Nigel's coat. Photo: Carl Court
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Decoding Nigel's coat – what the Ukip leader's clothing tells us

From Del Boy to poor Michael Foot's donkey jacket, outerwear can tell you a lot about a man.

There is something strangely baffling about Nigel Farage, despite his presentation of himself as a straightforward man of the people, which is perhaps most evident in the peculiar matter of his coat. Velvet-collared, knee-length, tan-coloured, it is a variation of a Crombie or “covert” coat, originally designed for equestrian purposes. By the late 19th century, it was as likely to be sported by a gentleman out and about in London as on the hunting field, hence the Victorian illustrations of the pugilistic Marquess of Queensberry punching his son on a city street while wearing a covert coat.

Queensberry’s unfortunate son was, of course, Lord Alfred Douglas, the friend and lover of Oscar Wilde; and both father and son contributed to Wilde’s downfall. Now, you might feel that a homosexual scandal dating back to 1895 has little to do with the sartorial choices of the Ukip leader but in the words of Oscar Wilde, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

I have no idea whether Farage is a fan of Oscar Wilde, but he has certainly shown himself willing to pass judgement on another man’s dress sense. In 2010 he stood up in the European Parliament and told Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, that he had “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk”. At the time of this attack, the Ukip leader was wearing an unremarkable grey suit that looked almost identical to that of the man he was condemning; since then, however, Farage has chosen to campaign in rather more striking outfits.

Yet if we are to follow suit and judge by appearances, the message of his coat is no less mysterious. For if at first the covert coat was a signifier of the upper-class elite, it was subsequently adopted by the landed gentry and the racing fraternity, then became part of a Sixties skinhead uniform, and thereafter took on even more raffish connotations. Hence its appearances in Eighties television series such as Minder, where George Cole wore a covert coat to play the roguish Arthur Daley, as did David Jason as Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses.

Thus Farage’s coat is suggestive of a number of different meanings, from gentlemanly sporting pursuits to working-class aggression. And though it seems unlikely that it is the cut of this coat that has attracted Richard Desmond to Farage, the owner of the Express Newspapers group did say on 16 April that he was donating £1m to Ukip because he was “fed up with the floppy-haired Eton club”.

As it happens, the belligerent Marquess of Queensberry was also suspicious of Eton; indeed, when his wife put down their son’s name for the school, Queensberry was horrified, saying that he didn’t want the boy to be turned into a “Belgravian loafer”. Instead, Douglas was educated at Winchester and Oxford, where he became a floppy-haired poet. Worse still, at least in his father’s eyes, was his relationship with Wilde, whom Queensberry later accused, in a misspelled note, as “posing as a Somdomite”.

These threads of history may be entirely irrelevant to the present election campaign and yet they remain intriguing. Desmond made his fortune through a publishing empire that included pornographic magazines (and a gay monthly title, Attitude, that would have inflamed Queensberry). He himself was educated at Christ’s College, Finchley (until he left at 14); yet his dislike of floppy-haired Etonians was not sufficient to stop him having dinner with David Cameron at Chequers in 2011. Nor has Farage’s private education at Dulwich College prevented Desmond’s support for Ukip. “It’s a party for good, ordinary British people,” he declared in a statement in the Express. “It is not run by elitists.” The accompanying photograph showed Desmond together with Farage as the newspaper proprietor handed over his donation; each man was wearing a pinstriped suit and a grin.

As for the covert coat: well, it’s still out and about at the head of what the Express calls “Mr Farage’s People’s Army”. Oddly, all of this reminds me of a leader’s coat from long ago: Michael Foot’s so-called “donkey jacket”, a short, dark green coat that he wore to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in 1981. His enemies said it was a disgrace that the leader of the opposition should look like “a navvy”; in fact, Foot’s wife had bought the coat from Harrods at considerable expense and it was admired by the Queen Mother, who said it was “a smart, sensible coat for a day like this”.

“I never dreamt this was going to cause such trouble,” said Foot in later years, reflecting on his coat and the “wounding caricatures” that followed. Could it be that history will see Foot as a gentlemanly character, dressed in seemly attire, unlike some of the spivs and turncoats now seeking influence and power?

Justine Picardie is the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.