Lord Pearson of Rannoch is almost a stereotype of the British establishment politician. The dapper, grey-suited 68-year-old who slides into the seat next to mine satisfies the traditional criteria. He is an Etonian, a member of White’s club and owns an estate in the Scottish Highlands.
We meet at The Atrium, a restaurant that is a coronet’s throw from the Houses of Parliament and has all the intimacy of a suburban shopping mall. Its popularity, I suspect, mainly stems from the fact that it shares its building with the broadcasting studios that cover parliament. This is the Westminster village’s canteen. All around us, hunched gossiping at their tables, BlackBerries close to hand, is the political class at lunch.
But if he looks like the ultimate political insider, Pearson’s philosophy is very different. As leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), he believes that the political system needs to be torn down and replaced. “Representative democracy has been destroyed in this country,” he says. “The feeling at this general election is going to be hatred towards the political classes.”
Pearson has a plan. He advocates cutting the number of MPs in the House of Commons from 646 to just 250 part-timers, paid a maximum of £30,000 a year. There would be expenses but they would be audited to prevent the sort of manoeuvres that have angered the public (Pearson, a member of the House of Lords, was attacked for some of his own claims). Parliament would sit infrequently: “It would be like the Swiss. They only go up to parliament when there is actually something to discuss.” Meanwhile, power would be devolved through a Swiss-style system of local and national referendums. There would be far fewer laws and the connection between the public and politics would, he believes, be re-established. “Just think if we had had this system,” says Pearson. “There is no way we would have had the Iraq war.”
His plan, he says, has an additional virtue: “It is loathed by the political class, including the political media which is, of course, part of the political class.”
Founded in 1993 and with about 16,000 members, Ukip is the largest political party in Britain devoted to securing the country’s withdrawal from the European Union. Pearson has just come from a radio interview in the studios upstairs where he has been berating the government for getting the UK into a position where it might have to contribute to the Greek bail-out. He believes the EU is behind the collapse of British democracy. “The British parliament has been hollowed out – it is just processing paper.” But the rot has gone so deep that it is not enough, he thinks, just to pull out of Brussels. The political state has to be rebuilt.
“You might say that Ukip is a pretty ropy instrument to deal with that,” he says. “But there is nothing else.”
Ropy is one way of putting it. Ukip has an anarchic, if entertaining, reputation. Pearson’s predecessor as party leader, the Euro-MP Nigel Farage, was recently fined €3,000 by the European Parliament for referring in the chamber to Herman van Rompuy, the new EU president, as a “damp rag” and mocking him for having the appearance of “a low-grade bank clerk”. Although it can make Ukip seem frivolous, Pearson is untroubled by this sort of stuff, saying that he doesn’t care about the European Parliament (a “democratic fraud” in his view), and adding that Farage has apologised for the important slight, which was “insulting bank clerks”.
Rebuilding the British state seems a big challenge, I say, but Pearson has never shied from a fight. Despite his establishment upbringing, he has never been part of the inner circle and has no connection with the Pearson group that owns the FT. His father served as a pilot in the first world war before using his aviation contacts to move into the nascent world of aircraft insurance. He made enough money to send Malcolm Pearson and his brother to Eton where they were bullied for being nouveau riche. “I was good at sports although I was quite small and this annoyed some second-rate dim aristos who beat me up and so forth,” he says. “I gave as good as I got but it was unfair as we may have been nouveau but we weren’t riche.” His antagonists have since declined into well-deserved obscurity, he adds. Jonathan Aitken, a former Tory minister and an Eton contemporary, approvingly describes Pearson as having the moral and physical courage of an SAS commander.
We both choose beef carpaccio as our starters. Pearson pronounces it with an Italian accent. His first wife, Francesca Frua de Angeli, was Italian (he has had two subsequent marriages and has three children) and he speaks the language. “I am not against Europe you know,” he says. “I love Europe but the real Europe, the Europe of Italy and Spain not the Europe of Brussels.” Wine is ordered. “A single glass, not too risky?” says Pearson.
The David versus Goliath theme found echoes in adult life. After leaving school, Pearson followed his father into the insurance business and set up his own broking firm at Lloyd’s of London in 1964. This led to the defining battle of his business life when, in the late 1970s, he found himself involved in what became known as the Savonita affair, an insurance claim on a cargo of cars said to have been destroyed in a ship fire. Pearson suspected a fraud and refused to collect the claim, even though the firm making the claim was his biggest client. When the client replaced him with another broker that paid up, Pearson pressed Lloyd’s to investigate his suspicions of fraud, which it was initially unwilling to do.
The struggle has some of the hallmarks of his subsequent battles with the EU (which he accuses of endemic corruption) and other foes such as the BBC, which he has accused of bias on Europe. But he didn’t beat Lloyd’s, which later passed a private act of parliament giving it legal immunity from negligence, something Pearson fiercely opposed and that frustrated his campaign to open up the insurance market. “Ultimately, we lost,” he admits.
What the Savonita affair did achieve, however, was to take Pearson into politics. Margaret Thatcher noticed and admired his crusade. “I was introduced to her at a party and she said, ‘Not the Savonita Pearson?’” he recalls as he finishes the last of the “excellent” carpaccio. She persuaded him to join a quango in the 1980s and then put him in the House of Lords in 1990. He also got involved with anti-Soviet dissident groups and became friends with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Then, with the end of the cold war, he found a new cause in Europe. At first he was an internal dissident in the Conservative party, fighting the Maastricht treaty and then the euro. He does not see this as disloyal. “I was appointed to the Lords by Margaret Thatcher and I have always stayed loyal to her.” But, in 2004, whatever vestigial sense of loyalty he felt to the Tories finally snapped and he joined Ukip.
As our main courses arrive, we turn to discussion of the election ahead, which Pearson thinks will be crucial for the future of the UK. I venture that Ukip is unlikely to play a big role in the national poll because it is still too much of a cranky single-issue party – an irritant on the edge of politics rather than a central player.
Pearson disagrees. “We have policies on lots of things,” he says. It is certainly true that Ukip is seeking to broaden its base by adopting a range of populist policies but this seems less of a coherent programme for government than a list of dog-whistle issues designed to lure away wavering Tories. A good example is Ukip’s education policy, which Pearson describes as follows: “Vouchers, grammar schools and abolish teacher training.”
The party has also taken up climate change. Pearson observes that a Mori poll in February showed that for the first time more British people did not believe in man-made climate change than believed in it. Ukip recruited Lord Monckton, a former adviser to Mrs Thatcher, to investigate and then published his paper, claiming that the science was flawed, and that the state should stop spending resources on cutting carbon emissions.
Monckton argues not only that, as we don’t have a sure answer to the problem, we should be wary of investing heavily in fixes, but that we should reject the science too. Does Pearson think it wise to take the word of one man against the academic community? Pearson seems to think so, saying that Monckton is “brilliant” and has a big following in the US. But this is the same Monckton who invented an “unbreakable” mathematical puzzle and lost a chunk of his fortune offering a prize of £1m to anyone who could break it. A couple of Cambridge academics obliged. On past form, I suggest, I’d be tempted to side with the scientists. Pearson laughs: “But that was mathematics.”
Ukip has also turned its attention to Islam, which, argues Pearson, is as much an existential threat to the UK as the USSR was. “Most of the terrorism on the planet today is a problem coming from within Islam and that is what I want to talk about,” he says. One of the problems with Pearson’s argument is that it risks defining all British Muslims as a sort of fifth column. How can they prove their loyalty? Pearson agrees it’s an issue: “I want to get the debate going because they [British Muslims] have to decide that. If 98 per cent of the Muslims in this country are mild, peace-loving people, what are they doing about it? They know the imams who are preaching hate in the mosques. Why don’t they get together, identify them and demand their removal from this country?”
Pearson recently invited Dutch politician Geert Wilders to Parliament to show his anti-Islamic film, Fitna. Wilders had previously been banned from entering the country by Jacqui Smith, the then home secretary, who accused him of Islamaphobia. While he supports Wilders’ right to a hearing, Pearson is at pains to say he doesn’t agree with him on everything. “I am not, like Geert, going to go around saying insulting things about Muhammad. I think he was one of the great characters of human history.”
We have now turned to coffee and Pearson, whose party has never won a Westminster seat, is talking about what he hopes will come out of the election. He would like to win “several seats” but thinks the real contribution that Ukip can make will be to pile up sufficient votes to deny David Cameron an overall majority.
“We are definitely doomed if Cameron gets a working majority,” he says. “I am afraid he believes in the project of European integration because of climate change, which is the sort of out-of-touch madness that only a modern professional politician could achieve.”
He still seems to be smarting from Cameron’s rejection of an approach Pearson made to a Tory shadow minister last year, proposing to support Cameron if the Conservative leader would agree to a binding referendum on EU membership. Cameron didn’t even reply. Pearson later told a newspaper that he had offered to disband Ukip in return for the promise. Though he admits saying it, Pearson tells me he didn’t mean it. “That didn’t go down very well with the troops,” he admits ruefully.
But even if Ukip could bring about a hung parliament, it is unclear what that would achieve. Pearson admits it will not be easy to influence things. His hope is that Ukip will have garnered enough votes to have some leverage. I suggest the more likely outcome is to hand power to Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg, both of whom are even less sympathetic to his views on Europe than the Tories. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he says. “You have to try.”
The idea of Ukip as kingmakers seems unlikely at best, I think, as I pay the bill and we say our goodbyes. Pearson’s self belief, he reveals, stems in part from an incident in the late 1970s when an operation on his varicose veins went wrong and he found himself on an operating table, effectively paralysed but coming round from anaesthetic. He could feel pain but not tell anyone about it. He recalls thinking, “My God, no one is going to believe this when I tell them” and then hearing a voice in response saying, “That is because they do not believe in God.” He then went through an out-of-body experience he is reluctant to talk about today, partly because he is sensitive about being portrayed as a crank. “When I talked about this before, someone said that I had claimed to have met God and that clearly wasn’t the case”, he says a little testily. It was, however, clearly a life-changing moment. “This experience made me more bloody-minded when Savonita came along,” he says.
If he is to realign British politics, this rebel chief of a rebel political band is likely to need plenty of divine aid.
Jonathan Ford is the FT’s chief leader writer
4 Millbank, Westminster, London
Bread and olives £2.50
Beef carpaccio x 2 £15.90
Pan-fried sea bass £15.95
Herb-crusted Atlantic cod £13.95
Double espresso x 2 £4.50
French beans £2.95
Creamed spinach £2.75
Glass of Saam Mountain chenin blanc x 2 £9.90
Total (including service) £76.95
The life of the party
1993 Alan Sked, a reader in International History at the London School of Economics, together with other members of the Anti-Federalist League, announce formation of the United Kingdom Independence Party.
1997 Ukip fights its first general election, winning 0.34 per cent of the vote. Ukip’s agenda is overshadowed by James Goldsmith’s Referendum party, formed in 1994, which seeks a referendum on the euro.
Sked resigns, saying Ukip is “doomed to failure”. Michael Holmes, a millionaire businessman, takes over as leader.
1999 Ukip wins three seats – Nigel Farage (South East England), Jeffrey Titford (East England) and Michael Holmes (South West England) – in the European Parliament with 7 per cent of the British vote.
2000 An internal coup forces Holmes to resign as Ukip leader. He is replaced by Jeffrey Titford, a one-time member of the Conservative party.
2001 Ukip contests general election but gains just 1.5 per cent of the vote, winning no seats.
2002 Roger Knapman, a former political adviser to Ukip, replaces Titford as leader. Titford continues to sit as an MEP
2004 Former Labour MP and television presenter Robert Kilroy Silk joins Ukip and wins European seat in East Midlands constituency. After a barnstorming speech at the Ukip conference in which he calls for the Conservative party to be “killed off”, Kilroy Silk attempts a coup against Knapman but fails.
2005 Kilroy Silk resigns from Ukip, calling it a “joke”, and sets up Veritas, a new Eurosceptic party, from which he has since resigned
2006 On a radio phone-in, David Cameron, the Conservative leader, calls Ukip members “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.
Nigel Farage becomes leader.
2009 Ukip comes second in European elections, beating Labour into third position in the UK, with 16.5 per cent of the vote. Their 2.49m votes give it 13 MEPs.
Nigel Farage stands down to contest the Buckinghamshire seat held by Conservative MP John Bercow, the speaker of House of Commons, at this year’s general election.
Lord Pearson is selected as party leader.