January 9, 2005
The Anti Europeanist
I. The Raging Squire
Last month, Robert Kilroy-Silk -- the best-known member of Britain's most-talked-about political party, the anti-European U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) -- found himself being covered in animal feces by an angry stranger. The bucket-wielding assailant ambushed Kilroy-Silk on his way to a radio appearance in Manchester, shouting something about avenging Kilroy-Silk's controversial remarks on Islam. It was good that he did, because people dislike Kilroy-Silk for such a great variety of reasons that not stating your grievance directly would risk misunderstanding.
In elections for the European Parliament on June 10, UKIP (pronounced ''you kip'') won 12 of the United Kingdom's 78 seats. (Turnout was 38 percent, up significantly from the last European parliamentary election.) UKIP's stated goal was to pull Britain out of that very Parliament -- in fact, out of the European Union altogether. Much of UKIP's success can be attributed to Kilroy-Silk, who was elected to represent the Midlands in the European Parliament. He came to the party after years of wild success as a morning-TV-talk-show host. UKIP activists tend to be a little odd or to have curious private theories about this or that; Kilroy-Silk, while highly opinionated and eccentric enough in his way, was at ease striding the national stage. By the end of summer, he was striking fear into the once proud Conservative Party. It is just possible that he and UKIP will transform the politics of Britain and of Europe.
Kilroy-Silk lives at Beel House, a 17th-century manor in Buckinghamshire (when he isn't at his spread in Marbella, Spain). The house's previous owners include Ozzy Osbourne and Dirk Bogarde. You approach the place down a wooded driveway of about a quarter-mile that ends in a ring of coral-colored pebbles beneath several gargantuan cedars of Lebanon, their lower boughs carefully propped on posts. ''Politics has never been my whole life,'' Kilroy-Silk said in the front room. ''A very important part. But I've always had a lot of other interests. Look around you.'' There was a herd of fallow deer across a meadow. Out back were the Vietnamese pheasants and bantams that Kilroy-Silk breeds.
At 62, he is an exotically handsome man, with a very un-English facial glow and ice blue eyes. Arguments rage in British gossip columns over whether he achieves his coloring through tanning lamps or creams. ''Tangerine man,'' Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator and a Tory member of the British Parliament, calls him.
Kilroy-Silk was born in 1942, the son of a navy hand named William Silk, who was killed in action the following year. His mother married Silk's friend John Kilroy, hence the hyphenated name. Robert was brought up in a tough working-class neighborhood in Birmingham. When he told me of the big gatherings that his extended family now enjoys at Beel House, he noted with some pride that his relations live in public housing: ''Every one of them lives in a council house, or a council house that they bought, and they're virtually all manual labor.''
After studying politics and economics at the London School of Economics, Kilroy-Silk was, for seven years, at the height of student unrest in the late 60's and early 70's, a university lecturer in political philosophy. This stage of his life appears to embarrass him a bit. When asked if he was on a path to a career in academia, he answered with a quick: ''No! My whole interest from age 16 -- from earlier -- was politics.'' He taught a course on political philosophy from Aristotle to Marx, but he is proudest of the course he taught on modern political ideologies, which he describes as ''communism-socialism-anarchism-global village-Daniel Bell. . . . ''
For a dozen years after 1974, he held a seat in the British Parliament for the Labor Party. On his way to Westminster to take his seat, he told a filmmaker he would like to be prime minister within 15 years. No one dismissed him as nuts. ''If he'd stayed true to the Labor Party, he'd be in the cabinet now,'' Britain's minister for Europe, Dennis MacShane, told me.
Instead, Kilroy-Silk went on TV. In 1986, BBC producers, hoping to imitate the success of Phil Donahue in America and fascinated by the phenomenon of Oprah Winfrey, turned Kilroy-Silk into ''Kilroy,'' as his show was called. It was patterned exactly on its American models, right down to a peripatetic format and topics that lurched between the mawkish and the lurid: sex addicts, adopted people seeking their birth families, does astrology work?
Women, particularly working-class women, loved Kilroy. The quality press, if it dealt with him at all, dismissed him. The Times of London called him ''the most unctuous man in broadcasting.'' But he also occasionally did shows on, for example, the international arms trade. To the smarminess that comes with the territory, he added something tougher and smarter than an American would expect under the circumstances: an in-your-face, working-class common-sensicality that made him more like a hard-bitten, boned-up newspaper columnist than a TV presenter. Indeed, he turned to column writing too -- first in a serious way for The Times in the late 80's, later in a piece-o'-my-mind grab bag of populist gripes, which he writes for The Sunday Express to this day.
Kilroy-Silk's television success might also have continued had not his secretary, last January, mistakenly re-sent a nine-month-old column to The Sunday Express, which reprinted it under a new headline, ''We Owe Arabs Nothing.'' The column had failed to draw much attention the first time it was published. The second time around, the uproar was immediate from Muslim groups. Of the Arabs, Kilroy-Silk wrote:
''Few of them make much contribution to the welfare of the rest of the world. Indeed, apart from oil -- which was discovered, is produced and is paid for by the West -- what do they contribute? Can you think of anything? . . . What do they think we feel about them? . . . That we admire them for the coldblooded killings in Mombasa, Yemen and elsewhere? That we admire them for being suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors?''
The BBC suspended Kilroy-Silk and then forced him to resign.
A few months later, he was a U.K. Independence Party member and a candidate for the European Parliament. It was a natural fit. Kilroy-Silk has been skeptical of European integration since his Labor days and liked UKIP's nonconformist verve. Meanwhile, his firing had upset many viewers. His arrival in UKIP married his buzz to the party's and drew support from Joan Collins and other conservative celebrities. In the June elections for the European Parliament, the Tory and Labor parties together took less than half the British vote. UKIP's taking 16 percent and a dozen seats (of 732 Europe-wide) meant its delegation was almost as large as that of Ireland or Denmark. Suddenly British opposition to the European Union was unignorable. It was even a bit chic.
As for Kilroy-Silk, he was again in the limelight, having won back everything he had lost with his departure from the BBC, and then some. Suddenly he was a pivotal figure in the party -- not just as a publicity gimmick but as a tactician and theoretician. With his Labor pedigree, he could pull voters out of the woodwork where no one in UKIP had thought to look for them -- he even insisted forcefully on the need to welcome ethnic minorities into the British political family. And he seemed -- for the first time in his professional life, perhaps -- to be part of a thoroughly sympathetic fellowship, a band of grateful allies who would never fire him for lapses against political correctness. He was not breeding resentment and bruising egos. But that was before he sought to take over the party.
Just as a strong European Union could wind up bringing back the pre-Thatcher British malaise of overregulation, in the view of many UKIPpers, so the bien-pensant snobs who promote the European ideal could be reasserting a version of the old country-house condescension. Kilroy-Silk is well heeled, well read and well dressed, but social condescension may be the only thing that can make him express hatred. ''I hate authority that isn't accountable,'' he told me. And: ''I hate snobs.'' And later: ''I can't abide anybody who talks down.''
Against a background of phoniness, snobbery and class conflict, the popular media can look like a way out. Phonies talk about things like European convergence; real people watch shows like ''Kilroy.'' ''The British people are fed up with being lied to,'' Kilroy-Silk said. ''I know it from my show for 17 years.'' The show, to him, was one long focus group.
But media success is not the same as political success, and Kilroy-Silk's chat-show buoyancy may lead him to alienate yet another constituency: his fellow members of the European Parliament. In Brussels in late October, the president of the parliamentary chamber threatened to have him ejected when, in the tense moments before a scheduled vote on whether to accept the candidates for a new European commission, Kilroy-Silk began pounding his desk and hollering: ''Oi! Oi! Is this a proper parliament?'' Graham Watson, the British leader of the liberal-democrat grouping, sneered, ''I'm quite ashamed that Britain is known for its football hooligans and even more so when I see their political representatives here in Parliament.''
''The man on the Clapham omnibus may not understand the legal difference between obligations under treaty and obligations under a constitution,'' Godfrey Bloom, a UKIP member of the European Parliament, or M.E.P., was saying. He was sitting in the lobby of the Thistle Hotel in Bristol during a Sunday morning lull in UKIP's annual convention in October. ''But the English people know when they're being conned.''
Bloom is an emblematic figure in UKIP. He is smart, good-natured and moderate in many of his positions. He has a central worry as a member of Parliament and as the investment-fund manager he is in civilian life: namely, that the European Union will reimpose much of the business-killing regulation that Britain broke free of only after a decade of strife over Thatcherism.
This is not an outre position. But in a UKIP man's hands it can begin to seem quirky. When Bloom insists that he is sincerely outraged over an issue like the requirement that British butchers use the metric system, or when his fellow member of the European Parliament Jeffrey Titford claims to shudder at the prospect of British athletes competing in the Olympics under the European flag, it is hard to tell whether they mean it or are having a little joke. Mike Nattrass, the party's deputy leader and a European M.E.P., speculated in the fall, a few days after the Beslan massacre, that Britain's position in the European Union was not unlike Chechnya's in Russia. ''I hope we never have to fight our way out,'' he said. Another UKIP European M.E.P., Tom Wise, has said he doesn't think any plane hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and refers baffled interlocutors to a French Web site for the proof. Steve Reed, chairman of one UKIP chapter, wrote to The Yorkshire Post defending oil over alternative energy on environmentalist grounds. ''Fossil-fuels are constantly being produced on the tectonic conveyor-belt,'' he explained, whereas ''taking energy from winds and tides irreversibly enervates the weather system and slows the rotation of the Earth.''
UKIP's annual party conference was not designed to ease worries about the party's seriousness. Out in the lobby at the convention hall, Ben Buckland, a kilt-wearing bookshop owner from a small town in Northern Ireland, who earlier that morning marched the M.E.P.'s down the aisle with a bagpipe fanfare, revealed that he had always been skeptical of those who considered European union a Catholic conspiracy until he read Adrian Hilton's ''Principality and Power of Europe,'' which one of the makeshift bookstalls was selling, along with volumes comparing the European Union to the Holy Roman Empire and the Third Reich and subscriptions to This England magazine (the patriotic quarterly ''for all who love our green and pleasant land'').
Nearby were photographic shrines featuring some of the celebrities who have endorsed UKIP: Joan Collins, who clarified in October that she was a ''patron'' of the party, as opposed to a ''supporter''; the former cricketer Geoffrey Boycott; and (a zealot until his death in April) Norris McWhirter, editor of the Guinness World Records book. There was no such publicity for the party's smattering of former Tory M.P.'s (like Piers Merchant and Jonathan Aitken) whose careers have been stalled by various scandals. The American political consultant Dick Morris, who joined UKIP as a strategist two years ago, when both he and the party were down on their luck, was at the Bristol convention, over near the bar, meeting a bemused-looking Kilroy-Silk for the very first time.
At Beel House, when I had remarked to Kilroy-Silk, ''There's one thing I found strange about your party . . . ,'' he flashed a broad smile and interrupted, with mock astonishment: ''Only one? I've found many.''
The European Union has been around in some form for half a century, but the Continent's nonbureaucratic citizens are only just beginning to take it seriously. From a group of six nations that joined in the 50's to bind France and Germany together through a coal-and-steel union, ''Europe,'' as it is confusingly called, grew gradually into a larger European Economic Community. Britain -- after being vetoed in the 60's by Charles de Gaulle -- signed up in 1973, and its citizens passed a referendum approving membership two years later. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty committed the countries to turning the economic union into a political one. By 2007, the 25 countries in today's European Union should have either signed or rejected a constitution meant to set the stage for a unified European government that may eventually make policy on economics, diplomacy and defense.
Europe's citizens differ sharply on whether this is truly a good idea, with feelings varying from country to country. In Denmark, which barely accepted the Maastricht Treaty and (like Britain) chose not to abandon its currency for the euro, attitudes toward Europe can be quite hostile. In Spain, whose economy was modernized largely thanks to European ''structural funds'' (subsidies), the European Union wins steady majority support. But Europe's governing classes are not similarly split. ''Europeanism'' is the policy of all the mainstream left and right parties in most of Europe's major countries. The many Europeans who are suspicious of the entire project complain of a ''democratic deficit.'' This creates a rich vein of opportunity for populism, and Kilroy-Silk is a master at working it. At his Manchester radio appearance, the one where he had been showered with dung just before arriving, he harped on the cabinet of the British prime minister, Tony Blair, assailing its members for being an unaccountable elite who impose ''one standard for them, another for the rest of us.''
The nature of popular resistance to European integration (or ''Euroskepticism'') varies widely. In France, it includes a powerful corner of the Socialist Party, which fears that the constitution will drag France into free-market arrangements that could destroy its social compact. Resisting, too, is Jean-Marie Le Pen's fascistic National Front, which fears the erosion of Frenchness -- cultural and demographic -- that will result from the European Union's bias toward open borders and (again) free markets. The resistance also includes a party led by the European M.E.P. and aristocrat Philippe de Villiers, who works closely with UKIP. De Villiers has built a history theme park in Puy du Fou that includes a sound-and-light show about the Vendee uprising against the French revolutionary government, which began in 1793 and brought tens of thousands of common citizens into alliance with royalists -- and the lessons of the uprising are not lost on Euroskeptics. The park draws 20,000 visitors a day in the summer.
Such resistance, in all its variety, is replicated across Europe. Poland's Euroskeptics include anti-Semites and Poles worried about the European Union threat to the United States-Polish defense relationship. There are Swedish Greens, fearful Greek monks and Czechs who want to give their country a chance to breathe after the cold war before seeing it swallowed up in another (albeit more benign) multinational empire. As a result, an intense public-relations game is played out in every European country. For the anti-European camp, resistance is a matter of despising things that it is healthy to despise -- like unaccountable bureaucrats and arbitrary regulation. For the pro-European camp, resistance to ever greater union is a matter of despising things that it is noxious to despise -- like foreigners, particularly dark-skinned ones. As the former European external-affairs commissioner Chris Patten put it: UKIP, in its rejection of Europe, embodies ''a particularly unattractive, blazered xenophobia. They live in a fantasy world of conspiracies against gallant Blighty, white cliffs, Dambusters, Panzer helmets, a world in which every foreigner is a threat, a world which is totally at variance with the one in which we have to earn our living and keep the peace.''
British Euroskepticism is particularly important because it involves a global tug of war. Many Europeans hope that a united Europe will be large enough to compete with the United States for world leadership. Britain's full integration would be necessary for Europe to function as such a superstate. For one thing, London has the only world-class financial-services sector in Europe. For another, although France spends as much as Britain on its army, only Britain's military has the experience to fight at an American level. At the same time, American influence in Europe greatly depends on Britain's not disappearing into a generic ''European'' identity. A baseline pro-Americanism is certainly the norm in UKIP. Kilroy-Silk, however strident his patriotism, regrets not having gone to graduate school at Harvard, admitting, ''I might never have come back.''
British Euroskepticism is also particularly intense. Many Britons claim -- not without ample evidence -- that their thousand-year-old constitutional tradition has a better track record of guarding liberties than the Continental traditions that provided most of the basis for the European Union. The unease that results when local eccentricities are flattened out by globalization is present in all countries, but Britain is a place with more eccentricities than most. The European Union can be a convenient scapegoat for the end of a world of cooked breakfasts, drafty houses, nondecimal currency and afternoon tea and its disorienting replacement by a world of gay rights, immigration, espresso and laws against smoking. There is a strong mood of longing for the past among Britons. And unlike most continental powers, Britain has no shameful World War II past, the specter of which pro-Europeans can wave in front of voters elsewhere as a tried-and-true means of checking patriotic nostalgia.
Euroskepticism runs across the British political spectrum. Its two leading champions over the past half-century were arguably the late Enoch Powell on the right of the Tory Party and Tony Benn on the left of Labor. (Kilroy-Silk has some admiration for Benn, but he was embarrassed by the way even his Labor colleagues deferred before Powell's erudition and high-flown oratory.) In recent years, Euroskepticism has been stronger on the right, and has threatened to break up any Conservative electoral coalition that tries to hold a middle-of-the-road position on the European Union. So Tories were in a panic when they gathered for their party conference at Bournemouth in early October. What the Tories saw in UKIP was a Nader effect writ large. The winnability of dozens of Tory seats in coming British national elections -- including that of Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer and a Tory rising star -- now appeared to depend on whether a UKIP Euroskeptic ran and siphoned off Tory votes.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary and Tory-party-leader-in-waiting, set at 50 the number of seats the Tories could lose as a result of UKIP's diluting the conservative vote. The American-style conservative John Redwood, brought into the party leadership to revivify the Euroskeptic current, urged stealing UKIP's clothes. So did the party's co-chairman Liam Fox, whose remarks at a private party meeting had been secretly taped and published in The Times of London. ''The No. 1 issue to get UKIP voters back to the Conservatives is immigration and asylum,'' Fox reportedly said. When they used the term Europe, ''what they meant was foreigners, a lot of them, to be frank. It is acceptable to say, 'I am anti-Europe.' It is not acceptable to say, 'I am anti-immigrant.'''
Many top Tories, however, took solace in the hope that UKIP's Euroskeptic politicians, even if they were sitting on a gold mine of potential votes, would have no clue what to do with it.
It was obvious even before June's European Parliament election that many of the people flooding into UKIP belonged to Kilroy-Silk more than they belonged to the party. Naturally, they would wish to see him take over as party leader from Roger Knapman, who was elected to the post in 2002. Knapman is a canny political operator. He was a Tory M.P. for a decade until being swept away in the Blair landslide of 1997. He is well liked among the party's old guard and works closely with Nigel Farage, the party's European parliamentary leader. The elfin Farage, 40, fond of smoking, drinking and talking about smoking and drinking, is indeed a compelling orator. His spiel doesn't vary much -- in fact, you're apt to hear him say verbatim from a dais the same thing he said at a cocktail party the night before -- but it is a good spiel. His speeches give a distilled version of UKIP's program: an ''amicable divorce from the European Union and its replacement with a free-trade agreement, which is what we thought we voted for in the first place.''
Kilroy-Silk had something considerably grander than this in mind, a new and potent British party, and until October his takeover of UKIP looked inevitable. The reason was not just his magnetism. It was money. Paul Sykes, a 61-year-old high-school dropout from Yorkshire, had turned a scrap-metal exporting company into a $1 billion real-estate fortune. This gave him a lot of free time, which he devoted increasingly to Euroskeptic activities. Sykes financed the anti-European Democracy Movement in the 90's. Since then he has pursued his political interests by financing candidates -- spending $10 million over the past decade, according to some estimates. Kilroy-Silk claimed that Sykes would put up either $40 million or $60 million -- in either case, dozens of times what UKIP had to spend during the summer's campaign -- to contest the general election in 2005, provided he (Kilroy-Silk) was at the helm.
Such was the state of play on the Saturday of the Bristol conference, when a partywide debate was scheduled to iron out a central philosophical question: Should UKIP husband its resources to topple only those British parliamentary candidates who promote European integration? Or should it contest all seats, with a view to becoming a ''regular'' political party, even at the risk of splitting the anti-Europe vote? Knapman had pronounced himself eager to hear the party's views on the matter.
But Kilroy-Silk wasn't interested in chitchat. He was interested in sweeping the party off its feet. Early Saturday afternoon, he stood before 900 people under a white spotlight in a pitch-black theater and gave a dazzling performance. He began with a flourish of flattery (''It was an amazing thing you did on June the 10th''), and then worked through a repertory of effects. He deployed reams of statistics, and he eventually worked the crowd into a feeling of victimhood. (''They call you and I xenophobes just because we want to govern ourselves.'') Toward the end, people were beginning to shout ''Thank you! Thank you!'' Then Kilroy-Silk turned to substance. The idea of making common cause with the Tories over Europe, he said, was preposterous. ''The Conservative Party is dying,'' he said. ''Why would you want to give it the kiss of life? What we have to do is kill it.''
Maybe Kilroy-Silk should have waited for the afternoon debate, as Knapman had wanted. Because threatening the Tory Party in this way did threaten to divide the Euroskeptic vote. That bothered Sykes. He announced that he would not finance UKIP for the British national elections.
It appeared that the steam had gone out of Kilroy-Silk's leadership challenge before it had begun. Weeks later, his candidacy was rejected in a leadership-sponsored poll of UKIP's local committee chairmen. But by now Kilroy-Silk was willing to destroy the party to save it. He called the poll ''amateurishly rigged'' and began to denounce the leadership as incompetent and corrupt. In late October, hours before a meeting in which it was rumored that Farage would move for his ouster, Kilroy-Silk resigned from the party parliamentary grouping. He announced that he would remain a UKIP member, however, and that he planned to take over the party by taking his case to UKIP's rank-and-file voters. As Knapman said of his rival, ''He's a death-or-glory man.''
Knapman often compares UKIP with the Scottish National Party or its Welsh equivalent, the Plaid Cymru. He and his allies hope that the party will grow over the decades from a small marginal party into a small party with some influence -- that if they just sit perfectly still and declare their Britishness with sincerity, an electorate will grow on them like moss.
Kilroy-Silk says he believes in something more radical. It may be that having read his Lenin and Gramsci and Sorel in college, he has a distinctly 20th-century idea of how parties come to power. He says that movements like UKIP, while not ''fads'' exactly, have only a brief window of time in which to seize the advantage. He constantly harps on this theme in his speeches (''The opportunity is here today,'' he said in Bristol), and even sitting around his living room in Buckinghamshire, he said: ''What people don't understand is there's a lot of smoke and mirrors here. We've got an influence all out of proportion to our size, and we have to seize the moment.''
For now, Kilroy-Silk is in an ambiguous position. He is a candidate for leadership of the party but not on speaking terms with its leaders. ''In a way I'm set free,'' he told me. ''I don't have to defend the deputy leader talking about fighting our way out, like Chechnya a few days after Beslan. I will be an independent person, untrammeled.'' Like most in UKIP, he preferred Bush to Kerry in the last election. But he has strong views in favor of gay rights and abortion that few of his colleagues share, and he insists, ''My view on none of these issues will be altered by what the party says.'' It will be his way or the highway.
Christopher Caldwell, a new contributing writer for the magazine, is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.