Euan McColm: Ukip’s David Coburn is one of us

Ukip MEP David Coburn. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Ukip MEP David Coburn. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IN A Scotland divided, praise be for someone who can unite us. The country may be split down the middle on the issue of independence, but one man has the power to bring us together. He can make us whole again.

Friends, let us give thanks for David Coburn of the United Kingdom Independence Party, a man who, with a sense of cosy self-satisfaction, we may briskly dismiss, a man whose words – say unionists and nationalist politicians, alike – do not represent the thoughts and feelings of Scots.

‘We’d be smugly complacent to think some of his colleagues won’t find their way to Holyrood’

You may have seen Coburn on Wednesday night on a BBC debate between Scotland’s six political party leaders. Like Mr Toad of Toad Hall at 11pm in a golf club bar, he huffed and gruffed his way through proceedings, dropping clunking “witticisms” – Alex Salmond is still the leader of the SNP, snort, guffaw – that marked him out as a boor, and expounding policies – we should stop the transfer of money from Westminster to Scotland – that didn’t suggest a deeply held belief in Scotland benefiting from its part in the United Kingdom of which he claims to be a defender.

If Coburn was confused on the matter of Scotland’s finances, he was more predictably clear about foreigners. Unsurprisingly, the MEP attacked Scotland’s “open door” immigration policy. Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy was righteously – and impressively – angry about this and let Coburn have it. He demanded that Coburn stop demonising people and the loudly positive response from audience members, both unionist and nationalist, was hugely encouraging.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was equally scathing, describing Coburn as “absolutely disgusting”. Many will find that an easy sentiment with which to agree.

For those of us of even a vaguely right-on disposition, this was a longed-for episode, when Scottish politicians came together in the name of what (we believe) is right. From the dining kitchens of Hyndland tenements to the mews cottages of Stockbridge, liberal Scotland surely cheered and clanged its Le Creuset pans in celebration. Later, we would settle back and listen to a Jeff Buckley album and consider the innate sadness of existence. And possibly write a tiresome blogpost about it. Perhaps, in the morning, we’d take Phoebe and Jack on a march, rather than to soft play.

The reality – and sometimes we have to face that, with all its personal prejudice-challenging inconvenience – is that Coburn is not an irrelevant figure. He’s a member of the European Parliament, sent there in 2014 by 140,534 Scots.

Coburn – Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s chap in the North – won more than 10 per cent of the popular vote, leaving both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in his wake. It may be smashing fun to tell ourselves that “we” are better than Coburn’s politics but the reality is that he speaks for many Scots.

In the 2011 Holyrood elections, the Lib Dems won less than 1 per cent more of the vote than Ukip did last year. The party’s reward for this showing was five MSPs.

This was, by any measure, a disaster for the Lib Dems, who had, for the first eight years of the Scottish Parliament’s existence, sat in coalition government and supplied a brace of deputy First Ministers.

But for a party like Ukip, which those in the political bubble insist doesn’t truly reflect Scots’ values, it would be a stonking good result. And it’s far from unthinkable that it might come to pass.

Coburn’s election last year came as a surprise to many of us. For some – and I include myself in this group of people who got it wrong – the surprise was that a great many Scots looking for an “anti-establishment” party had chosen to throw their support behind Ukip, rather than the SNP.

Of course, the Nats and the Kippers are poles apart on policy but it is quite clear that, on either side of the border, they attract voters who have much in common. The SNP has done a cracking job of wooing what we tend to think of as traditional Labour voters (less well off, small c conservative, working class) in Scotland, and Ukip has won over many of the same people in England, especially in parts of the north, such as Doncaster and Sunderland. As an SNP chap put it to me, there are perfectly deniable similarities between the parties.

But others were surprised for a different reason. The independence referendum fuelled an extended, and fairly nauseating, celebration of Scottish exceptionalism.

We were told, particularly by those in the Yes Scotland campaign, that we were special, that we held views that differed radically from those held by people south of the Border. We were blessed to have been created with “Scottish values” of compassion and wisdom inbuilt. This is standard stuff for nationalist movements and it came as a real surprise to those who had bought this claptrap when it emerged that Scots could also be petty and insular, and not at all sound on immigration.

Scotland’s chattering classes may not have learned from last year’s complacency. The country’s political leaders, in condemning Coburn, have fallen back on that argument that he doesn’t truly represent the views of modern Scotland.

The fact he’s an elected politician says otherwise. He may not be a mainstream figure, but he cannot simply be dismissed.

When Farage appeared on the UK leaders’ TV debate, he made some revolting comments about immigrants with HIV. It was cheap and nasty politics. Thing is, not everyone thinks what Farage said was cruel and inflammatory. Which of us can honestly say that we don’t know people who think and say similar?

There are eight electoral regions in Scotland when it comes to Holyrood elections. Alongside 73 first-part-the-post MSPs elected in constituencies, 56 members are elected across these regions under a proportional representation system.

Many of us may condemn Coburn as a loathsome sort (and I do) but we’d be smugly complacent to think with any certainty that some of his colleagues won’t find their way to Holyrood next year. «