that we all should be harmonised, homogenised and pasteurised.
Isn’t harmonisation sometimes necessary?
Listen, I was a commodity broker, right? We bought and sold copper in US cents per pound or in deutschmarks per tonne. I have absolutely no problem working with both systems – you know, 2.20462 is deeply embedded in my brain. I just happen to think that to criminalise the language of Shakespeare is an appalling thing to do – and actually sums up, really, everything that is wrong with this European entanglement.
You ask [your greengrocer] for a pound of bananas. If he weighs them out and sells them to you, he’ll have broken the law. Steve Thoburn from Sunderland got a criminal record for it and died at the age of 39 because of the hassle. Who needs to live in a country like that?
Your father emerges in the book as a strong character…
Oh yes. In fact, both of my parents are very dynamic people – they get involved, they get stuck in. My father has just retired – quite good to be stockbroking still at the age of 75 – and now he’s very busy being president of his regiment and things like that. He is an extremely colourful character, and certainly in the City was extremely well known. I talk a little bit in the book about some of the problems he had…
With alcoholism. And gambling?
I didn’t say that in the book, no.
Listen, drink is an extraordinary thing. It’s very, very deeply embedded within our culture, and when I left school and went into the City – well, everything revolved around it. I’m very honest about the culture. You know, looking back on it now, many people would be repelled by it. And some people who go through that lifestyle are lucky and some are desperately unlucky, and you never know which you’re going to be. Lots of people who were my drinking mates in the City have been through the most disastrous downward spirals, and a lot of them are dead. A lot of them are dead. I lived through all of that and I’m very candid: I say I am lucky. I am lucky.
You are fairly dismissive about religion throughout the book, it seemed to me. You tell us that as a boy you were proud of the fact that you could argue for anything, from a flat Earth to feminism. Would you have been able to make a case for religious faith?
Yes. Oh yes – and I still could. And I do actually think that our Christian values are terribly important, because they’re an excellent marker for the way society should operate and how we should treat each other.
I find it bizarre that the Archbishop of Canterbury appears to be quite happy for them to go down the tube. To think that he has publicly argued that shari’a law would be welcome in British cities!
In a sense, after my accident, I think I am more reflective, a bit more thoughtful, a little more grown-up. Not too much, I hope, but a little bit more
That was how the media chose to report what he said.
Well, he wasn’t very far away from it, was he?
Your parents were not religious, I suspect.
Not especially, no.
At what point did you decide, ‘There’s nothing in this’?
Well… I did get confirmed when I was 13 – that was a voluntary thing – but I think by the time I was 18 I was pretty much a non-believer.
I think – funny, isn’t it? – that belief is one of those things that can wax and wane during your life. I have thought a bit more about God since the [plane crash in 2010].4On 6 May 2010, he was a passenger in a two-seater aircraft that was towing a Ukip banner. He and the pilot were badly injured when it crashed in a field. A bit more. A bit more.
I was curious to find out what went through your mind as you were facing death then; but in the book you say that pretty much all you thought was ‘Oh, fuck’ –
Well, I was very philosophical about it. But I have since thought about it a bit. You know, why was I so lucky?
Have you come to any conclusion?
No. No, I haven’t. I really, really haven’t.
You were just as lucky at the age of 21 when, full of ‘English ale and Irish whiskey’, you were hit and nearly killed by a car; but that didn’t seem to affect you.
No, it didn’t. I don’t think that changed me a bit. I just couldn’t wait to get back to work and back to normal.
That’s the Cavalier in you.
Yeah. In a sense, after this [second] accident, I think I am more reflective, I think I’m a bit more thoughtful, a little more grown-up. Not too much, I hope, but a little bit more. And I am more thoughtful about the world.
Reading about your youth, I got the impression that you were quite self-centred…
Single-minded. I’ll admit that I’ve always been that.
You write that when you left school ‘I had worlds to conquer’ and it struck me: He’s not one of those men who want to save the world, he wants to conquer it.
I was fiercely ambitious when I was 18. Fiercely ambitious. And that ambition was to succeed in business and make a lot of money – that was how I thought and how I felt. But I’ve changed, haven’t I, because I’m not pursuing that course any more. In many ways I’ve turned my back on a life of money completely – I mean, much of the last 10 years has been grinding poverty. People laugh at that, but actually if you’re trying to bring up a big family earning half what a GP earns…
You describe the European Parliament as a gravy train, and certainly the picture you paint is enraging. However, some people might look at your career in the City and say, ‘Well, that’s just another gravy train.’
Cor, goodness gracious me! I disagree fundamentally. Absolutely fundamentally. Listen –
Life in the City in the Eighties was enormous fun, but don’t tell me that we were earning a lot of money for doing nothing! When it was busy, my goodness me! it was busy
You write about how much fun you had, ‘drinking more or less continuously’, and what shedloads of money you were getting. What have you got in common with the kind of people you identify as the rank and file of Ukip: farmers, deep-sea fishermen, small shopkeepers? These are people whose living is often precarious, sometimes very dangerous, never ‘fun’, and they work very hard.
Right, let’s deal with a couple of big hits. Number one: Why is Brussels a gravy train? Because it’s not accountable. Name me the last European Commissioner to be sacked for incompetence. There’s never been one.
I would define a gravy train as getting a lot of money for not doing anything useful. Or for just having fun.
Well, precisely. Precisely. And no accountability whatsoever. Life in the City in the Eighties was enormous fun, but were you accountable? Yes. If the transactions that you were involved in went wrong and you took big losses, you were out of the door. I’ve seen people asked to leave the office immediately.
And don’t tell me that we were earning a lot of money for doing nothing! When it was busy, my goodness me! it was busy. You can’t imagine the pressure.
How did it compare with being a trawlerman?
The pressure of being a market-maker in a busy market, when you’ve got people all around you screaming and shouting at you and you’re dealing in numbers and it’s like that, that, that, that – that’s pretty pressurised. That’s why it’s a young man’s job. You don’t get many 50-year-old money-brokers: they can’t do it any more. Goodness me! It’s not an easy job. Not an easy job.
When I joined the City, it was the dying days of a gentlemen’s club: magnificent, socially wonderful but going nowhere – there was still a whiff of P G Wodehouse about people who toddled off to the City all day and did things that nobody understood at all. But what I saw in the Eighties and Nineties was London becoming in many ways a genuine global centre for entrepreneurial flair, for innovation, for very hard work – and for creating profits. And without those profits we can’t have the schools and hospitals we need in this country – it’s very, very simple. I am absolutely not conflicted in any way at all about the fact that what we did, overall, was for a social good.
I’m not sure that everybody will associate the City with accountability. Many people protest that the bankers crashed the global economy but are still –
But they were allowed to. Who let them do it? Moronic politicians, who changed rules we’d had for seven decades. Take America – [Alan] Greenspan got rid of the Glass-Steagall Act.5The Banking Act of 1933, which separated investment banking from commercial banks. Its effectual repeal in 1999 allowed Wall Street to gamble with money deposited in commercial banks. Look what that moron [Gordon] Brown did! He took away control of the banking industry from the Bank of England and gave it to a bunch of tick-box bureaucrats at the [Financial Services Authority]. Catastrophic, catastrophic errors of judgement!
So, politicians and ‘bureaucrats’ are to blame for it all?
If you allow banks to be very greedy, they will be very greedy, because that’s human nature – and to a large extent that is what’s happened. I am not defending the worst excesses of the banking industry at all – no doubt many of those people should be in prison for what they have done. As should the regulators and the politicians that allowed it.
I’m a bit confused. You describe yourself as a libertarian (rather than a conservative), and yet you condemn the people who deregulated banking?
No, no, no, they didn’t remove regulations. What they did was, they showered the financial services industry with a blizzard of regulations, more than it has seen in centuries – but at the same time they took away some good basic rules. It was the most enormous muck-up.
Ukip is a libertarian political movement compared with the mob in Westminster, who seem to want to control absolutely everything. I think we need less government, not more
It doesn’t matter how libertarian you are, you still think there should be a law on the statute books saying that murder is wrong. And, similarly, industries need some guidelines, and a framework in which to operate.
Can you define what you mean by ‘libertarianism’?
Well, I think it’s very easy. I’ve said that society needs some rules and a framework, but I think that as much as possible people ought to be allowed to decide for themselves how they live their lives, provided that they don’t cause grave offence or harm to others.
OK, let’s take an example –
Let’s take the smoking ban. Let’s take the smoking ban.
No, let’s take something else. Suppose that I like Spanish culture and I want to import a bit of it to Britain. I really like the idea of throwing live goats off high towers…
Frankly, if that’s what the Spanish want to do –
No, no, I’m talking about if I want to do it. Would you say: ‘That’s fine, as long as you do it on your own property’?
I take the point, but no, we would find that culturally unacceptable in this country, wouldn’t we?
But that sounds like other people trying to dictate to me on the basis of their own moral scruples –
To some extent. To some extent. Our culture and our upbringing do dictate what we find acceptable within the rules of society. But no, I mean, look, we have some basic animal-protection rules that wouldn’t let you do it. Do I think those rules are unnecessary and should be scrapped? I can’t get drawn down that route!
It’s difficult. I mean, listen, there are extreme libertarians who argue that all forms of pornography are acceptable, or – yeah, there are some very extreme positions out there. I don’t support those, but I do think that in this country government is impinging, bit by bit, upon our freedoms – and I think that the smoking ban and the hunting ban are two very good examples. I don’t hunt foxes, but if other people want to, that doesn’t actually impinge on my personal freedom.
Nor would my throwing live goats off high towers…
I mean, libertarianism is a very difficult subject to discuss because you can take it to extremes that people find offensive. But I do think that Ukip is a libertarian political movement compared with the mob over the road in Westminster, who seem to want to control absolutely everything. I think we need less government, not more.
You are quite frank about Ukip in the book – you say that some of its members are ‘nutters’ –
Some of them. Not all of them, no.
– and you are very rude about the three bigger British parties. Is there a strong case for repatriating powers from Brussels if Westminster is just as corrupt?
Oh, it’s much less corrupt, actually. You know, we are much less tolerant of corruption in this country than perhaps the Mediterranean countries are. There are some quite big cultural divides there.
True, but some of your small shopkeepers might look at the huge supermarket chains and ask: Will any political party ever rein them in? Likewise, Parliament was afraid of News International. Perhaps some people like the European Union because they see it as a check on the exercise of unaccountable, undemocratic power here…
I haven’t given up a successful career, I haven’t given up all my free time, I haven’t given up all my hobbies just because I want to be a politician. I’m in this out of conviction
The problem with that line of thinking is that, however rotten and bad we may view our political class at any given time, as long as we have a parliamentary democracy we have the power to change it, because we have the power to sack everybody and bring in new people with fresh political ideas. What you cannot do in this European system is change anything, because it’s the civil servants – the Commission – that have the power.
I often joke that we should fight for the birthright to mismanage our own country rather than be mismanaged by somebody else. Having the ability to change our own destiny is very, very important. If you think about it, it’s the essence of parliamentary democracy.
Why are you so focused on the threat from Brussels? You don’t seem to be concerned, for example, that most of our media are foreign-owned – and now much of our infrastructure, too. You don’t seem concerned about the transatlantic threat of homogenisation, either – the extent to which British culture is becoming –
No, no, I would agree with that. We’re becoming litigious, the influences on our teenagers are very American, very American indeed.
Perhaps but for the EU we would now be the 51st State.
That is something that Nick Clegg puts up occasionally, but it is not something that any of us desire or want at all. Our relationship with America – you know, we can choose. We can choose whether or not we sign extradition treaties or go to war. What we’re doing with Euope is giving away the ability to make those decisions.
Why would politicians want to reduce their own power?
Well, you get all the trappings of power and none of the responsibility. ‘Don’t blame me, guv’nor! Europe did it.’
And why does so much of the establishment collude?
How can the entire political class be wrong? Well, they were all wrong about Hitler, weren’t they? Out of 600 MPs, there were 20 [who raised the alarm] – and do you know what they were called? Warmongers. Eccentrics. They were lampooned; they were considered to be mad. Even when Churchill produced the data [about German rearmament], the political class looked away.
You know, we’ve seen it in science, we’ve seen it in business: even if the status quo is pointing in entirely the wrong direction, it exerts a very strong force on the political class – and the more career-orientated our politicians are, the stronger it is.
Tell me what makes you proud to be British.
I think the fact that, whilst our history is not perfect – no country’s is – I think we have in the last few centuries contributed a lot more good than bad to the world. I think the way that we – through civil war and evolution – put together a form of parliamentary democracy that was viewed by the rest of the world as a civilised model to adopt. And, I think, to have had, since Magna Carta, an evolving but very stable and sound judicial system that actually gives the individual of this country much greater liberty and protection from the state than virtually anywhere else in the world.
I see those things as being very important, and I see those things as being very much under threat.
Can you tell me one good thing the EU has done for us?
Not that we couldn’t have achieved through normal, bilateral negotiation and agreement, no. Not one thing.
I have no doubt, what is being developed in Brussels is bad. These are bad people. Bad, bad people. We are in the grip of extreme nationalists in Brussels.
Extreme Euronationalists. You want to see them standing to attention when they play the anthem. You want to watch when they goosestep the EU flag around the parade ground at the front of the European Parliament. You have to be there to understand what’s actually going on. They’re so extreme, they will wilfully destroy democracy – which they’re doing. They are pursuing policies in southern Europe which I think, unless these countries break out of this prison of the euro, will lead to revolution. I mean, there may be some very unpleasant times to come.
Are some of these bad people British?
Oh Lord, yes. Absolutely. Oh, there are British fanatics working in the European Commission. People who absolutely hate this country, everything it is and everything it’s ever stood for. Filled with self-loathing.
Are you at all optimistic for the future?
Very. I’m the biggest bull-trader you ever met. I’m the biggest optimist on earth. I’m wildly optimistic.
But, apart from temperament, what makes you so?
Because I think that in the end – and it may come at a heavy price – in the end, good conquers bad.
Undoubtedly you add to the gaiety of the nation – as I think you intend to – but you are a serious politician…
I’m not mucking about. I haven’t given up a successful career, I haven’t given up all my free time, I haven’t given up all my hobbies just because I want to be a politician. I’m in this out of conviction.
This edit was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||Published in paperback by Biteback Publishing on November 10, 2011|
|⇑2||The year that Edward Heath’s government took Britain into what was then the European Economic Community|
|⇑3||On February 24, 2010, he told Herman Van Rompuy, the first full-time president of the European Council: ‘We were told that, when we had a president, we’d see a giant global political figure. … I’m afraid what we got was you. … I don’t want to be rude, but … you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk. … You appear to have a loathing for the very concept of the existence of nation states. Perhaps that’s because you come from Belgium, which of course is pretty much a non-country.’|
|⇑4||On 6 May 2010, he was a passenger in a two-seater aircraft that was towing a Ukip banner. He and the pilot were badly injured when it crashed in a field.|
|⇑5||The Banking Act of 1933, which separated investment banking from commercial banks. Its effectual repeal in 1999 allowed Wall Street to gamble with money deposited in commercial banks.|
Nigel Farage was born in 1964 and grew up in Downe, ‘a still-enchanting village’ in Kent. He was educated at Dulwich College, where in 1978 he heard Sir Keith Joseph speak – and promptly joined the Conservative Party.
He worked as a commodity broker from 1982 to ’86 for Drexel Burnham Lambert, and then for RJ Rouse & Co (soon part of Credit Lyonnais Rouse). In 1993, under the banner of Refco Overseas, he set up his own business, Farage Futures, which he eventually wound up in 2002. In 2003–04, he worked for Natexis Metals.
In 1993, having left the Tory party after John Major’s government signed the Maastricht Treaty, he became a founder member of the UK Independence Party.
The following year, he stood as a Ukip candidate for the European Parliament (for Itchen, Test & Avon, winning 5.2 per cent of the votes cast), and for Parliament in the Eastleigh by-election (1.4%).
He has since stood five more times for the House of Commons: in Salisbury in 1997 (5.7%), in Bexhill & Battle in 2001 (7.8%), in South Thanet in 2005 (5.0%), in the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election in 2006 (8.0%) and in Buckingham (where, ignoring convention, he ran against the Speaker, John Bercow, and came third with 17.4 per cent of the votes) in 2010.
He was elected to the European Parliament, from a party list, as MEP for South-East England in 1999, when Ukip won the second-largest share of the vote in Britain, beating both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. He retained his seat in 2004 and 2009.
He served as leader of Ukip from 2006 to ’09, when he quit to concentrate on running for Parliament, and was re-elected in 2010 after his successor, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, stood down.
He currently leads a 13-strong Ukip contingent in the European Parliament, where he is co-president of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group of MEPs.
His autobiography, originally titled Fighting Bull (2010), has been updated and republished as Flying Free.
He has two sons from his first marriage and two daughters from his second.
Up-to-date as at 1 January 2012