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'I've been naive': Controversial UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge speaks out in wake of 'Rivers of Blood' controversy

Dudley | News | Published:

As far as politicians go, controversy tends to come with the territory.

A life in the public eye, where every utterance is analysed and reported on, makes it a given that from time to time your words or actions are going to ruffle a few feathers.

This is true for some more than others. West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge has squeezed more contentious behaviour into his short political career than most manage in a lifetime.

He once described Hitler as a 'magnetic and forceful public speaker' who 'achieved a great deal'; was suspended by the Conservative party for posing in a snap with a golliwog; and was splashed across the tabloids following his very public split from his wife earlier this year.

"There have been times when I have been extremely naïve," said Mr Etheridge. "Maybe I need to explain my self better on occasion. Sometimes by speaking my mind I have left myself open to misrepresentation and I've been hammered for it."

His latest brush with controversy came at a meeting in Dudley when he echoed the words of Enoch Powell during a speech, warning that multiculturalism would lead to 'rivers of blood'.

"I wanted to get people's attention," he said. "I had plenty of important points I wanted to make in that speech and by using the 'rivers of blood' line I knew people would sit up and listen.

"That wasn't an important part of my speech. It was a way of leading in to the words that followed. My job is not to say something in a vacuum, I need people to hear me.

"I differ greatly from Enoch Powell and I doubt he would have agreed with the majority of views I put across. If anyone asks me, 'was Enoch Powell right?' I would say no. To me colour is irrelevant. It is purely down to who you are as a person."

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Bill Etheridge recently referenced Enoch Powell's famous 'Rivers of Blood' speech

The 45-year-old admits his speech did not go down well with his partner, who is the mother of two mixed race children. He said that she was worried about 'who might be coming to the door'.

He accepts the advice of close friends who told him he could have chosen his words more carefully, he said. In the aftermath – and not for the first time in his political career - he was branded a racist.

It is a claim he is keen to dismiss.

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"I take great offence and I object to anyone saying that," he said.

"I went to Parkfields School, grew up with Asian people and was the only white lad in the King's Arms football team. I'm not the slightest bit racist and people who know me understand that.

"I've had death threats ever since I've been working in politics. I know that if someone wants to get at me they probably aren't going to tell me about it first.

"It upsets me, but it won't stop me from doing what I do."

One of the main threads of Mr Etheridge's speech was what he calls the UK's 'open door policy' on immigration. He blames 'a constant influx' of migrants for opening the country up to the potential of a terror attack.

Bill Etheridge at the Express & Star's Queen Street reception

He also talks of 'the quality of people' coming into the UK.

"I'm not against immigration, but we need to ensure that the people who come in will add to the wealth of our country and not take from it," he said.

"People who were born and raised in this area can't get doctors appointments, there's a massive waiting list for housing, a lot of our youngsters can't get jobs.

"It's not an issue of me not wanting foreigners here, but I want people who are born here to get a fair crack of the whip. When I started work I was feckless, lazy and untidy. My foreman had to kick my backside until I found out what work was all about.

"Today we have people who will travel halfway across the world to do these jobs. I wouldn't have ever have got a start. We are left with youths who haven't got a chance.

"We can do a lot more to control the flow of immigration. It's time to be more hard-hearted and say we just can't take anymore people, be they economic migrants or asylum seekers. I would imagine that's a mainstream opinion."

Mr Etheridge started out on the political ladder as a Tory party worker campaigning alongside his now estranged wife Star Anderton prior to the 2010 general election.

It was a campaign during which he admits he 'fought UKIP hard', but the following year he found himself suspended by the Tories after posting a Facebook photo of him and Ms Anderton grinning with a golliwog.

Etheridge quit the Tory party in 2011 in a row over this picture of him posing with a golliwog

He had been due to represent the Tories as a candidate for Brockmoor and Pensnett in the 2011 local council elections, but quit the party and jumped ship to UKIP.

Recalling the episode, he said: "We were campaigning against political correctness, and I still think to this day one of the key symbols is the golliwog.

"I have never associated golliwogs with human beings. They were a character I remember fondly from childhood that has become something that people take offence to.

"We were trying to open up a debate by holding one in a picture. Obviously it didn't go down too well with the Tory party and they wanted us out.

"I was impressed with what UKIP was doing and decided to give it a crack with them."

Unrepentant he later published a book on the issue.

Jump forward to this year and Mr Etheridge readily admits to being 'disgusted' at his party's performance in the general election, despite UKIP gaining more than 3.8 million votes.

He describes his own display in coming third behind Ian Austin in the Dudley North seat as 'appalling'.

"The bottom line is we only got one seat," he said.

"We let voters down. We were banking on taking as many votes as we could from Tory voters in Labour seats, and that didn't happen enough.

"The Tories were clever. They put it out there that a vote for UKIP was a step closer to Labour getting back into power. And credit to them, it worked. I still haven't got over it. The result was bad from our point of view. On a personal level I feel like I let people down."

His perception of failure in the general election is clearly something that rankles with Mr Etheridge, who considers himself a man of principal.

He once quit his position as a governor at Russells Hall Hospital when parking charges were hiked.

And his view on his current role as an MEP could not be more scathing.

"It's a complete waste of time," he said, talking about a position which pays him £78,000 a year. "We have no power whatsoever and I don't try and justify the role.

Bill Etheridge campaigning for UKIP in March this year

"There is a lot of confusion among MEPs about what the role actually involves. Some limit themselves to what goes on in Strasbourg.

"But I think we have such little change to actually change things. I use the position to intervene on local issues. Things like housing repairs and potholes, I have some sway. On the larger issues we have no power.

"We sit through 400 different votes in an afternoon that mean absolutely nothing to most people.

"Recently we had a vote on whether fish should have an anaesthetic before they are killed. It's not an issue that is going to get people up in arms either way."

As was the case before the general election, Mr Etheridge's main focus remains on seeing UKIP continue its rise as a political force.

He says he has no ambition to become party leader, confessing that he still feels like a 'political rookie'.

"I don't see myself as a professional politician," he said. "I'm a steel salesman who ended up in politics."

He backs Nigel Farage to the hilt - a man he describes as 'a classic liberal' - and says the party is 'on the right track' to put on a better showing in 2020.

Controversial and outspoken - Nigel Farage

This despite the operation being run by staff that number 'in double figures' and on what he calls 'next to no resources'.

There are still a few cracks to iron out, he admits. "I think voters still see us as too radical and revolutionary at times," he said.

"It's a bit like we're storming the Bastille. We need to come across as more statesman like. The kind of people you can trust to run with authority and thoughtful opinion.

"Our policies are popular with a large amount of people, but we've got until the next election to find a way to translate that support into winning seats.

"We have got to persuade people we are not the horned monsters we are portrayed to be. We haven't convinced the public that we are at that point yet. In our area I take the blame for that, but I still feel the momentum is with us."

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