The Green MSP Patrick Harvie explains why the SNP’s position on independence and the environment doesn’t stack up
The independence issue has sucked the air out of Scottish politics in recent weeks. As much a battle of ego and sheer will as a contest of ideas and policies, the debate has left little room for moderate or alternative voices. While the SNP has, understandably, led the charge for the ‘Yes’ campaign, some have wondered why so little has been heard from Scotland’s other proindependence party, the Greens.
For Patrick Harvie, the party’s Co-Convener and one of its two MSPs, there is little mystery.
“We’re not nationalist,” explains Harvie.
Independence, he says, is “not a point of principle” or “any great achievement,” but “about what it allows you to do”. “It’s a purely pragmatic thing, and I have very little interest in flags and identity and 300 years of grudge and grievance – that’s not what’s it’s all about.” Independence, he adds, is a means to an end.
The real test would be what Scotland achieved with greater autonomy, and Harvie is yet to be convinced by the vision laid out by First Minister Alex Salmond. “I love this phrase ‘beacon of progressive values’ – I want to live in a country that sees itself that way,” says Harvie, referencing Salmond’s recent Hugo Young lecture. But, he adds, such rhetoric jars with a party that seeks out the advice of tax exiles and fudges centre-left social policy with the determinedly pro-business stance that saw Donald Trump welcomed to Scottish shores.
Harvie continues: “Alex Salmond is going to have to be clear: Is it going to be the beacon for progressive values, or is it going to be the tax haven of the North?” Harvie believes such SNP universalism is having a negative effect on Scottish politics, both in terms of rhetoric and in the workings of the executive. “People used to accuse the Liberal Democrats of being all things to all people, but they were never as good at it as the SNP are,” he says. In particular, Harvie chides the SNP for closing down debate within the party. “The backbenchers of the governing party are acting like cheerleaders and not parliamentarians,” he says. “Can anybody remember a session of the Westminster parliament where the Government got through an entire term without a significant backbench rebellion on any issue?” The problem, he says, is that “they’ve all decided to put so many issues on the backburner until independence can happen”.
“If you want a government to just sail through without any challenge, without any question marks, why would you bother with Parliament?
You would just have a sort of technical, executive government.” Whatever happens in the referendum, Harvie is sure the vote will change Scottish politics indelibly, and the SNP will be forced to answer the question: “What are we for?” Harvie hopes the Scottish Greens will be able to adapt best to the new landscape. “It’s deeply frustrating to be where we are, to be a tiny party,” he concedes.
“It’s really hard work being a parliamentary group of two – I don’t like that. So obviously I’m going to welcome anything that would shake the landscape up a bit.” Harvie looks back ruefully at May’s parliamentary election, where, despite being the only opposition party to improve its vote, the Greens failed to gain any new seats. The upcoming local government election in May will present another opportunity to make inroads, and Harvie is hoping for gains in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the capital, where a Liberal Democrat/SNP coalition has presided over the “appalling” tram debacle, “the SNP are not the anti-establishment party” anymore, and Harvie believes its feel-good universalism may finally hit the buffers.
Harvie’s criticism of the SNP may seem natural for an opposition politician, but many point to the Scottish Government’s ambitious environmental agenda as a significant area of shared interest. However, while Harvie commends aspects of SNP policy, he argues its claim to lead one of the most environmentallyfriendly administrations in the world is deeply flawed. Harvie continues to be amazed that many in the SNP appear genuinely surprised when the Greens find fault with its record on the environment, adding that “Salmond is never going to stop being a friend to the oil industry.” Moreover, he believes the commonplace conflation of electricity generation with all energy production has given the Scottish Government an easy ride at times. He recounts a Twitter conversation with an SNP supporter who responded to criticism of the oil industry with the question: “What’s the alternative, nuclear?” Ambitious renewable energy targets are to be welcomed, but the underlying motives could not be more different. “I think Salmond genuinely backs renewables,” Harvie says. “[But] I think he genuinely backs renewables for the same reason that he backs Donald Trump. We back renewables for the same reason we oppose Donald Trump.
“He sees this as a great new source of GDP… well, that’s great, but the imperative of it is re-engineering our energy system. It would be disingenuous to present as green politics, it’s not. It’s mainstream centrist or centre-right economic policy.” Indeed, says Harvie, the SNP cannot hope to make Scotland both a model for a low carbon economy and a rapidly growing Celtic tiger – the two are mutually exclusive. From a Green perspective, he explains, Scotland’s economic policy is continuing the mistakes of recent decades: “An entirely growth-based analysis of what economics is for, and a comfortable attitude to consumer markets.” Harvie supports the adoption of Green economics, in which the pursuit of growth is abandoned in favour of using the capacity we already have to alleviate structural problems such as resource scarcity and inequality. Many would argue it is a position that continues to alienate Green parties from centrist voters, but advocates believe the climate crisis demands a rejection of previous certainties. “We have one planet, it’s a fixed resource,” Harvie says.
“Everlasting growth on a planet of fixed resources is not going to last.” Living within our means and discarding the old assumptions about energy use are the just causes of our age, he says, despite the difficulty of weaning our economic system off its addiction to carbon. “I’m not going to pretend that anyone’s cracked that, but there are comparisons. We don’t use slave labour anymore, because it’s morally repulsive,” Harvie explains.
It is this demand for radical action that jars with many of the Scottish Government’s environmental policies. Harvie reels off the accusations: scant ambition on energy demand reduction and greening the built environment, “incredibly unimpressive” statistics on recycling and a set of transport policies even more regressive than the last lot offered.
It is on transport – responsible for over 30 per cent of Scotland’s emissions and continuing to rise – that Harvie believes the biggest mistakes have been made. Why, he asks, was £700m spent on extending the M74 by five miles? “That kind of money could retrofit the entire housing stock,” he says. Harvie argues the project is typical of a government completely in hock to the powerful motoring lobby; an administration spending £2bn on the new Forth crossing and committed to the hugely expensive Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route.
“The SNP’s transport policy has changed very little,” he says. Edinburgh’s trams were rejected even before the subsequent mismanagement of the project, while the Glasgow Airport Rail Link and Glasgow Crossrail were also opposed.
A resident of Scotland’s largest city, Harvie says supporting the voice of Glasgow’s bus users will be a priority for the Greens up to the local elections and beyond. A city of fairly low car-ownership, Glasgow would be much better served through improving the “dismal” service, and reinvigorating its suburban rail network.
“That’s what so many people rely on every day of their lives; to get to work, to get to services, to get their kids to school,” Harvie says.
On Scotland’s rail system, Harvie jokes that the future of the Scotrail franchise, which comes up for renewal in two years’ time, will be the “biggest decision we’ll make in 2014”. And if the SNP thinks it will win the independence referendum, he adds, it should have the courage to leave open the possibility of a return to public ownership.
“It won’t make any sense to sign a long franchise for Scotrail as a private sector operator if they [the SNP] are then going to immediately assume the power to change the law and to allow a public sector operator,” Harvie explains.
“So that will be an interesting question. Are they willing to say we’ll have a short franchise so that we allow ourselves to change the law and bring the railways back into public ownership, which I think is where a lot of Scottish people want it to be.” Clearly, the SNP can abandon any hope the Scottish Greens will share a platform come the referendum. Harvie says his fiercely independent party will formulate its own position, and he will remain unsatisfied until concerns over Scotland’s economic and environmental future have been answered.
Constitutional change will not deliver a new society without positive action. “I don’t want to swap a centralised UK state for a centralised Scottish state where all the decisions happen in Edinburgh,” he explains. “Unless you’re willing to do things, like change your transport policy, change your approach to the built environment and retrofitting…reducing energy consumption – if you’re not willing to change those things, you are destined to fail.”