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Saturday 5 June 2004
The Saturday Profile: Robert Kilroy-Silk; the self-styled saviour of Britain
You'd probably have to hammer a stake through the heart of Robert Kilroy-Silk to finish him off properly. The man who has had almost as many comebacks as Jeffrey Archer - as politics lecturer, Labour MP, £600,000-a-year daytime TV presenter until he was sacked by the BBC for branding Arabs as "suicide bombers, limb amputators and women repressors", and vituperative newspaper columnist - has reinvented himself as a candidate for the European Parliament in next week's elections. He stands every chance of getting elected. That is not all. There is talk about him becoming the leader of his new party UKIP, the UK Independence Party, and possibly even of a return to the House of Commons.
Titter ye not. It's true that UKIP's recent party political broadcast had the Benny Hill theme tune as its background, as a toff in black tie is interrupted digging up spuds by a thigh-slapping Austrian in lederhosen. The foreigner slaps the Brit in the face with a fish, to a Kilroy voice-over about the European Union's fishing policy being "codswallop".
But the famously tanned former TV agony aunt is determined not to be seen as the figure of fun in his new party. In case Robin One Man and His Dog Page or Sir Patrick The Sky at Night Moore were insufficiently celebrated in the pantheon of eccentric UKIP stars, Mr Kilroy-Silk has wheeled in the Dynasty star Joan Collins as patron of the party.
With a star as glitzy, empty-headed and physically well-preserved as Miss Collins, there is no danger of anyone accusing Mr Kilroy-Silk of being anything other than the party's serious philosopher and political strategist. Indeed, he demonstrated as much as he chaperoned her through her introductory press conference, smoothly coming to her rescue when she revealed that she has never even voted in a British election before. "Joan Collins believes what we believe in," he said, as she then swept out of the room to star in the matinee at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham. "It is no surprise that, as an independent woman, she wants to live in a country that is also independent."
This skill as a translator of public grunts into coherent statements of political intent has been a long time in the honing. In his 18 years as a daytime TV host, he had a quarter of a million people through his television studios. He subjected them to a mixture of solicitous concern, unctuous charm and glib moralising which he now hopes will become a vote-winner even as it was, for all those years, a ratings-puller. He has been employing it shamelessly out on the stump this week.
"Give us a kiss," he said to two white-haired old ladies on a bench in Lincoln. Without waiting for an answer, he hugged and kissed them. "It's you, isn't it?" one woman said.
"It's me, my love," Mr Kilroy-Silk said warmly. "Do I get your vote?" the man of the people asked before jumping back into his chauffeur-driven Jaguar, adorned with a sticker reading: "Say Boo to the EU."
It is not just his smooth-operator charm which wins over the punters. There are his views too. These were expressed in fairly circumspect ways while he was at the BBC. Though his column in the Sunday Express was far more bilious, it didn't really matter because no one who mattered ever read it. Until, that is, his fateful remarks about the Arabs led people to trawl through back copies of the paper.
Then it was discovered that Ireland was a country peopled by "peasants, priests and pixies", that "Pakistanis want to generate hate", that the French were "devious", the Germans "truculent" and the Spanish "not to be trusted". The problems of Africa were "mostly the fault of Africans"; black youths "are responsible for the majority of gun and street crime", and that paratroopers should "herd the immigrants together and cart them off to Dover where they are dumped on a secure slow boat to - wherever".
All this is a long way to the right of the radical young student that he was at the LSE in the Sixties or the trendy young politics lecturer he then became at Liverpool University (in which capacity he interviewed a mature student called Peter Kilfoyle, now the MP for Liverpool Walton, and turned him down for a place).
Nor would such views have gone down well during the television interview he gave as the newly elected Labour MP for Ormskirk in 1974 in which, filmed on his journey to London to take up his seat, he forecast that he would be Prime Minister within 15 years. In those days he got himself elected as chairman of the All Party Penal Affairs Group and became a sponsor of the pressure group Radical Alternatives to Prison. Still, herding people down the Channel Tunnel is radical in its own way, I suppose.
But then the suede-shoed socialist has always been a young man on a journey. The son of a navy stoker from Birmingham, as a boy he had to share an outside toilet with others, a background he minimised at the LSE when he double-barrelled his name by adding together those of his father and stepfather. In politics he worked his way through various backbench groups to become a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Arts Minister and thence a junior opposition spokesman on home affairs. But after 11 years in parliament he was forced out of his seat by Militant in 1985. Despite well-documented fisticuffs with a trade union activist at the 1985 Labour conference, he did not put up much of a fight. "He never faced up to Militant at all," says Peter Kilfoyle. "He just packed his bags and went."
TV beckoned. Kilroy became a byword for trashy exchanges about cheating boyfriends and female alcoholism. Though even here historical revisionism is at work. "It was the BBC who insisted we did those, for the ratings," he said in a recent interview. "I would have done every programme on pensioners and the health service if I could."
But then came the row about his attack on the Arabs. The Commission for Racial Equality accused him of inciting racial hatred. He was forced into a humiliating apology to readers and viewers, but it was not enough to save his job among BBC executives, many of whom had become ashamed of his low-life show in the run-up to charter renewal.Earlier this month the BBC announced that the show which replaced Kilroy - run by the former presenter but with him decidedly off-screen - was to go too. Some 65 members of the staff of his Teddington production company have lost their jobs. Whether they will find another as easily as their beloved boss is doubtful.
The offer for Robert Kilroy-Silk to re-enter politics was made at a lunch party with a prominent UKIP supporter, the Earl of Bradford, on holiday in Spain where Kilroy owns a £2m, 100-acre estate on the Costa del Sol. It was apparently agreed that the former MP would be nominated without need of a selection meeting.
Kilroy could see that UKIP was now more than a joke party. Its campaign coffers had been swelled by a £2m donation from Paul Sykes, the Yorkshire shopping centre tycoon. Dick Morris, who was Bill Clinton's campaign strategist, was on board as an adviser. The party had even hired the infamous publicist Max Clifford at £20,000 a month as its public relations guru.
In the East Midlands seat in which he is standing, UKIP got 7 per cent of the vote in the last Euro election. Though Kilroy need to double that to win a seat, UKIP was getting 18 per cent of intended votes nationally in a recent YouGov poll in which the party overtook the Liberal Democrats, pulling into third place after Labour and the Tories. Since the introduction of a list system of proportional representation has made it relatively easy for minority parties to win seats in Strasbourg - with votes that would just scrape past deposit-saving levels in Westminster elections - it is now a serious possibility that Kilroy's party could take 12 seats.
Robert Kilroy-Silk's trademark mixture of mild-mannered bombast and feigned seriousness - which was well displayed this week in his Newsnight exchange with Tory spokesman John Redwood - could well do the trick.
And there is a plausibility about his presentation of himself as an anti-politician politician. "The people in middle Britain are also fed up with being lied to," he says. "They know they have been lied to over the European Union and the proposed European Constitution. They know they were lied to over the war in Iraq. They know they are being lied to about asylum-seekers and immigration."
Knowing that Kilroy has in 18 years of daytime TV learned to manipulate public emotions better than most politicians may count for little. The Americans have got Arnie Schwarzenegger, and we may well find that Kilroy finds his way into the "I'm a celebrity get me into there" world of Euro politics.
Apart from anything else, the man needs a job. "What easier way is there to make an awful lot of money doing absolutely nothing than to be an MEP?" as Clifford says. "I knew it would be perfect for him." Not, of course, that he will have to go to Strasbourg and do the boring stuff. "I'm not going to be bogged down by the European parliament," he told one reporter this week. "I'll spend as little time there as possible." Welcome to reality politics, 2004.A LIFE IN BRIEF Born
19 May 1942 in Birmingham. Son of William Silk, who was killed in action in the Navy. Stepfather John Kilroy.Family
Married shop steward's daughter, Jan Beech in 1963. One son, one daughter.Education
Saltley Grammar School, Birmingham; London School of Economics.Career
Politics lecturer at Liverpool University 1966-74; Labour MP for Ormskirk 1974-83, and for Knowsley North 1983-86; opposition frontbench spokesman on the Home Office 1974-75; TV presenter 1987-2004; newspaper columnist since 1987.He says...
"TV is just a job to me. I'm paid an awful lot of money, which is why I continue to do it, but it's not exactly brain surgery, is it?"
"We're told that the Arabs loathe us ... What do they think we feel about them? That we adore them for the way they murdered more than 3,000 civilians on September 11, and then danced in the hot, dusty streets to celebrate the murders?"
"It's terrific, it's what I know."
(of his return to politics).They say...
"Good luck, Kilroy-Silk ... but you picked the wrong party!"
"He is back, competing to be the most anti-European act in town on top of his other prejudices. The lights still flicker, but no one is watching Kilroy now."
Phillip Whitehead, Labour MEP.
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