Ukip is not the party that “stands up for ordinary people”.
It is not the party that “tells it like it is” or “hits the nail on the head” or “says what everyone else is thinking”.
It doesn’t “speak truth to power” or take on the “PC mob”, the “human rights brigade”, or the “Eurocrats”.
It is not the custodian of Britain’s dwindling reserves of common sense.
What Ukip is was shown up once again when David Coburn MEP, the party’s sole elected representative in Scotland, joined Bernard Ponsonby for an extended interview on Wednesday evening.
Viewers will have seen just another populist outfit, political panderers on the make. But shameless opportunism has never yet been a barrier to political success and the Eurosceptic nationalist party finds itself on roughly 15% in UK polls for May’s General Election.
It was an opportunity for Mr Coburn to make the case for a Ukip vote and have the party’s plans placed under the microscope. What his answers lacked in policy understanding, he certainly made up for in spirited advocacy.
The public should vote Ukip, he said, because it stood for “jobs, jobs, jobs” and boasted that, unlike the other parties, Ukip’s manifesto was “fully costed”.
Scots who wish to be “wean[ed] off the Barnett Formula” will be able to vote Ukip, which wishes to cut £1.5bn from the block grant next year alone. After all, as Mr Coburn pointed out, “it’s not a one-way ticket where the Scots can say, ‘We want this’.”
Barnett would be replaced by a “needs-based formula”, the specifics of which — such as the formula itself — remained elusive. It was eventually established that this mystery mechanism would see Treasury transfers to the Scottish Government slashed by £5.5bn by 2019/20.
Where to begin plugging such a black hole? Well, the First Minister’s £135,605 salary of course. Mercifully, these interviews are time-limited and so we were spared suggestions that Fergus Ewing take up a second job as a stripper or the Bute House silverware be bunged on Gumtree. (That said, if you’re reading this, Nicola, I’m in the market for a coffee machine if you’ll make me a reasonable offer.)
Predictably, immigration was a top talking point. He spoke of cutting inward migration by 50,000 per year and imposing a moratorium on unskilled labour for five years. Mr Coburn is many things but faint-hearted is not one of them. It’s not many politicians who will go on television and pledge to take our modestly recovering economy and give it a right good shoeing.
But for all his enthusiasm, Mr Coburn does not give the impression of a politician in full command of the finer details of policy.
Mr Ponsonby enquired about the primary purpose rule in family visa applications, a defunct immigration policy which Ukip’s manifesto commits to reviving. He didn’t know what it was. (A supposed safeguard against the use of sham marriages to circumvent the immigration laws.)
The veteran broadcaster pressed him on the number of family visas issued last year. He didn’t know how many. (It was 35,000.)
“There has been an industry of marriage in this country,” he felt nonetheless confident enough to pronounce, “and that’s got to stop.” And with that, our great national dream of an Elvis chapel in every Tesco was crushed.
The nadir came when he was grilled about Ukip’s plan to scrap the Barnett Formula. Mr Ponsonby handed the MEP the relevant page from his own manifesto, like an executioner gifting the noose to the condemned man. How much would Ukip’s proposal cut from the Scottish block grant next year? 1.5%, he assured the presenter with the aid of the helpful page. Only the figures in the table weren’t in percentages but billions. Once again, he simply didn’t know the answer.
Given the various outbursts by party figures, it was impossible not to ask if Ukip had an intolerance problem. The question was illustrated by an incident at the Ukip manifesto launch earlier on Wednesday. Christopher Hope, the chief political correspondent on the Daily Telegraph, asked Nigel Farage if he was “happy that the only black face in the document is on the overseas aid page”. The room erupted in furious booing, to which Mr Farage applauded along.
Mr Coburn insisted: “Ukip doesn’t see a difference between people of different ethnic origins. If you’re a British citizen, you’re a British citizen. That’s it.”
A laudable sentiment but one which sits uneasily alongside the more pungent rhetoric sometimes heard from his party. Anyway, he said, Mr Hope’s question was indicative of the prejudices of the “metropolitan elite”. The Daily Telegraph, that notorious den of right-on liberals and pinko subversives.
And what of Mr Coburn’s own genre of comedy that recently saw him pun on Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf’s name to invoke the convicted Islamist terrorist Abu Hamza? Well, that was an “inappropriate joke” for which he apologised. What it told us was not that he is a boor or a loudmouth but that he is “a human being”.
The joke, unfortunately, is on the rest of us.
We in Scotland get mightily supercilious when the subject of English nationalism is raised. Our nationalism is civic and civilised; theirs is hateful and vulgar. Wish trees and Lady Gaga pastiches are a million miles from tattoos and stale lager. It is true that Scottish nationalism resides, for the most part, within the civic nationalist tradition and the SNP deserves credit for that. But English nationalism is no less valid than its Celtic counterparts.
There is genuine anger across England, shallow in some places, deeper in others. Whole families endure the indignity of unemployment and people working two jobs still take home poverty pay. The centre parties have grown so alike in recent years — in policy, expenses claims, and contempt for those fringe parts of the UK that lie outwith London — as to seem indistinguishable.
Crime continues to fall and yet many will swear blind it’s rising. The world is changing at lightning pace and everything from the jobs market to the culture is seized by permanent revolution. The old certainties are evaporating daily and this provokes fear in those who have known nothing else. People already on the bottom rung of the ladder feel like they’re being stiffed yet again.
Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have their own devolved parliaments but England must make do with sharing the House of Commons. English voters believe themselves to be subsidising the Scots’ higher education, prescriptions, and haggis-flavoured heroin. Isn’t it about time England got some of the spoils?
Ukip is not in the business of assuaging concerns like these and solving the underlying problems. It is in the business of apportioning blame.
Can’t get a job? Blame the foreigners. Three weeks for a GP appointment? Blame the HIV patients. Out of step with changing attitudes? Blame the gays and the ethnic minorities. Another headline about murder, rape, and depravity? Well, it’s these European judges, innit. Human bleedin’ rights, that’s what it is. Country’s gone to the dogs, mate.
Ukip is the reassuring echo for people who think £24 per £100 in benefits are claimed fraudulently (the official estimate is £0.70) or the quarter of Brits who believe international aid is amongst the big-ticket spending items in the budget. (We spend £11.4bn on overseas development assistance, or 0.72% of gross national income.)
No prejudice goes unstoked, no misconception unexploited.
“Believe in Britain,” its slogan enjoins. But does Ukip believe in Britain? The Britain where around 8,000,000 of us were born in another country. The Britain where one in every ten NHS staffers is a foreign national and one in every four doctors is from overseas. The Britain where immigrants (EU and non-EU combined) poured £25bn into the national coffers between 2001 and 2011.
That Britain is as foreign to Ukip as a Polish plumber. These statistics do not impinge on the Ukip worldview but this shouldn’t surprise us. In some ways, it is not a political party at all but an organised spasm, a paroxysm of anger and ignorance flailing out at the nearest available target.
Spare a thought for the poor democrat who laments the excessive bureaucracy, unaccountability, lack of transparency, and error-ridden accounts of the European Union. Consider those loyal to parliamentary sovereignty whose standard bearers were once Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, and Tony Benn but are now Nigel Farage, Mark Reckless, and David Coburn.
None of the mainstream parties is serious about reforming the EU but Ukip isn’t serious about anything. It’s a protest vote for those not quite sure what they’re protesting.