UKIP Scotland leader David Coburn sets the record straight
David Coburn really wanted to do this interview. In fact, he demanded it, repeatedly. Holyrood had released a conference issue, with the cover featuring the leaders of the five parties with seats in the Scottish Parliament, and Coburn was unhappy he had not been included.
Taking to Twitter, the leader of UKIP in Scotland demanded he too was interviewed. Around a dozen tweets then followed, covering a range of subjects, including whether or not Holyrood magazine is funded by the EU (it is not). After that he started sending possible opening lines to the piece.
Coburn believes there is a media conspiracy against UKIP, which has been excluded from a couple of broadcast debates in the run-up to the election, and this flurry of messages seemed to be part of a media charm offensive.
And so, within days of Coburn accusing me of ‘spinning the bile’ against him, he was standing, along with two colleagues, in the magazine’s offices.
Sketch: David Coburn arrives at the Scottish Parliament
Interview: Kezia Dugdale on tax, Jeremy Corbyn and the elections
Interview: Nicola Sturgeon on the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections
He apologised for his appearance upon arrival. He had been at a foodbank, he said, and didn’t want to appear too well dressed. There seemed to have been some sort of incident at the foodbank – he said someone pretending to be a UKIP supporter had tried to make him look bad – but he was fuzzy on details.
He said he was also sick. The European Parliament is full of viruses, he said, which are brought in from all over the continent’s member states. The minute you get over the Bulgarian flu, you are hit by Romanian flu, Coburn explained.
It seemed fitting to start with the reason Coburn was there. The media treats UKIP unfairly?
“Appallingly. It seems that they have a desire to keep us off everything, which is totally not on. The BBC have been pretty offensive. They have put me on one but not the second debate, but the second debate comes within the perimeter of the rules for the referendum, so I’m afraid they are breaking their own charter.”
What can the party do about it, though?
Coburn fixes me with a determined glare. “If I don’t get what I want I am very happy to tear up my BBC license fee in public, and encourage everyone in Scotland, especially those on the UKIP side, to do likewise with theirs.”
Literally tear it up in public?
“I am going to tear it up in public. On television and in the press and everything. If other people choose to do the same, jolly good. The thing is to get them where it hurts: the money.
“They have very swanky offices, they have very swanky lifestyles. The lifestyles of the rich and famous, that’s the BBC.”
I am not sure that is definitely true. But Coburn can see why he wasn’t featured on the Holyrood cover? It was a photo of the leaders in the Scottish Parliament.
“It should be those who aspire to be in parliament.”
There are a lot of people that aspire to be in parliament.
“Well, they should be on there.”
Everyone that aspires to be in the Scottish Parliament should appear on the cover of Holyrood magazine?
“Why not? I don’t see why not. I am very ecumenical about it. Parties don’t get anywhere if they don’t get a chance to get somewhere. If people enter the election campaign, they should get representation.”
Coburn says, with the election campaign now in full swing, he is feeling confident.
“The Daily Record, which is no friend of UKIP, has us down on six per cent, which would mean seven seats. The Mail said the same. Subsequent to that, I have heard there is another one coming out which has us on nine or ten per cent. In the European campaign I was elected on 10.4 per cent or something like that.”
I point out that he came fourth out of five candidates in the General Election.
“Hardly surprising, the General Election was a very, very weird election.”
So what went wrong?
“We got squeezed,” he says. “Basically, people were terrified of mad Ed getting in, backed up by Nicola and her hordes. Who wanted that? I think the whole country was voting umpteen different ways, trying to not to let this crew in.”
Coburn’s dislike of the UK and Scotland’s major parties is clear. In fact, it seems to rival his opposition to the EU, which he says he has campaigned against since he was 16.
“My family have always done their bit in various wars for centuries and I felt it was my patriotic duty. I do not see why we should be put into what I regard as a European super state. They say, ‘no, no, it is a common market’, but it’s not, it’s a European super state. They lied to us.”
He became politically interested at a young age, he says,.In fact apparently he announced in a school entrance interview that he would like to be Prime Minister. His father was sitting behind him – Coburn says the remark caused him to groan audibly.
PM seems a way off. What about First Minister?
He chuckles: “Well, I don’t see why not. If we lose the referendum I would put reasonable money on the next UK government being UKIP, simply because there will be a lot of problems. The EU has hidden all of its mad grannies in the attic.”
What does that mean? What grannies and what attics?
“Oh, well, I can assure you that whatever the Prime Minister may have agreed and deposited with the Vatican or the United Nations or whoever, whatever he agreed is just nothing. They will be progressing towards a pan-European currency, they will be determined to get us into that, they have projects for a common army, a common airforce, a common foreign ministry. It is all being hidden.”
But what does that have to do with grannies in the attic?
“Because they are going to be bringing out all the things they have got hidden. Like the electric toasters. There will be a whole raft of madness they want to bring out. We are going to be restricted to the Nth degree, because remember, the EU…”
I interrupt here. The grannies are a metaphor for weird policies?
“The weird policies,” he nods.
And the attic is…
“The little room they lock them up in until the Brexit is over. And the minute we say yes, all that is going to come out. We will move to ever closer union, it is absolute twaddle to think otherwise. The EU is a self-perpetuating bureaucratic monster that exists to employ more bureaucrats.”
Coburn seems to be making a big effort to entertain during the interview. He says he is ‘at Holyrood’s disposal’ and can stay for as long as necessary. But it seems slightly at odds with how he has communicated, particularly via social media, in the past. In fact, just days before, he said the last piece he had featured in – a parliamentary sketch on his appearance in front of the Scottish Parliament’s External Affairs Committee – was an attempt to smear him.
During the appearance, Labour MSP Hanzala Malik had chastised Coburn for referring to ‘businessmen’, when women work in business too. In response, Coburn said that “women are a special sort of a man”.
He explains: “From beginning to end, I answered the questions well. One of them asked me, after a faultless performance, about why I didn’t say ‘businesswomen’.”
“I told them the genus is a man, as in mankind, and so women are a special sort of a man. What’s wrong with that?”
I don’t think mankind is a genus.
“Oh, I think it is.”
“It is madam chairman. It is not madam chairwoman. When we talk about the ascent of man, it’s not the ascent of a bunch of hairy blokes with male genitalia, it’s about man as in women, men, the whole lot of us. Look at the word. The long and short of it is that a woman is a man with a womb.”
The womb is the special bit?
“I said a woman is a special sort of a man. They are. They are a man that can produce children… But I am a feminist to my bootstraps, I believe in equal rights for women and I always have done, but I also believe women should have the same responsibilities as men. I don’t say they should get out of anything.”
What are women getting ‘out of’ at the moment?
“Well, in UKIP, we don’t give women special advantage. What do you call it?”
“Yes, we don’t use these sorts of words in UKIP. Positive discrimination. We don’t do positive discrimination. All our UKIP ladies are very feisty. And in UKIP there are more women in higher positions than there are men. There’s not that thing you get in the rest of society where, ‘oh, she’s only been promoted because of political correctness’.”
Again, we end up back on political correctness, which Coburn labels “social Marxism”. “I am not going to be dictated to about how I use language,” he says.
That seems clear. By this point Coburn has railed against ‘lead swingers’ on benefits, the ‘gardening correspondents at the Green party’ and insisted on referring to SNP MEP Alyn Smith as ‘Ol Smiddy’ and the former deputy PM as ‘Cleggsy’. Is there an argument for politicians being careful about their use of language? Could that help UKIP escape its association with eccentricity?
“You know what? We wouldn’t be where we are today [without that]. Before, it was impossible to speak about immigration. Before, if you mentioned it, you were some horrible right-wing monster.”
But wouldn’t it maybe help UKIP, or Coburn personally, to be a bit more politically correct? It does seem to put some people off.
He rejects this. “I believe in something called freedom of speech. When I go knock on people’s doors and ask people if they will vote UKIP, or Vote Leave, they look left and they look right, up and down, and say ‘yes, but don’t tell anyone’. They are terrified. We are living in a distinctly worrying state of affairs in Scotland now, where we have a one-party state and, worse than that, we have a one-police police force.”
We do have free elections.
“Well, they haven’t had a chance to get rid of them yet, have they?”
Do you think they will?
“I don’t know what they will do. They brought in the Named Person Act, which is like something out of Soviet Russia, where you will have a commissar in every household in Scotland telling you how to bring up your children. That’s Kafkaesque.”
But there is a difference between saying we live in a one-party state and saying that, at some point in the future, you don’t know the SNP won’t ban free elections.
Coburn looks concerned. “I don’t know what they are going to do.”
But my point is that we don’t live in a one-party state, because, even if they are planning to, no one has banned elections.
“Yet. Give them time.”
So you are worried we are getting into a one-party state.
“What I am worried about is that they are passing legislation which is positively terrifying.”
He adds: “There is a palpable fear of speaking your mind in this country, or you can be arrested.”
I say I don’t think that is true.
“You obviously don’t spend enough time in the pubs, maybe I spend too much time in the pub, but I can assure you that is what people say. They are always looking over their shoulder. You say the wrong thing and you can be lifted.”
It is hard to tell when Coburn is joking, or if he even knows, when he says this stuff. But he demanded the interview because he wanted to be taken seriously – and his party’s polling suggests he should be – and so it seems like we should move onto policy.
What can he reveal about the UKIP manifesto?
“It was described as a ‘work of art’ by our policy committee. I don’t know if they had been down the pub, but I think not.”
Can you provide details?
“The general principle is that we shouldn’t have higher taxes in Scotland than in England. A penny here, a penny there is fine, but more than that and you might as well say goodbye to the country, or build a seven-lane highway to England, because no one will hang around to be plucked like a chicken.”
Would you support cutting taxes below the English rate?
“The reason we have a problem in Scotland is that we have had sixty odd years of socialism in this country. People telling you ‘you are an evil person because you want to make money, and build a business and do better for your family’ and any country who promotes that sort of nonsense is on a hiding to nothing.”
So would you cut taxes below the English rate?
Coburn becomes side-tracked. “Oh sorry, there was something else I wanted to mention. When they talked about the ‘special sort of woman’, a newspaper ran a poll to see if people thought I was a sexist, and I won by 75 per cent.”
That you weren’t a sexist?
“That I wasn’t a sexist. So there you go. Make sure you put that in.”
OK. Was that an attempt to distract me from the question on tax? Would you lower it?
He hesitates. “Again, not vary it a great deal. There is something we could do but we won’t want to beggar our neighbour. The UK is our biggest trading partner, who in their right mind goes round upsetting their biggest trading partner?”
Coburn says the English are not stupid, and they would not accept being undercut by Scotland. He moves on to Scotland’s historical relationship with England, listing some of the wars the UK has been engaged in, claiming the UK brought democracy to the US, and then talking me through what he sees as some of the greatest achievements of the British Empire.
By now we have been talking for well over an hour, and the same themes continue to emerge. Coburn seems to view himself as a voice for people frightened and confused by changes to the modern world. His concerns range from the rise of the SNP, to the development of renewable energy (‘windmills’), to the demise of grammar schools.
The EU is obviously his main concern – he refers to it in dystopian terms – but he refers to history, and the ills of the modern world, almost constantly.
Beyond that, there is something a little sad about his mannerisms, along with an obvious desire to get along with people, while saying some pretty offensive things. It is not clear that he thinks about what he is saying, even as he says it.
But again, that could be media bias, and that was what got us into this mess in the first place. So I ask him – you already tried to suggest opening lines to this piece, so how would you like to be portrayed? What words sum up David Coburn?
“Revolutionary,” he says. “I’m not exactly Fidel Castro, I’m not waving around a Kalashnikov, but I want to change things.”