Sturgeon, the Stasi and state guardians: A conversation with David Coburn

David Coburn is wrong about absolutely everything.

Immigration? Wrong. The European Union? Wrong. TTIP? Wrong. (I am in the unusual position of being both to the left and the right of Ukip.)

And we won’t get into his crass comments about Humza Yousaf, the lip-quiveringly luscious Scottish Government minister.

No, there’s nothing I could ever agree with Coburn on.

Right?

To find out, I sat down with him shortly before his now infamous grilling at the hands of Bernard Ponsonby. That rencontre — to compare it to a car crash would be like calling the Hindenburg disaster a burst balloon — saw Coburn struggle to back up his and his manifesto’s assertions, at one point desperately enjoining his inquisitor to “Google it”.

Our conversation was a more measured affair — as measured as any conversation with David Coburn can be. He is a bluster of jovial outrage, unfathomable exclamations and unfinished sentences; his manner of speaking suggests a long-running feud with the English language.

There’s something Dickensianly ludicrous about him, as though Mr Bumble discovered Oliver was entitled to another bowl of gruel under Article Four of the ECHR. But — and this is something his detractors seldom acknowledge — his anger is tempered by humour and there is more than a touch of the great British eccentric about him. Toad from the Wind in the Willows has gone into politics and, however much he may appal you, he is at least entertaining.

His idiosyncratic style is frowned upon in a safely-safely age where politicians poll-test their breakfast choice to make sure it connects with all the key demographics. Even Ukip has sobered up at national level — fewer Nigel-down-the-boozer photo ops, more policy drill-down — but the Scottish party still has the air of a used-car dealership on its annual day trip to Seton Sands.

But if that amateurism offends the political class, the punters — some of them — like what they see, enough to make Coburn Scotland’s first Ukip MEP in 2014 and, if the polls play out on election night, perhaps the first Ukip MSP at Holyrood.

So we’d best get to know him. I’ve provided a counter to keep tabs along the way.

Bloody-Europe-At-It-Again Count: 0

Soviet Analogy Count: 0

Coburn Agreement Count: 0

On reflection, “Brexit from the European Union” is where I should have ended the interview. 

It’s a horrendous locution; language is the first casualty of a referendum. We are discussing Ukip’s prospects in the Holyrood election and the conversation quickly, inevitably turns to Brussels.

“If we Brexit from the European Union,” he assures me, “it will mean more power will come back to Scotland than would ever have come to Scotland if we’d had a break up of the UK.”

Everyone in Scotland, it seems, is champing at the bit to vote Ukip. Tories, for instance:

“Let’s be quite frank about it. The Tories are pro-Europe. Ruth Davidson said she’d sign up to anything Cameron said he wanted and has done so. So if you want out of the European Union, there’s no point in voting for the Conservatives.”

And Labour:

“Likewise, we are getting more people coming from Labour. The Labour Party are imploding. Lots of them who couldn’t possibly bring themselves to vote for the Tories, many of them are voting for us.”

Nats too:

“And I’ll tell you something else that’s interesting: A lot of Scottish Nationalists are voting for us because they — the leadership of the party — want to swan about in the corridors of power. Nicola wants to swan about with Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande but the members don’t like all that. They want independence to mean independence. They don’t see the point of breaking up the UK and then being ruled by Europe.”

One of Coburn’s bugbears is the Common Fisheries Policy and he wants to see control over fishing vested in Scotland. “How can a nationalist party like the SNP not want that?” he demands, then answers his own question: “They’re so mad about Europe.”

Our first point of agreement. The SNP’s “independence in Europe” policy must be the most underexamined proposal from a party of government anywhere in these islands. Allowing that the Nationalists actually seek autonomous interdependence rather than full sovereignty, their capricious attitude towards successful political and economic unions still doesn’t bear much scrutiny. “Decisions about Scotland should be taken by the people who live and work in Scotland” may be the mantra but one need not be terribly cynical to read it as: “Decisions about Scotland should be taken by anyone but them“.

That’s all well and good but this is a Holyrood election. How would Ukip MSPs change the Scottish Parliament?

Coburn tells me: “I’d like to have a nice bloc in there so we can show our mettle and show what we can do. I think it’ll be good for Scotland to have different views. There’s too much of people being nodding dogs, all sitting there agreeing with each other. All the parties — you couldn’t get a sweetie paper between them. They’re all exactly the same, even the Tories, who are all the same as the rest but they’ll have half a pint of what the rest are having. They’re all the same. We want to add something different to the Scottish mix.”

Ukip’s advance in Scotland has been frustrated by one of the very virtues it champions: marketplace competition. There are just as many angry people north as south of the border but up here a rival, more sophisticated, nationalism mops up their votes. Of course, this is The Good Kind of Nationalism while Ukip’s is The Bad Kind of Nationalism but if the piper is different, the tune is much the same. Grievance, victimhood, strong nation, Us versus Them, and flags before facts.

Coburn may not be keen on the SNP but he holds their leader in some regard, recognising Nicola Sturgeon’s star quality.

He explains: “Nicola and I have always been quite pleasant to each other. Maybe I shouldn’t say that; she’ll probably get into the most awful trouble for that. Sorry, Nicola! I didn’t mean that! We’ve always got on terribly well. She smiles wryly at me all the time. It’s not as if she hates me or anything and I certainly don’t hate her. I think that she dresses very well. She presents well for Scotland. She looks good. She’s got that Mrs Thatcher look about her. Oooh dear! I’ll get you in trouble there again, Nicola!”

Good God, man! You can’t say she dresses well! That’s #everydaysexism, or something. He’s right, mind you. She does turn out rather well and, yes, the Maggie magnetism just screams out of her, even though she’s a very different brand of politician from the Iron Lady. And it’s true that she presents well for the country — for all the bitterness and division of Scottish politics, she is a unifying leader in a way her predecessor seldom was and rarely tried to be.

Bloody-Europe-At-It-Again Count: 4

Soviet Analogy Count: 0

Coburn Agreement Count: 2

For Coburn, the primary philosophical difference between Ukip and the SNP lies in their attitudes to the state and the individual.

“I don’t believe in left and right,” he declares, invoking the new populist catechism.

“The concepts of left and right are finished. It’s authoritarian v. libertarian. Ukip is a libertarian party. We believe in less government, less interference, keeping the state out of people’s lives as much as possible. On the other hand, you have the SNP, which is an authoritarian style of government. They believe in interfering in people’s lives. Look at the Named Person Act, where they want to put a spy — whatever you want to call it; a commissar, dare I say — in every home in Scotland. It would make the East German Stasi proud. It’s up to parents to bring up children, not the state.

“Look at other things, such as Police Scotland, where they’ve abolished all the different police forces and made one police force. That’s very dangerous… They wanted a merger of one police force, with the chief constable appointed by them, and arming them with Glock automatic pistols to patrol the Highlands. I don’t know what they’re expecting. A Jacobite rebellion? Or the grouse to shoot back?”

In the same vein, one of his pressing concerns is the pernicious effect of political correctness. “We’ve got a politically correct authoritarian speech direction imposed by an equally authoritarian police force,” he tells me. The SNP is responsible for this through an “Orwellesque invention of their own language”.

“If you don’t abide by their language, you’re in jail and Police Scotland come down on you like a tonne of bricks,” he adds.

If this sounds quite mad, what you fail to understand is that Coburn is running his own samizdat of sorts:

“When I knock on doors people say to me — I say, ‘Are you voting Ukip?’ — and they say: ‘Yes but don’t tell anybody’. They look left and they look right and people won’t say anything. They say to me: ‘Am I allowed to say this?’ If you live in a society where people have to ask me, as a politician, ‘am I allowed to say that?’- we’re back to the Stasi of East Germany, we’re back to Erich Honecker. I really don’t think that’s what Scots want.”

As if it’s not hard enough being a liberal in Scotland, David Coburn comes along and agrees with you. The centralisation and routine arming of Police Scotland has undermined law enforcement. The Scottish Government’s state guardian plans are well-intentioned but risk interfering in family life, fostering suspicion between parents and their appointed overseers, and encouraging a culture of box-ticking that will not make vulnerable children any safer. Police Scotland’s heavy-handed approach to policing social media is spiralling out of control, with officers believing it is their duty to round up malcontents who send nasty tweets.

All of these arguments, however, can be made without David Coburn hammer-and-sickling the point home with outlandish Soviet comparisons. So a grudging half-point of agreement.

And I’m sorry but it’s a bit much to stomach Ukip posing as a “libertarian” party given its socially conservative stance on same-sex marriage.

Coburn rejects my contention out of hand: “Certainly not! I’m a raving homosexual and not only that, I am very much the opposite. Personally, I had reservations about same-sex marriage. Not because I’m against it on that basis but because I thought it was being used by Cameron because the European Union had decided on this.”

Of course. The EU. Why didn’t I see that?

Coburn would have preferred gay marriage to pass in a referendum as in Ireland. (Actually, I can see the sense in that too.)

Bloody-Europe-At-It-Again Count: 5

Soviet Analogy Count: 2

Coburn Agreement Count: 3.5

Ukip is vocal on issues like Europe and immigration, which can easily be mined for rage and grievance.

But what about less emotive policy briefs?

I ask Coburn what he would do to reduce the educational attainment gap between the wealthiest and most disadvantaged children.

His answer is strikingly personal: “I went to Glasgow High School and part of my youth was that they were trying to close schools like Glasgow High School, which produced two prime ministers and God knows what else. Great geniuses. Lord Clyde. You name it. Some great men were produced at Glasgow High School. Great Scots who went all over the world and did wonderful things.

“I was horrified that they tried to close it down. It’s now a private school, where people have to struggle to send their children there. In those days, anybody could go there. If you had money, you had to pay a little bit but not much at all. They’d find bursaries and money to pay for you. No child who passed the exam would ever not go to the school.”

“Going back to the Seventies, various secretaries of state for Scotland, both Tory and Labour, conspired to destroy those schools, which gave a lot of poor Scots — Scots of slender means — an opportunity to get on in the world.

“One of the things that motivated me in politics was that. The unfairness of that. I want to see excellence in education. I don’t want this: ‘We don’t run races’. This ‘all pets win prizes’ nonsense is ludicrous.”

An admirable sentiment, though “all pets win prizes” suggests a hitherto neglected link between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Dale Winton’s short-lived mid-Nineties game show.

Grammar schools, he believes, could give every child in Scotland the chance at a state education as high in quality if not higher than the best English public schools. “Everybody in Scotland should have a chance. That’s what I’m for.”

Coburn wants more regular testing, now a source of controversy after Nicola Sturgeon gave her backing to standardised tests but a potentially useful tool for spotting problems early on. At the same time, Coburn argues cogently that there must be new technical training schools to cater for those who don’t wish to pursue academics.

“We should have schools that cater to people’s abilities and people’s talents,” he maintains. “Being an academic or someone of that ilk is not the be all and end all. If your gas plant’s exploding or your toilet’s exploding, you don’t want Stephen Hawking to come round. You want somebody who can actually fix things and do stuff. I want to see people getting an opportunity that suits them.”

And he draws on his own experience of educational difficulties to damn practices which see struggling pupils left behind.

It is this subject, not banana-straightening Eurofederalism or the SNP’s burgeoning police state, that provokes Coburn to the sharpest tone he takes in the course of the interview: “It’s disgraceful that we allow children in schools to be forgotten about and passed over because we don’t want to talk about somebody not being quite so able. So we’ll just not discuss that. That is wrong. If a kid is falling behind, there may be social reasons, family reasons. It could be they have a little problem that needs solving. I know I was absolutely appalling at mathematics but I was helped and I ended up being a businessman.”

This is the Coburn you don’t often hear from, in part because the media largely ignores Ukip until we’re looking for someone to be outraged about barmy Brussels bureaucrats and in part because Coburn is so theatrically, so calculatedly outrageous that any nuanced positions are drowned out by headline-grabbing pronunciamentos.

I can’t help but wish he would park the demagoguery for a bit and speak honestly about matters that evidently move him.

Bloody-Europe-At-It-Again Count: 5

Soviet Analogy Count: 2

Coburn Agreement Count: 7.5

Coburn giveth and he taketh away.

Just as I am beginning to glimpse beyond the braying, we come to the health service and how to improve its efficiency. We start out with the standard right-wing line about too many pen-pushers and not enough doctors but soon we get to the nub of what Coburn believes ails the NHS.

You’ll be shocked when you find out what it is.

He asserts: “We’ve got far too much administration in the health service. That’s always been the problem: Far too many people who think they know better. We need more people from a clinical background doing these things. That’s part of the problem and that needs remedying.”

Wait for it…

“We need to spend more money at the front end and not at the back end. Recently, I think 100,000 people applied for nursing courses — 80,000 rejected and they only took 20,000.”

Wait for it…

“Why are we stealing nurses and doctors from poor countries that have educated them at great expense? We steal those doctors and nurses and bring them over here because it’s cheaper to steal their people. That is wrong. We’re the country of Dr Livingstone. We should be training doctors and nurses. We used to send them all over the world; now we’re stealing them from other countries.”

Wait for it…

“There’s also the problem in the health service, not just here but it’s all over, the fact that there’s more pressure from people coming into the country.”

Bingo.

“If we have more people coming into the country, we’re going to end up, with migration, with more strain on the health service. I’m at the age now where things are dropping off. You look young and vigorous but I’m not so young and vigorous. I’m worried I won’t be able to get treated. I think a lot of people are coming over to Ukip because they’re worried about that too.

“It’s not fair to have that situation. So we have to be sensible. We don’t have so much of a problem with immigration in Scotland, although the Scottish Nationalists are absolutely determined to bring people over and bring people here. We’ve got enough people here. We’re all integrated nicely. Let’s keep it that way.

“The troubles down south. The troubles in Paris. The troubles in Brussels. We don’t want that sort of thing brought here. If we want to protect our health service, we must be careful about the number of people coming into the country.”

I would push back and point out that immigrants are the lifeblood of the NHS. That one in every ten NHS and community healthcare worker is an immigrant. That 14% of health service clinical staff was born abroad. That a quarter of all NHS doctors are migrants.

But what would be the point? Immigration is a vote winner for Ukip and all the facts in the world won’t trump that.

Bloody-Europe-At-It-Again Count: 5

Soviet Analogy Count: 2

Coburn Agreement Count: 7.5

Ukip is the party we deserve, those of us in the political and media class who sneer at Eurosceptics and anti-immigrationists.

We mock and dismiss these ideas and, worse, the people who hold them, and are shocked when they refuse to relent. Instead of cringing and conforming, they have sought succour in Ukip, which may play to their prejudices but at least doesn’t disregard them out of hand. That same elite scorn has produced Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP. Maybe it’s time we tried a different tack.

It has also produced the circumstances for the referendum on EU membership that looms just after the Holyrood vote. Coburn thinks the overlap will help the Leave campaign on June 23. Getting Britain out of the European Union is his driving passion, not least because he views the community as an attempt “to create a command economy along the Soviet model”.

He comes out with stuff like this all the time. So, we’re discussing land reform when Coburn brands it “their Stalinist land grab, where they’re going to grab people’s land”.

But surely land ownersh–

“You start grabbing people’s land — whatever the good of it — no good will come of it. Because that’s what Stalin did. That’s what Mr Mugabe in Zimbabwe did.”

It’s a performance, I conclude; a thumb in the eye of the left-leaning intelligentsia. He believes what he says, to be sure, but he enjoys offending the right-on schoolmarms who admonish him. Coburn sees “you can’t say that” as a challenge, not a warning.

And Lord help me but I found myself liking the man. He’s a splosh of colour in a monochromatic political palette and, considering the bloodless mediocrities who cling to many of the seats in Holyrood, would at least liven the place up. Who are these fools in Ukip who want to depose him as Scottish leader? He’s the best thing going for them. Replace him with some dreary accountant with Enoch Powell eyes and watch the party sink like a stone north of the border.

He may say mad things — he may even be a bit mad — but David Coburn seems the perfect politician for mad times.

Bloody-Europe-At-It-Again Count: 5

Soviet Analogy Count: 5

Coburn Agreement Count: 7.5

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Olaf Kosinsky / Wikipedia by Creative Commons 3.0.

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