The name Young Independence evokes many things – but not necessarily Neil and Christine Hamilton.
The disgraced former Tory MP and his wife were the guests of honour this week as the little-known youth wing of the United Kingdom Independence Party staged their annual Christmas do – on board HMS Belfast, a Second World War battleship moored on the Thames as a floating museum.
They may be few in number, and overwhelmingly white and male, but Young Independence (YI) members see themselves as the saviours of British democracy. Ironically the first person The Independent encountered on board was a Belgian. Ben Declercq, who works for a French company that was having its own Christmas function in the next room, narrowly avoided walking into the wrong celebration. “They are having their party here too?” he asked. “Oh no.”
But the mood in the YI room was festive. Ukip and its young cheerleaders, after all, have things to celebrate this Christmas. Impressive results in the most recent round of parliamentary by-elections saw the party take second place in Middlesbrough, and also in Rotherham – where their vote went up 16 per cent. A wave of public sympathy following Rotherham Council’s decision to remove three ethnic minority children from foster parents, because the couple voted Ukip, helped the party to that electoral success.
YI’s membership policy allows anyone under 35 to join, which casts some doubt on the “Young” element of their name. A glance around the room showed a party attended by about 30 men in their twenties, a handful of women, and only a single person from an ethnic minority. The rest were old-guard Ukip and party officials.
YI claims, however, that it is making inroads into the youth vote. Oliver Neville, 21, the newly elected chairman of Young Independence – and described in glowing terms by a Ukip spokesman as a “hard-core libertarian” – spent the best of his student days thumping the tub at university campuses in the north of England.
“When I joined two years ago, it was so cliquey, you knew everybody in the club,” he told The Independent on board HMS Belfast. “Now we have 700 members and counting. It’s a radical party that pushes boundaries. Here you can say what you like. A lot of the younger members are more classically liberal than other elements in the party. Some are even quite pro-immigration.”
Lee Allen, 20, from Derby, a signed-up YI member, went so far as to declare that he “loves Europe” and is spending the year in Paris.
“I just think we need a better relationship with Europe based on a free trade agreement,” he said, adding that he thought immigration was a good thing but that with Britain’s “generous welfare system” should not go unchecked
So what draws them to Ukip? The party’s stance on tuition fees may attract some. Like the Liberal Democrats before them they pledge to scrap them altogether – but also to encourage fewer people to attend university. Others of the political-philosophical persuasion have joined the party for its devotion to free market economics and the withdrawal of the state.
But as the night progresses another Ukip begins to emerge: and the young insurgents appear to be fully on board.
Lord Monckton – or “the Monckmeister General” as he is introduced – declares that climate change is a “Marxist myth” and the European Union is “a dictatorship” strangling Britain’s God-given freedom.
It all gets a bit evangelical – not to mention farcical – when Monckton, who was last week kicked out of the Doha climate change summit for imitating a Burmese delegate, begins quoting the Gettysburg Address to instil a healthy zeal for individual freedom in the hearts of his young disciples.
Does that include the freedom to not particularly like foreigners or people with different coloured skin?
“It would be wrong to deny that there are racists in our party,” senior party spokesman Gawain Towler admitted, but claimed this was true of “all parties.”
“I think we do more to weed them out than any other party because of the level of accusations that are made against us. We have denied membership to a former member of the National Front, and there is no love lost between us and the BNP,” he said.
Earlier on Tuesday, figures from the 2011 census had revealed that one in eight people in the UK is now foreign-born and London has become a city where white people were in the minority (45 per cent) for the first time. “It’s not something we are comfortable with,” admitted Towler. “This has happened without public permission. Something, like mass immigration, which changes a society, for good or ill, should be put to the public. London has always been a mix, but not to this extent.”
That is the view of the party’s old guard. Young Independence tend to strike a different note, which might point to a different future for the party. Mr Neville said he thought the census figures were “fantastic news”. But for now, as the stout ale began to flow, red faces, crude jokes and conspiracy theories about Europe, climate change and the media appeared to be the order of the day.
“You will have heard lots of indiscretions tonight,” said Neil Hamilton as he put his jacket on to leave. “The thing is – we just don’t care!”
An earlier version of this article reported a statement concerning attitudes to gay marriage among Conservative voters that was mistakenly attributed to Mr Steven Woolfe, Ukip’s City of London spokesman.