After a talk for Politics Society, Exepose Features interviews UKIP MEP William Legge concerning trade, the upcoming elections and the public perception of the UK Independence Party
With the debate over UK membership in Europe still rife and poised to play a massive role in the upcoming general elections UKIP MEP and trade specialist William Legge (or Dartmouth if you are going by his title) came to Exeter as Politics Society’s guest speaker in a packed auditorium. After enduring a one-hour talk on the economic benefits of leaving Europe it is fair to say we were prepared for answers of a contentious, confrontational and often convoluted nature.
Beginning with a question regarding student support for UKIP, or less subtly the lack of it, the MEP was quick to blame this on an unfair characterisation rather than a relation to specific policy as well as failing to mention anything regarding the student vote, which he effectively dismissed in his talk as less powerful (thus important) than the older generations. “That’s a characterisation that I don’t agree with, but that’s the way we’ve been presented in the establishment media, particularly in the BBC and the Times. Particularly because the establishment looks after its’ own.”
Legge also did not shy away from expanding his point of contestation to blaming those in power for the party’s negative depiction in the media. “What we have had with the UK Independence Party is a campaign of abuse led by the Prime Minister, which is quite different from anything we have seen from British political life and also doesn’t belong in British political life either.” When asked if this was down to the perception of UKIP as a threat, the Oxford and Harvard graduate responded with the recommendation that we ask David Cameron ourselves. “I don’t understand his motivation but it certainly does not belong in British political life.”
These somewhat embittered responses needless to say got our interview off to a mildly awkward and slightly tense start. This of course was not helped by the politician’s displeasure at being asked if this perception could be improved: “It’s not a perspective it’s a characterisation. All we can do is put forward, calmly, politely, persuasively our politics. The problem is you get coverage not by making sensible comments and sensible statements. That’s what the press likes to pick up on.”
Comparing UKIP’s characterisation to the Greens, we questioned if this was down to a less study friendly policy focus. The Earl was quick to dismiss this suggestion: “We have a focus on sovereignty and we should have the ability to rule ourselves. Most young people are actually rather interested in that.”
Lamenting the woes of being an insurgent political party, the 65 year old (who doesn’t look a day over 80) stated, “Anybody who challenges the establishment is either ignored or abused. Having been ignored we are going through a process of being abused.”
When asked if he would follow his party leaders stance on quitting politics if the UK voted to stay in Europe, Legge shied away from making any dramatic promises. “Oh I dunno. I think that if we do vote to stay, it will then become even more important that there is a euro sceptic voice that stands up for and will defend British interests.” He also was quick to suggest neither result would end in the dissolution of the UKIP party. “I think there very much would be a UKIP party because whatever happens it’s actually we who put the referendum on the agenda.”
At this point in the interview a phone went off. At first we both felt a tinge of relief it was neither of ours, but this emotion was rapidly replaced by one of annoyance when the MEP got out his phone, answered it to inform the caller “It’s not a good moment.” Avoiding the temptation to inform Legge of the benefits of voicemail we pressed on (without any sign of an apology) and asked what the purpose was of UKIP MEP’s representing us and not simply boycotting an institution they fundamentally disagreed with. “There are two reasons for going. First of all we are obliged to represent our constituents, to stand up for British interests and to put forward the contrary point of view. The other reason we are there is to be the eyes and ears of the British people as to what is going on there. You won’t here what is really going on from the establishment parties. Nor very much from the establishment media.”
When asked whether there would be any circumstances under which he would support Britain as part of the European Union, the MEP was quick to give us a final answer: “I can’t think of one.” As we moved on to our next question however, Legge decided it wasn’t a final answer after all. Loudly interrupting, he went on to explain his view. “Mr Juncker… President of the Commission and Chancellor Merkel of Germany have made it absolutely clear that no meaningful change is ever going to be on the agenda.” Clearly not liking our question, he even rephrased it for us: “The question isn’t what hypothetically might be, the question is what is the position now? And the position now has been made very clear.”
As many euro sceptics such as Jacob Rees Mogg have suggested that Britain should reach out to former Commonwealth partners, we pressed Legge for his views on this potential route forward. Stuttering to come to a decision, the MEP eventually told us, “Well… in many ways UKIP is the party of the Commonwealth; that’s something I heavily advocate.”
Believing that British politicians in the late 1960s and 70s made the wrong decision in turning away from the Commonwealth and towards, what was then, the Common Market, he again turned to trade agreements. Much like a stuck record, he outlined trade agreements between the European Union and countries such as Canada and India whose growth rates have soared in comparison to EU nations. “It’s actually clear that we made the wrong choice.”
Today there is a great difference between Britain’s current economic position and that of ‘red brick’ countries which have experienced a recent economic boom. Highlighting this difference, we questioned what Britain can offer in a trade agreement. Clearly not comfortable with the question, the Earl skirted around a focus on Britain, instead declaring that “Switzerland has trade agreements with Japan and China, and the EU doesn’t.”
When guided back towards the UK specifically, he simply stated that “if Switzerland can, so can we” before reeling off yet another list of countries outside the EU with trade agreements, pointing out that the USA has twenty trade agreements with countries that have smaller economies than the UK. As both of the countries referred to by Legge have greater economic resources than Britain, we pressed him on this difference. He again shied away from the question, moving on to discuss New Zealand’s agreement with China. For a second time we brought him back to the focus of our question, making it clear that we were referring specifically to Switzerland and the USA. This was not a proposition he was at all happy with. With a raised voice, he responded with a punchy and defensive reply: “Hang on, you can’t say you’re talking about them because they suit the argument you are trying to put forward. I don’t agree.”
Along the same line as before, the former accountant again informed us of existing trade agreements: “Iceland has a trade agreement with China, I mean if Iceland can, why can’t we?” And then, somewhat contradicting himself, he outlined the answer to his supposedly rhetorical question. “The answer is we can. But we can’t because we have to agree it with 27 other countries… it is more straight forward to be able to come to agreements on trade on our own account than it is as one of 28 member states.”
Clear that we were not going to get a better or clearer answer from the MEP, we moved on to the recent decision to exclude the Green Party from the upcoming election debates. When asked to reflect upon David Cameron’s decision not to take part without the Greens, Legge was clear in his view. “David Cameron is trying to dredge up any kind of excuse that he possibly can in order to not to participate in these debates.” He even accused the Prime Minister of the same label Margaret Thatcher gave the Labour party leader before the 1983 election: a “frightened, frightened frit!”
Positively though, the MEP was enthusiastic about the inclusion of the Green Party and others such as the Scottish Nationalists in the election debates, stating that “The British people ought to be able to see … [and] have a good long hard look at what’s on offer.”
Due to the current first past the post system, Legge’s belief that both UKIP and the Green Party would overtake the Liberal Democrats in the number of votes may not equate to representation, even if his predications are correct. Aware of this, we questioned whether he believed the system should be reformed. His answer was, evidently, an obvious one: “Yes, absolutely.” Casually ignoring our follow up question, he went on to point out “for the record” that UKIP was in favour of the alternative vote, as well as proportional representation.
With an exciting year ahead for politics it is fair to predict this MEP will continue on his charm offensive. As for these two writers however, consider us not so charmed.
Rory Henderson Morgan, Print Features Editor, and Kayley Gilbert, Online Features Editorbookmark me