THE most talked about and controversial media launch in years – Andrew Neil’s Fox News-inspired GB News ­– takes place tomorrow. Among its hosts, in a live Saturday evening slot that is a break from his normal brand of history presenting, is Neil Oliver, of Coast fame.

The job is a new twist in his career and Oliver says he never “meant to become a commentator”. Rather this development was an “unexpected” one. 

The way he tells it, speaking from his home in Stirling, it sounds as if he almost bumbled into it over the course of a year in which his appearances on Talk Radio and newspaper columns found him saying things otherwise unspoken.

“I think of it as like the scene in the movies on a parade ground with soldiers and the sergeant says, ‘Volunteers take one step forward.’ Then the whole platoon takes one step back and somebody who is not quick enough is left. It felt like that. Although it probably seems to people that I’ve got a political agenda, I really never have had. I’m very suspicious of all political parties.”

READ MORE: Neil Oliver: 'Lockdown is the biggest single mistake in world history'

Chief of his opinions that left him standing out, was his belief that lockdown has been “the biggest mistake in world history”.

He says: “I’m not suggesting evil or malicious intent. I just think it’s a mistake.”

Oliver acknowledges that since, in 2014, he declared his support of Scotland staying in the Union, he has been a political “lightning rod”.

But it’s not only independence supporters who sizzle with outrage at what he says – it’s also those who find it shocking that he didn’t disavow a tweet declaring his love of David Starkey, even after the historian’s racist comments surfaced. It’s those who balk at his assaults on “cancel culture”, or opposition to Black Lives Matter's toppling of statues.

He now joins a channel which, according to one Variety article, “some fear could lead to the ‘Foxification’ of UK TV news and re-open the wounds of Brexit, fan prejudices.”

There is certainly a populist flavour to his frequent voicing of distrust of the political establishment. “I’ve never been a member of a political party,” he says.

“I’ve voted for Labour, Conservative, SDP, Lib Dem, Green. It’s a trial in the booth at the general election. I’m apolitical but over the lockdown, I have had opinions. I think the lockdown is the biggest single mistake in world history, and I’m horrified by the damage that has been done. Whoever lockdown has saved, I think by an order of magnitude others have been hurt.”

This feeling wasn’t there for him at the start of the pandemic. Seeing the footage coming out of Italy, he and his wife, he says, accepted the first lockdown as probably a good thing.

“But then,” he says, “it became clear to me the damage that was being done to the economy. I became aware of the number of people I know personally that have been ruined by it, self-employed people that were getting no help, nothing for furlough.”

His evolution from Marmite history presenter to GB News host is, perhaps, less surprising when we learn that Oliver, who grew up in Dumfriesshire, originally trained to be a journalist. He is, he says, “nosy about people”.

HeraldScotland: Neil Oliver, GB News presenter

The prospect of hosting such a two-hour live show, he says, fills him with “excited terror”. It is however easy to see why he fits into the populist GB News formula – for here is a Union-supporting celebrity, doing a show “celebrating Britain and British people”.

Oliver, notably, was an ambivalent Remain supporter, but has now been convinced that Leave is a good thing.

“I do celebrate Britain and it’s not about being triumphalist, it’s just I just love the place,” Oliver says.

“I just want to turn a bright light on places that I love, people that I’m fascinated to hear from. What I’m motivated to do is just express and share the fact that I love it here.”

This couldn’t contrast more with what he thinks of the Scottish government. He describes the state of the country as “dire”

He says: “We’re in failed state territory. I hang my head in disbelief and sadness at what Scotland has become – the state of the economy, the state of the health service, of education, the fiasco of the ferries, the drugs deaths.

READ MORE: GB News: Channel launch date, presenters, Sky and Freeview channel and more

“It’s a shambles and shameful and I look on at the country of my birth with nothing but sadness at how far we’ve fallen.”

He recalls how back in 2014 when he was asked for his opinion on independence, he held off for some time, then finally gave it, throwing his “hat into the ring”, and watched the sparks and abuse fly.

This trial by fire seems to have helped form his freedom of speech advocacy. He declares himself a believer in freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, “the freedom to offend and be offended”.

He says: “I have opinions which I think are pretty mainstream really. I just stubbornly feel that I’m able to speak my opinions and I’m prepared to take, and do get, a lot of snash – online and elsewhere.”

His position on independence hasn’t changed since 2014.

“My feelings are motivated by a deep love of the place, the history. I’m an archaeologist, I’m aware that the human story goes back a million years. A million years ago is so far beneath any modern conceit of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales as to make that thin veneer of modernity seem laughable.”

One of the things he objects to is that he has been portrayed as “anti” independence.

“I have always seen myself as being for something, not ‘anti’. I grew up thinking I was British, in a geographical sense. I saw myself as being born in the British Isles, so when I was on holiday as a teenager with my girlfriend, now my wife, if people asked where I was from, I’d say, ‘Britain.’”

Oliver now lives in Stirling with wife, Trudi, who was his sweetheart back when he was an archeology student at the University of Glasgow. They have three children, 13, 15 and 18 years old.

The period of the pandemic, he says, has seen a “stymying and silencing of debate”. Evidence for this, he says has been in the way people whisper. “People talk to me all the time – people that I know quite well, but also people who come up to me for the first time. And they whisper. On the dog walk, miles from anywhere, people come up and they lower their voices.”

That there are many people who think the way he does, he says, is also shown by the “hundreds” of letters he has received, sent to his home in Stirling, over the last year.

During that time, Oliver has been the centre of a quirky wave of letter writing, in which correspondents have attempted to get post to him using the bare minimum of naming and addressing, and he has tweeted photographs of the envelopes. Among them was one addressed, “Scottish bloke with long hair who hangs around coastal regions.”

People, he says, have approached him, both in these letters and in person, with their reservations over lockdown. “This is part of why I am very interested in being part of GB News. People were coming to me privately, on the dog walk, out at the shops, and saying thank goodness someone is saying it. It seems to me that there’s a sizeable proportion of the population think the same as me and that view isn’t being reflected on any of the established media.”

READ MORE: 'Divisive' broadcaster Neil Oliver steps down as National Trust for Scotland president

For him, GB News represents a kind of “life raft”.

He says: “I am at such a pitch of not feeling that I am properly informed about what’s going on, that I’m reaching out to GB News like something buoyant after a shipwreck.”

But will it really be that raft with room for all? Or only for rightwing populists and anti-woke, flag-waving Britons? The guests on his show, Oliver says, will present views from all sides of the debate. “I’m not interested in just being something that punches from one side. Believe it or not I’m not a confrontational person, I never have been. Ask my wife.

“GB News, I believe, will bring it on from all sides. Until I’m persuaded otherwise, I have faith that is the case.”

GB News launches tomorrow