MI6 and UK Independence Party
Tories? desperate throw
In last week?s edition of the rightwing, Tory-supporting magazine The Spectator, there appeared a curious story by none other than Norman Tebbit. It was entitled ?UKIP: is there a hidden agenda?? and concerned Tebbit?s claim to have uncovered ?a possible link between Europe and the security services?. His allegation is that the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more familiarly known as MI6, has infiltrated the United Kingdom Independence Party on the instructions of Tony Blair (The Spectator May 26).
The politics behind this bizarre tale are not difficult to work out. Facing the prospect of a second landslide defeat, the Tories know that the fault line on Europe that divides their party from top to bottom is bound to cause seismic repercussions after June 7. Thus far, the Europhile left of the party - with the exception of Ted Heath and Lord Brittan, both effectively outside mainstream Tory politics - have maintained a careful silence. They do not want to get the blame for the coming debacle. The right, on the other hand, is beginning to look for scapegoats, and Tebbit?s conspiracy theory is part of that process.
First, some details of the charges he levels against MI6. To begin with, the question is why? Why should the service whose remit is notionally restricted to espionage abroad - or indeed its domestic counterparts in the Security Service (MI5) - get involved in the activities of this small, extreme anti-EU party? According to Tebbit, MI6?s objective is to ensure that the UKIP stands in as many constituencies as possible, especially those marginal constituencies where a sitting Tory MP is vulnerable to losing their seat, or where a prospective Tory candidate with a chance of gaining the seat can be kept out.
And what is the purported aim of this ?immensely damaging intervention?? To plunge the Tory Party into a post-election leadership crisis in which the Europhile wing of the party could oust William Hague and install their own leader. Against such a background, Tony Blair would, as Tebbit puts it, be in an ideal position to ?bounce Britain into the euro before the sceptics could be rallied to organise a ?no? campaign. That ... fits with Blair?s fanatical obsession not just to beat, but to destroy, the Conservative Party? (ibid).
Thus, in Tebbit?s scenario, the UKIP, despite its avowed anti-Europeanism and its determination to foster British withdrawal from the EU, is - consciously or unconsciously - being covertly manipulated into serving the interests of its political enemies. The putative objective of MI6?s involvement in the ?conspiracy? is to facilitate Britain?s early entry into European monetary union and thence into a European superstate.
The source of Tebbit?s story - dubbed ?Mr X? - is allegedly a disaffected former member of the UKIP, previously a ?long-time Labour supporter and opponent of entry into the Common Market?, who once worked as an assistant to the late Eric Heffer in the days when the Labour Party?s policy, ?to which young Tony Blair subscribed?, was to negotiate Britain?s exit from the EEC? (ibid). If his description of the man is true, then his lordship clearly has quite a bit to learn about source protection.
?Mr X? provided Tebbit with the names of two men whom he ?believed? to have ?links? with MI6. When Tebbit challenged one of them directly about the allegation, ?Denial came there none - only an angry retort that I should be ashamed of myself for asking such a question.? Tebbit, by stating that the ?agents? involved ?claim to have retired years ago?, leads us to believe that the opposite may be true and that they are still ?on the active list?. His talk of a conspiracy is purportedly ?given a boost? by the fact that ?during the 1997 election both individuals worked for Jimmy Goldsmith?s Referendum Party?, before moving into the UKIP.
After the 1997 election both men joined the UKIP: ?One is still there. I understand the other resigned his post some three months ago, having lost the confidence of some of his colleagues.? Tebbit concedes that, ?There is nothing illegal or improper in former intelligence officers joining political parties as staff members or to seek election. There are former agents in both houses of parliament.? But ?to find two in such small organisations as the Referendum Party or UKIP is somewhat against the odds?. Hence, he calls for an official enquiry.
On one level, the intrinsic plausibility - or lack of it - in Tebbit?s scenario is irrelevant. The point is to fling mud and hope that some of it sticks. Despite the provisions of recent legislation governing the security services, it is just about conceivable that, having received a nod from on high, some bureaucrat in the cabinet office could have constructed a case against the UKIP on the grounds that their policies were inimical to the political and economic interests of her majesty?s government. The UKIP could, therefore, be argued to constitute a legitimate target for investigation. It is, however, rather hard to imagine ?C?, the head of MI6, phoning up a couple of retired, reactionary old buffers who had given their services to Goldsmith in 1997 and ordering them to ?penetrate? the UKIP. Even those whose knowledge of the security services is acquired from reading spy memoirs and John le Carr? novels know that this is not how things are done.
What of the UKIP itself? The party was founded in September 1993 by Dr Alan Sked, an economics don at LSE, on the foundations of his Anti-Federalist League, formed in 1992 to run candidates opposed to the Maastricht Treaty in that year?s general election. The central aim of the UKIP is ?the UK?s withdrawal from the European Union to regain control of the nation?s affairs through parliament at Westminster?. The apogee of the UKIP?s fortunes to date came in the European elections of 1999, when, with some seven percent of the vote, its was allocated three seats in the European parliament on the basis of proportional representation. On the strength of its performance in 1999, the UKIP claims to be the country?s fourth biggest party.
The arrival of its three MEPs saw the beginning of a protracted period of internecine strife in the party. The current leader, Jeffrey Titford MEP, took up office last year, replacing Michael Holmes MEP, who is currently rumoured to be on the verge of quitting the party. Interestingly, he reportedly shares Sked?s opinion that the UKIP has been ?infiltrated by extremists?. The fear of ?infiltration? long predates Tebbit?s accusations about MI6 penetration and is reflected in the party?s rules and constitution: ?In order to protect the party from infiltration by extremists, all party members must sign a membership form supporting the party?s principles, which must also be respected by conference. All prospective candidates and constituency office-bearers must sign declarations confirming that they have no criminal record, no record of serious mental illness and no previous association with extremist political groups of right and left? (www.ukip.org).
In the 1997 general election, the UKIP fielded 194 candidates, and managed to save its deposit in only one seat (Salisbury). This time it will fight in 420 of the 620 Commons constituencies, and its intervention must certainly be a cause of concern in many Tory marginals, particularly in the south west of England.
Is this an indication that Tebbit?s charges have some foundation? Hardly. It is much more likely that the UKIP?s much broader effort this time reflects a substantial donation it is reported to have received from the millionaire capitalist Paul Sykes. Readers will remember that last June Sykes, the chairman of the British Democracy Movement, said he was ready to throw his weight behind William Hague?s campaign against the euro. The sum of ?20 million was mentioned. But when the Tory leadership told Sykes that it would not accept money ?with strings? attached, he cancelled his membership of the Conservative Party. Sykes said on May 17 that the UKIP ?was the only party calling for a referendum on membership and spelling out in clear terms what membership of Europe really meant. He is helping to finance a leaflet to be sent to 20 million homes? (The Daily Telegraph May 18).
The most notable defection in the other direction has been that of the UKIP?s founder, Dr Sked himself. Over last weekend it emerged that Sked - who broke with the UKIP leadership some time ago - has been recruited by Hague?s parliamentary aide, John Whittingdale. Evidently, in these desperate days, Hague feels that any embarrassment caused by the Tories? embrace of an anti-EU extremist like Sked is worth the risk. His role will be to help out in some marginal seats by promoting what has become the centrepiece of their activity in the days before June 7: namely Hague?s drive to ?save the pound?. Sked states that, ?It is futile for the UKIP to stand in seats which the Tories might win, but to give them to the Lib Dems? (The Times May 28). While conceding that he had profound disagreements with the Tories - most obviously concerning his continuing belief that the UK should withdraw from the EU - Sked maintains that ?the main thing is that we both want to save the pound? (ibid).
To any objective observer, it is evident that the UKIP does indeed harbour in its ranks some pretty esoteric flotsum and jetsum from official society. Powellites, expatriate Monday Clubbers, self-made bigots, Europhiles, ultra-royalists and one or more former intelligence officers. But no conspiracy theories are needed to account for the threat from the UKIP nor for the very serious, if not cataclysmic, defeat that is staring the Tories in the face. Small wonder that Hague has evidently decided to throw everything on the European card in one final attempt to salvage something from the election - and with it his own chances of survival as leader. But his tactics have been inept, to say the least.
True, polls have shown that on the question of Europe and EMU the Tories have maintained a consistent lead. But in the end it is far from being the principal question on the minds of the electorate, for whom the economy and the state of the public services remain of paramount interest. Nor does his stated commitment to keeping the pound - not permanently, but for the duration of another parliament - sustain any credibility. What serious politician puts a sell-by date on his most cherished principle? The only rational explanation for Hague?s adoption of this position is that it lessens - at least temporarily - the possibility of a rebellion on Europe from his left.
Hague has at least managed to a certain extent to dictate the agenda of debate between the two main parties in recent days. If the Labour manifesto is anything to go by - with Europe and the euro getting less space than sport or issues of ?social inclusion? - Labour election strategists, particularly Gordon Brown, were anxious to postpone discussion of the whole problem until after Labour?s re-election.
Yet even here, Hague has somehow contrived to turn a minor victory into something of an embarrassment. His insistence that this election campaign is in effect a referendum on the euro, coupled with the dire threat that a Labour landslide would be followed by a ?rigged? referendum that would seal the fate of the pound forever, smacks of desperation, and among the anti-European forces in his party seems more likely to engender a fatalistic defeatism rather than a genuine will to win.
On current poll forecasts, the Tories are heading not just for a resounding defeat, but potential marginalisation. Single issues have torn apart great parties before. One has only to think of free trade and Irish home rule. It is not improbable that Europe will be the Tories? ultimate nemesis, but if that happens nobody will point the finger at the tiny UKIP.