Politics

Gair Rhydd meets: Neil Hamilton AM

A former Conservative Member of Parliament, Neil Hamilton is UKIP’s leader in Wales. Elected to the Welsh Assembly in 2016, he won the leadership later that year and is one of the party’s best known figures.

By Rhys Thomas

On the day of our meeting, local elections in England were taking place – but Hamilton admitted he didn’t have too much knowledge of UKIP’s chances across Offa’s Dyke. “Here in Wales I haven’t followed the local elections in England very closely, so I haven’t a clue actually! UKIP’s been through a difficult period in the last eighteen months with a succession of useless leaders, we’ve made a decisive change in electing Gerard Batten. It’s a tragedy that he wasn’t able to take over several months ago and put together a local election campaign, because when he became leader just a few weeks ago absolutely nothing whatever had been done”. Later that day, UKIP’s General Secretary would compare his party to the “Black Death”.

I pressed Hamilton further about the revolving door of leaders. After Nigel Farage’s last permanent stint as leader in September 2016, the party has been through Diane James, Paul Nuttall and Henry Bolton, having now settled on Batten – but it remains to be seen how long he will last. “It certainly has damaged UKIP and been partly responsible in the decline in our fortunes. I think the biggest reason for UKIP’s decline is our success in the referendum, paradoxically because a lot of people thought, well that’s UKIP’s job done. It isn’t done, of course – but we are looking to life when we are an independent country again, UKIP occupies a part of the political spectrum that is vacant. Nobody else wants to occupy that part of the spectrum that we’ve occupied on a whole range of issues, not least immigration which was the biggest single issue in the referendum campaign, and the Tories clearly have no intention whatever of having serious control of immigration”. He is a firm supporter of Batten and believes that the Member of the European Parliament for London is the man to stabilise UKIP’s position. “He comes across well on television. He’s very different from Nigel Farage of course – Nigel is a great charismatic hail-fellow-well-met figure, Gerard is more reserved. But he is absolutely adamantine on all issues. He is the right stable force for UKIP at this time”.

Batten is not without controversy though, having referred to Islam as a “death cult” and I posited that this focus on Islam was a change from the Farage playbook and one that may not play well with British voters. “We know that we have a massive problem with Islamic fundamentalists and no amount of harking back to what Christians did in the fourteenth century is going to talk that away. The reality is that Islam is, to an extent, stuck in the medieval mind-set that we in the West have shuffled off long ago. Of course it’s true to say that overwhelmingly Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people – but there is a very significant minority, not least in the Labour Party, who are a threat to our society. This is all ultimately to do with cultural cohesion. Uncontrolled immigration has completely changed the face of our country. Why are the Tories going to be wiped out in London today? Because London is effectively a foreign country. Fewer than half the people who live in London were born in the United Kingdom”.

Like immigration, Brexit was crucial to UKIP’s existence and we discussed how he felt the British Government was handling it. “It’s an absolute shambles. The problem is that Theresa May doesn’t believe in the project. Her flirtation with this customs union idea is nonsense. You can’t be half in a customs union and half outside it. You have to accept the whole lot, which includes all the regulations which apply to every company within the bloc. So, if you’re in a customs union with the EU you are effectively in the EU, subject to the overriding control of the European court, is you can’t negotiate trade deals with the rest of the world which is the great liberating benefit of leaving the EU, is that we can devise a trade policy that suits us. We can devise an agricultural policy that suits us, and it’s a great boon for ordinary working people. Food prices can be significantly reduced by getting out of the Common Agricultural Policy, without prejudicing the interests of farmers who can be subsidised in many ways. We don’t have to do it by having high prices for food. If we had a sensible environmental policy, we could cut people’s food bills. We could cut the cost of travel – we can’t do any of these things in the straitjacket of the EU”. Hamilton was confident that Brexit would be a positive example for the rest of the continent, and that the “technocrats and bureaucrats” of Brussels would lose in the end. “The Eurosceptic movement that started in Britain is going to spread much more visibly to the rest of Europe – people like Emmanuel Macron are totally out of sync with the times. Angela Merkel believes in a German Europe, which of course is what they’ve got. They have succeeded in all their economic ambitions without a war for the first time in 150 years!”

He pressed his concern about the problems within Britain’s governing party about the European question. “We have an internal war going on in the Conservative Party between those who never wanted to leave the EU in the first place and those who are actually conducting the negotiations like David Davies on the ground. We are losing tricks all the time in negotiations with (the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel) Barnier. We know exactly what the EU’s tactics are, we’ve seen it with Greece. Yanis Varoufakis wrote a book which included recordings of conversations that took place between him and the EU panjandrums like Michel Barnier when he was the Finance Minister of Greece – exactly the same negotiating tactics are being employed by them against us now. We should never have agreed to separate negotiations over freedom of movement and issues like the Irish border from the trade deal issue with the rest of the world. We should have said, if you’re not prepared to talk turkey on a sensible basis then we’ll just leave the EU without a deal and make the preparations in the two years between then and next May to take advantage of the freedoms we’re doing to get. That would have brought them to the negotiating table, instead of which Barnier’s been Dr. No hasn’t he?”. Hamilton bemoaned the perceived failures of the May’s negotiating stance. “We’ve lost ground on all sorts of issues. We’re going have to carry on paying into the EU budget, we won’t have control of our borders, we won’t have control of so many other things where the EU makes the rules”.

A common critique of UKIP is that they are only focused on the European Union and immigration, but Hamilton is keen to assure me that this isn’t the case. “There are lots of issues where we have a unique take. We want to scrap most of the foreign aid budget and put that into the health service and other good things here in the UK. We’re the only party that opposes the mania for wind farms and other subsidised renewable energy projects which are now adding so much to everybody’s power bills every much. We are the only party that oppose virtue signalling political correctness and nanny-statism and all these ridiculous new taxes like the sugar tax and the minimum pricing of alcohol which is what the Government will be pushing through here in the next few months and so on – these taxes take a much bigger slice out of the budgets of ordinary people than they do out of the rich. The minimum price of alcohol isn’t going to affect the champagne drinker – the Hampstead intellectuals and the luvvies of Primrose Hill, but it is going to affect the beer drinkers of Blaenau Gwent. We’re the only party that stands up for that and for the ordinary man in the street”. If you didn’t know better, you might think that Hamilton was a dyed in the wool socialist instead of a former Conservative MP.

Hamilton took great pleasure in letting rip on the governing Welsh Labour Party, and then added his thoughts on their sometime coalition partners Plaid Cymru for good measure. “Labour have no idea how to create an entrepreneurial economy. No idea how to attract into Wales the kind of businesses we need to raise wage levels – because that’s fundamentally the problem with Wales. It’s why Plaid Cymru have no answer to the problems of Wales because it could never function independently as a viable political unit, because the degree of subsidy that we get from the British taxpayer is far too great. 40% of every pound which is spent by government at all levels in Wales comes from the British Treasury. So how they think Wales could survive viably as an independent country, goodness knows!” Despite UKIP and Plaid’s unholy alliance with the Conservatives when trying to bring down Carwyn Jones as First Minister in 2016, Hamilton adds that “Plaid Cymru and Labour are basically peas in a pod on economic policy. At the end of the day, Plaid will always prop up a Labour government. So, we’ve had twenty years of unrelieved failure”.

His take on the only other significant force in the Assembly is more sympathetic. “They’re not in the same group, but what troubles me about the Welsh Conservatives is that they’re not really an opposition. They just don’t have the bite which is required – I like Andrew RT Davies. He is a bluff, hail-fellow-well-met Brexiteer, not dissimilar from me in many ways, but they are such milk and water people on the whole and I don’t think they can ever offer an exciting, viable alternative”.

UKIP are not known as a party of the young, and tuition fees and university education aren’t topics that UKIP are usually associated with but Hamilton has ideas, and he outlined his party’s attitude on higher education with alacrity. “We fought the last election on a policy of abolishing fees. Looking at the numbers, it’s very difficult to see where the money’s coming from seeing that there are so many other claims on Government’s budget. I think the problem is, that we are spending too much money educating people to get worthless qualifications. A very large proportion of graduates end up in non-graduate jobs. That can’t be right”.

And Hamilton’s prediction for the big Brexit finale? “Brexit will be a fudge. We will leave the EU legally, but not in substance in a variety of ways. The great prize that we will definitely win is that we will leave the EU in a year’s time, legally. Then the focus will be on the opportunities that an independent country has”.

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