Paul Sykes: The financier behind Nigel Farage
Ukip’s biggest backer has lavished millions on the party - driven by a visceral hatred of the European Union
Money has not been a problem for the election campaign that ended so triumphantly for Ukip this week, because it has an asset that no other small party, not even the Lib Dems, can match – a very rich money man.
Paul Sykes is a 70-year-old self-made Yorkshire multimillionaire on a mission to get Britain out of the EU, and with a proven willingness to reach deep into his pockets to achieve it.
When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, that single-minded obsession prompted him to help to bankroll the Conservative Party. Her successor, John Major, was too pro-EU to hold Sykes’s support. The next, William Hague, briefly seemed to be Eurosceptic enough, until May 2001, when a rally in Westminster of the then little known UK Independence Party was electrified by the appearance of this Yorkshire businessman who promised to donate £100,000 a day, every day, for the remaining 10 days of the general election campaign.
Last November, he renewed that vow by promising to give “whatever it takes” for a Ukip victory in this week’s poll. It was a promise that could be taken seriously, coming from someone who had already given Ukip £1.5m, and who is 155th in the latest Sunday Times Rich List, with an estimated fortune of £650m.
It was Paul Sykes’s money that paid for the much criticised Ukip campaign posters, which he also helped to design. One of them purported to show a British builder begging in the streets because immigrants from the EU had filled all the jobs – but which actually featured an Irish actor. Another showed Union flags burning, and another depicted a giant escalator running up the white cliffs of Dover with the words “no border, no control”.
How effective they were is a matter of argument. As the results came in on Thursday night from Rotherham, where Ukip has grown from having no visible presence a few years ago to being the official opposition, with 10 newly elected councillors, some commentators took to Twitter to suggest that their success had been “bought” with Sykes’s money. Rotherham’s Labour MP, Sarah Champion, said there were “many reasons” for the Ukip surge – of which the Sykes largesse could be one. “The poster campaign funded by Ukip donors played to people’s fears around jobs and around immigration,” she said.
But there are Ukip activists who say that Sykes’s wealth had nothing to do with it – such as his fellow Yorkshireman, Godfrey Bloom, now an ex-MEP, but still a founder member of Ukip. “We have worked our balls off up here,” he said. “We’ve won 10 seats in Rotherham and it’s been done by bloody hard work. It’s got sod all to do with Paul bloody Sykes.
“Ukip have had £150,000 of my money. That’s a hell of a bigger proportion of my wealth than Sykes has given from his. Paul Sykes, bless him, is a patriot, but to pretend this success is down to Paul Sykes really pisses me off.”
What cannot be denied is that Sykes has come a long way from his Barnsley beginnings. He grew up on a council estate, and claims to have been a “complete dud” at school. He has told a story about an art teacher who looked at his drawing of a racing car and said: “The only thing you’re going to drive is a brush, around Barnsley” – a remark which spurred his ambition.
At 15, he started work as a tyre fitter. At 17, he began stripping down and reconditioning second-hand buses and lorries and exporting them to the Far East. By the age of 24, so he has claimed, he was earning £3,000 a week and driving a Rolls-Royce. One of his greatest business ventures was the development of the Meadowhall shopping centre off the M1 just outside Sheffield, which has drawn controversy because it has been blamed for sucking business out of Sheffield and Rotherham, with the result that shops were closed and boarded up.
Interviewed during the construction in 1989, Sykes said that his aim was to make a profit. In that, he succeeded spectacularly: he sold Meadowhall in 1999 for £1.2bn, bringing him a profit of £280m. But speaking to BBC Look North in October 2007, just after he had collected a lifetime achievement award for his contribution to Yorkshire, he said he regretted his part in spreading “consumerism”. “It has gone way beyond whatever I imagined,” he said. “I did not think people would become obsessed with it.” Quite what he expected from a shopping centre filled with more than 280 shops is hard to understand.
In the same interview, he said he had since organised the planting of half a million trees, which was “the best thing I have ever done by far”.
In 1995, he and another Yorkshire businessman, Peter Wilkinson, launched Planet Online, which specialised in providing corporations with internet access at a time when the web was relatively young. Sykes sold the business after three years, for £85m. “I’ve created more than 140,000 jobs and paid £400m in taxes – and all in this country – thank you very much,” he told the Daily Mail.
To judge by the occasional interview he has given, wealth and success have not brought happiness, and he has foibles unusual in such a driven money-maker. He does yoga and meditates, is involved in projects such as the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and has given money to a long list of good causes.
Though he has known Nigel Farage for many years and respects him, he does not share the Ukip leader’s well-known vices. He does not smoke, and rarely drinks. When Sykes turned 70, his daughters arranged a surprise party at which Robbie Williams was a guest, along with many of his old school friends, but that aside, he appears not to be a great socialiser.
When he and his wife Valeria separated in 2012, after 44 years, he gave interviews in which he called her Miss Perfect, blamed the separation on his restless life, and implied that he half wished he had been content to be a tyre fitter all his life, rising perhaps to be manager of a tyre fitting shop. And he has also said that he will give away all his money, apart from the thousands he has spent buying houses for his daughters, because leaving them a fortune would disrupt their “natural evolution”.
Next year, Ukip will fight a general election, in which Nigel Farage may hope to seize a Commons seat. If the party needs money, it knows whom to call.
A life in brief
Born 30 May 1943, Barnsley, South Yorkshire.
Family Father was a Yorkshire miner. Currently separated from wife of 46 years, Valeria.
Education Left school with no qualifications.
Career At 18, dismantled old buses and sold them as scrap to the Far East. Moved into property, and built the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, which he sold for £1.2bn. Created Planet Online, an internet firm, which sold for £85m in 1998.
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