supporter programme

Make Britain Great Again: How Ukip tried to ride the Trump wave – and it ended in disaster

As Ukip welcomes Katie Hopkins as a member, Lizzie Dearden looks at the party’s journey into the far right

Tuesday 26 January 2021 13:21
<p>A child holds placard by Ukip affiliate ‘Make Britain Great Again’ at a 2018 protest in London</p>

A child holds placard by Ukip affiliate ‘Make Britain Great Again’ at a 2018 protest in London

It was founded in the 1990s as a party for Eurosceptics, but after the Brexit referendum Ukip was without purpose and, after the exit of Nigel Farage as leader, without its frontman. 

What came next was a chaotic decline that saw the party take inspiration from across the Atlantic, trying to harness the Donald Trump’s populist message in the UK.

As Ukip, which now uses the slogan “Save Britain”, faced fresh accusations of pandering to the extreme right by welcoming Katie Hopkins as a member this week, our Supporter Programme series on the movement’s rise and fall looks at how Ukip’s drive for supporters led to links with white nationalists and fears extremism went unchecked.

‘Britain loves Trump’

“Life in Hitler’s Reich was better than anywhere else on earth,” reads a post in a 2018 group chat involving members of Ukip’s youth wing. 

“Don’t let the Jews control your minds,” another adds, amid a discussion of “sterilising blacks” and “the Zionist control of the world”.

The Independent’s Supporter Programme funds special reports and investigations from an award-winning newsroom you can trust. Please consider a contribution

The chat group, called “YI [Young Independence] Gulag” was set up during Ukip’s leadership election. Weeks later, members voted to sack leader Henry Bolton over his girlfriend’s racist comments about Meghan Markle.

But his successor was Gerard Batten, who went on to appoint Tommy Robinson as an adviser and take in extremist internet personalities as members. The stated aim was to use their reach to attract new voters.

Luke Nash-Jones joined Ukip in 2016, when he said he found a “sort of camaraderie” with fellow members and a sense of belonging. 

He told The Independent that following Mr Batten’s arrival as leader, senior figures became “very enthusiastic about Tommy Robinson” and wanted to use social media to draw in more members.

Nash-Jones already ran a right-wing website and activist Facebook groups, and went on to create the “Make Britain Great Again” Facebook page with fellow Ukip members.

He said Ukip’s executive committee was aware of the page, and “rather impressed by the electoral success of Trump and others, was eager to utilise social media to bypass traditional communication channels”.

“Ukip was also rather keen to draw in millennials and Generation Z, and a number of high-ranking Ukip figures encouraged, even facilitated, and participated in, our activism and vlogging,” he added.

Trump supporters pose for the camera as they mix with protesters at a London rally by supporters of far-right spokesman Tommy Robinson in Trafalgar Square, 14 July 2018

The page, which was renamed several times, was used to organised pro-Trump rallies including a “Britain Loves Trump” protest during the 2018 presidential visit.

But as well as posts about Brexit and the US president, its members shared right-wing content and conspiracy theories involving migration and Muslims.

Nash-Jones, who has since left Ukip and sought deradicalisation support, said that all the administrators of the Make Britain Great Again (MBGA) page were Ukip members during the period.

He described frequent disputes about extremist content, adding: “It was an absolute nightmare. Having to vet numerous posts every day, delete off-message content, even admins, and all the constant squabbling.”

The connection between MBGA and Ukip became clear when the party suspended three members, including Nash-Jones, who were involved in an incident at a socalist bookshop in August 2018.

Footage showed protesters chanting “we love Trump!” and “Oh Tommy Robinson”, shouting abuse, tearing up signs and pulling books off shelves. Ukip suspended Nash-Jones and two other members over the incident.

Links with white nationalists

Nash-Jones was later ejected from Ukip, but said he already wanted to resign and showed The Independent several emails and messages to senior members including Mr Batten expressing concerns over extremism. He felt that insufficient action had been taken in response to warnings, and some of the members who were subject to complaints remain in Ukip posts.

Protesters including man in Trump mask attack socialist bookshop

Nash-Jones said he feared “infiltration” by the pan-European white nationalist group Generation Identity, which spreads the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that has inspired several terror attacks.

Its Austrian leader Martin Sellner, who was investigated over donations from the Christchurch mosque shooter, had been invited to speak at conferences held by Ukip’s Young Independence wing in 2017 and 2018.

The first event was cancelled and Sellner claimed his second planned speech was stopped because of “security risks caused by left-wing threats”.

He vowed to deliver it at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park instead but was barred from entering the UK. Robinson delivered the speech in his stead in March 2018.

Nash-Jones believes Generation Identity may have been targeting Ukip’s membership, while there was also a “lot of infiltration by anti-Islam figures”.

“Many members, myself included, had been drawn to politics, and Brexit, primarily by economic concerns,” he added. “We found ourselves to have been swept along by a party that was no longer merely calling out police corruption in Rotherham, or fearful of terror, but had become absolutely obsessed with Islam.”

In June 2018, Ukip welcomed three far-right internet personalities as members – Paul Joseph Watson, Mark Meechan (known as Count Dankula) and Carl Benjamin (known as Sargon of Akkad).

Later that month, a Ukip spokesperson told The Independent the party had gained hundreds of new members since they joined.

Asked about their following, he replied: “Dealing with the odd awkward and unpleasant person is better. If they create controversy that is often a good thing.”

During an interview on a far-right YouTube channel in August, Mr Batten said he had been looking for “another way of getting out to people” other than the mainstream media.

“These people have got literally hundreds of thousands of viewers on different platforms, let’s try to get the message out via that,” he added.

Robinson called on the more than one million people who followed his Facebook page, before it was deleted, to join Ukip and directed them to its registration page.

Read more from our Supporter Programme here

One post from November 2018 was commented on by hundreds of supporters who claimed they had joined because of Robinson.

“By joining we can influence the party,” he told them. “Members that join with similar views shape the direction.”

Tommy Robinson and Ukip lead Brexit ‘betrayal’ London protest amid huge police operation

But Mr Batten said the recruitment of Benjamin “backfired” because of the backlash over his rape comments directed at Labour MP Jess Phillips.

“I didn’t really have any choice but to gamble,” he added. “If it had worked and we got tens of thousands of new members and votes because of this, I would be a great hero, but I didn’t get that, it went wrong.”

The lurch to the right caused a wave of defections by Ukip MEPs, including former leader Nigel Farage.

Failure at the ballot box

Speaking to The Independent in December 2018, Lord Dartmouth, a hereditary peer and former MEP who quit Ukip, said Batten had “completely hijacked Ukip and turned it into an anti-Islamic party”.

“His focus became more and more the issues around Tommy Robinson and multiculturalism,” he said.

“He was approached by several people who asked him to keep to the remit of Brexit, but he just carried on … membership has changed dramatically in its character and style, as has the direction of the party.”

An “interim manifesto” presented at Ukip’s 2018 conference included proposals to create Muslim-only prisons and repeal hate crime laws.

In early 2019, the rival Brexit Party was set up by ex-Ukip officials who had declared their opposition to its direction under Mr Batten.

In the following European parliament elections, Ukip lost every one of its seats and suffered a 24 per cent drop in its share of the vote.

Mr Batten resigned as leader after losing his seat in Brussels, and the party has since been through several leaders amid continued instability and infighting.

Ukip fielded only 44 candidates in the 2019 general election, and won no seats with its worst-ever result of 0.1 per cent of votes.

Ukip and Mr Batten declined to comment when contacted by The Independent.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments