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The wee Green man of Scottish politics

Oliver Milne & Sean Anderson
IMG 9290 Edit 1024x682 The wee Green man of Scottish politics

Photo: Sean Anderson

Patrick Harvie is a little bit different. That’s immediately obvious when you step into his office. The white walls, filing cabinets and whiteboard are all standard issue and found in every political office from Orkney to Essex, but the piggy bank inscribed “saving up for weed” denotes a figure that has never fitted the traditional public image of a Holyrood politician.

Yet as the leader of the Scottish Green Party, he has the potential to be the most important leader in the current parliament after Alex Salmond. Being the leader of Scottish Greens puts Harvie in a position of power that his party’s mere two seats does not immediately indicate. The Greens get significant support from the 16-24 age group that many, most notably YesScotland, feel will decide the outcome of the independence referendum, and the Greens are the only party (other than the SNP) to support independence. Yet with the Green/SNP collaboration on the YesScotland campaign off to an awkward start, the Green party’s place in the campaign is not clear.

“I don’t particularly want to swap a centralised, controlling, UK Government for a centralised, controlling Scottish Government where everything happens in a bubble in Edinburgh” says Harvie. It’s this desire to involve people directly in the decision making that affects their lives that emerges as the theme of our conversation with Harvie and clearly colours his assessment of some of the biggest political decisions made in this parliament.

“I voted against the bill [to merge Scotland’s regional police forces into a single force]. I think with policing there is much more of a need for community accountability.” Despite this criticism however Harvie is  quick to stress that he is under no illusions about the current system of police accountability.

“I think that most people would probably recognise that community accountability doesn’t really work at the moment but if, under the new system, a single Scottish Chief Constable comes to have political power that potentially rivals a justice minister there could be a tremendous difficulty about how you achieve national accountability not just to government but to a democratic forum like parliament. His criticism of Scotland’s local government accountability though extends well beyond law and order:

“Local government in Scotland isn’t really local government, it’s increasingly looking like regional service delivery on behalf of central government” he says and he doesn’t think directly electing local officials to oversee the police, as is happening in England and Wales. is the answer. “What I want is good quality ongoing participation in the decisions that affect communities. Not just people putting an X in a box every 5 years. That hasn’t created the kind of community accountability people deserve.”

Harvie’s critique of a lack of public engagement in decisions about service provision can be seen in his passionate rebuke of the decision to extend extend the M74 in Glasgow.”Regardless of if you thought that one piece of infrastructure was good thing, is it really as good as the £750 million pounds we spent on it? You could have had the refurbishment of the Subway, a new fleet of publicly owned busses, a bigger investment in walking and cycling infrastructure, repaired every pothole in Glasgow and built the airport rail link for for the price we paid for 5 miles of urban motorway. You could have had transformational change.”

The Scottish Green leader lays the blame for this at a political culture curtailed by what he sees as a fallacy of economic growth. “The priorities have been wrong. They haven’t been meeting social need and they haven’t been meeting environmental need. They’ve been spurned on by this fallacy of GDP growth by groups like the Institute of Directors and the CBI “

Our talk shifts to the news that the Scottish Government is likely to miss a series of emissions targets it set itself in the Climate Change Scotland Act from 2009. Harvie is optimistic about the future but expresses concerns about the course government policy is taking:

“Ambitious targets are all very well but none of us really now what a low carbon society looks like” he says. “We’ll have successes and failures along the way but it was clear that targets could only be achieved with a radical program of action and their has been no radical program of action.” So I asked Harvie if the responsibility for failing to deliver a radical program can be laid at the feet of the SNP.

“The SNP have taken some practical steps and have done better than the Governments that preceded them. Sadly they also still support every drop of oil extraction they can get and haven’t ruled out shale extraction.”

Harvie continued “The problem with the SNP is their attempt to be all things to all people. They want to be seen as green to an environmentally concerned audience. If you listen to the SNP an independent Scotland would be good for the rich and the poor, the environmentally concerned and the fossil fuel industry, good for aviation and good for walking and cycling; an independent Scotland can’t be all of those things. It can’t be a high and low carbon nation.”

When the Climate Change Scotland Act was passed Harvie was Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee. However May 2011 saw the minority SNP government –  which governed with a minority relying on support of other parties to make changes – sweep to a victory that gave them an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament.

“Coming in with their first opportunity to govern in the Scottish Parliament and with such a narrow margin they wanted to show they had friends across the parliamentary spectrum.They got support from us on some issues, on others they got opposition.”

He went on to criticise not the SNP but the parliamentary structures that would make holding any government of its size to account:

“The Scottish parliament wasn’t designed with a single party majority in mind. At the end of the last parliament we recognised that things had become a little stale. The constitutional convention, which in many ways gave birth to the parliament, had a vision of parliament sharing power more meaningfully with the people. I think now when we have a single party majority we need to get more creative and think about ways we can ensure we can revive that spirit to hold this government to account.”

“In Westminster you’ll see Tory backbenchers gang up on the Prime Minister when they think what’s happening isn’t good enough. We don’t really have that in the Scottish Parliament.”

The biggest shake up on the Scottish political horizon is the referendum on Scottish independence. Hanging near Patrick Harvie’s desk is the YesScotlad lanyard he wore at the organisation’s launch. Since that time however the relationship between the Greens and YesScotland has become more tense. Harvie is keen to make it clear that he hasn’t ruled out working with the organisation in the future:

“We accepted the invitation to be part of the process but in the initial stages every decision was an SNP decision. That needs to change. Not just so that we can feel included but also so it can win. If the “Yes” campaign is just the SNP with a different name badge it will fail. But we’ll be taking a decisions about joining YesScotland at our party conference in November. Personally I hope we do join it but that will be down to the party members”

Its clear that Patrick Harvie thinks that success for any Yes campaign will involve two things – wider appeal and a radical agenda. “One thing is clear – if this campaign is to succeed it needs to go way beyond people who have voted SNP. I think the case for independence by the SNP is being made in a ‘don’t scare the horses’ kind of approach and I find it difficult to believe people will change their mind if nothing is going to change. If people are happy with the status quo they’ll vote for it. We need a transformational vision. I mean starting an independent country is inherently a radical thing and we should use it to create an image of a better, more equal society.”

“The way we are living really isn’t benefiting the majority in an economic or ecological sense – independence is a chance to change that”