The Euro goes live: Owen joins forces with the `No' campaigns

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The Independent Online
MILLIONS OF British households are being sent Euro-sceptic leaflets by a millionaire Yorkshireman who believes British democracy is under threat.

Paul Sykes, who is rumoured to be worth more than pounds 250m, is underwriting a pounds 20m campaign to coincide with the launch of the single currency in 11 European countries.

His campaign was given extra impetus yesterday when Lord Owen, the former Labour foreign secretary, said that he, too, would be opposing the single currency. "People aren't stupid - they know when they are being sold a pig in a poke," Lord Owen said. "Effectively this is a big step towards greater integration."

Lord Owen's opposition to the euro will have delighted Mr Sykes. As a candidate for the Face of 1999, the 55-year-old businessman cuts an unlikely figure - but from this week, he is likely to become as well- known as the leaders of Britain's main political parties.

Mr Sykes, best known for financing Meadowhall shopping centre, near Sheffield, has become the front man for the Democracy Movement, a campaign group dedicated to "educating" the public about the dangers of European monetary union in advance of the promised - but as yet undated - referendum on whether Britain should join.

In tandem with the remaining members of James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, Mr Sykes began his campaign on 1 January, with leaflets being sent to homes, businesses and public buildings, predicting political and democratic meltdown in the wake of monetary union.

"This is the single most important issue for Britain this century, but people don't seem to realise how close we are to giving up our democratic freedom," Mr Sykes said. "If you give up control of your interest and exchange rates and hand over your gold reserves to unelected bodies in Brussels and Frankfurt, then you have given up control over your country's right to democratic self- determination. I can't stand by and watch that happen."

Mr Sykes has mixed feelings about his imminent brush with fame. A neat, diminutive and softly spoken man with four children, he says he is on the look-out for someone else to be the standard-bearer. "But not a politician," he insists. "This movement is not about politics or being elected. It is simply about giving people the facts."

The son of a miner in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Mr Sykes made his money the hard way. At the age of 16 he was washing bottles and fitting tyres. By 18 he was working as a mechanic, and in his early twenties he was breaking up old buses for scrap metal, a business that earned him his own Rolls- Royce by the age of 24.

He went on to export reconditioned bus parts and then to buy and lease new buses and coaches. Property development deals increased his wealth. More recently he bought into - and sold out of - an Internet business, a move that earned him pounds 75m.

"Now it looks as though this [campaign] is going to take up all my time," he said. "I don't want to have to get into the limelight, but someone has to warn the British people about what is going on.

"I have paid for two surveys, which both showed that over 90 per cent of the public feel they aren't being given enough information about the single currency.

"Many seem to think the euro is just something they will buy to go on holiday - they don't realise that it must inevitably lead to political union and a federal Europe. And if you take away people's rights to vote on how their money is spent and how they are taxed, then it leaves a huge void in our democratic system."

Mr Sykes was a Conservative for 27 years - until the last election, when he became disillusioned with John Major's "wait and see" approach to monetary union.

Then, he spent more than pounds 2m on anti-EMU advertising and on backing more than 200 Tory MPs who promised to campaign on a Eurosceptic platform.

This time, he is prepared to spend much more.