The Greens’ main candidate for the European elections on challenging inequality, independence and the argument over who are ‘the foreigners’
The party has had a permanent presence in the Scottish Parliament and is increasing the number of councillors across the country, but so far has been unable to break the deadlock in Brussels held by the mainstream parties.
Now, with the next vote in 2014, just a few months before the independence referendum, the woman who tops the party’s candidate list believes that there is a real opportunity to change that.
Born and raised in Zimbabwe to South African parents, Maggie Chapman moved to Edinburgh when she was 19, expecting to stay only for the duration of her Zoology degree.
Fifteen years later, in a period that included five years of postgrad research from a tent on South Uist, Chapman was one of the three first Green councillors in Edinburgh in 2007 and says now there are “very few places” she can imagine living than Scotland.
Her involvement in party politics, rather than just campaigning, came at university, drawn by the Greens’ message of ‘People Planet and Peace’ – influenced by volunteering work she had been part of in Africa, such as taking part in drought relief in Southern Africa.
“It was very clear to me that you can’t have environmental justice without social justice and you can’t have social justice without environmental – and those two both rely on economic justice.
“The three pillars of our society are very closely intertwined.”
Her move into becoming more politically active was at a time when the UK was becoming embroiled in foreign conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but Chapman said her commitment to pacifism goes back further than that: “It just struck me, thinking about how certain civil wars in Southern Africa were used, not for the aims they claimed to be set out, but for some sort of economic imperative for a few wealthy people.
“I still struggle with the concept of a just war. because of the wide-scale destruction it causes to civilian communities and the long-term damage.”
Now a lecturer at Edinburgh’s Napier University in cultural geography, environmental ethics and social justice, her childhood in Africa has helped shape her life in Scotland. Her postgraduate research was borne out of her frustration that often conservation and work to preserve wildlife and ecosystems often considered people very little – unless those people were conservation officers.
“In Zimbabwe as a kid, working with wildlife conservation organisations, you had to get the local people involved – because they were the only people there.
“So if you wanted to stop rhino poaching, you had to speak to the poachers – and speak to them in a way that wasn’t criminalising but giving them another way of surviving.”
The second big influence has been a need to tackle inequality.
Coming from a white family in Zimbabwe, she said she was always aware of the inequalities that existed and she says that while life in Harare was much less materialistic than in other nations, the inequality that was on view “was on a much more basic level”.
“There were black families living in rural areas, subsistence farmers who would have to sell a cow if a family member needed medical treatment or something like that.”
The structures in place in countries like Scotland, such as schemes to mitigate against floods and education to help people through times of hardship and elsewhere is, she says, one of the “starkest differences” and she wants to ensure they are not eroded.
Like the majority of her party, Chapman supports independence, but says it will not isolate Scotland. “Apart from what it can do for Scotland,” she says, “independence offers us, as a country, to play a much more involved role in Europe and in the world.
“Policy implementation happens at state level, but most of the policies we need to deal with come to us from Brussels.
“There are things that affect the way in which Scotland functions that at the moment Scotland has a very poor voice in – a very quiet soft voice and independence offers Scotland a much better opportunity to not only deliver for itself but make the links with other people around Europe and much more widely, more internationally than that to deliver some of the changes that in terms…when we look at the crises the world is facing, none of them is going to be solved by one state – and it is certainly not going to be the British state.
“We need international understanding and cooperation, so I don’t see independence as being we will take Scotland off into its own little corner and we won’t talk to anybody else.”
To win next year, the party will still need to see a shift in its direction but Chapman says that if the party can encourage the same numbers of people to vote Green as they did in the 2003 Holyrood elections, they can win a seat.
She believes it will be a three-way battle for the sixth place, Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens.
“You’ve got the Liberal Democrats in a deeply unpopular coalition south of the border. They may be federalised, but they are one party,” she says. “And UKIP as a party has very little purchase in Scotland and if people are likely to move over to UKIP, they are likely to go from the Tories and split the vote.”
But on her party, she says: “We stand for a radically different kind of Scotland and would fight for a more open approach to government.
“Out view of Scotland is one where we would give power back to the people and involve them more in political decision making.
“The austerity agenda is clearly not working, it is serving the interests of the wealthy, well over and above any benefits that will ever trickle down.”
One of the arguments used in favour of keeping the Union particularly annoys her. She says the use of the word ‘foreigner’ and concerns raised by politicians that members of the same family would be living in different countries is used strategically to divide.
“I don’t want any part in that kind of politics,” she says. “I am very aware that I come from a country where just being white was a huge advantage.
“I think the use of that language is fundamentally problematic. Once you start to ‘other’ groups of people by saying ,“you’re foreign”, “you’re different”, you are generating and then reinforcing segregation and the potential for injustice, for racism and discrimination on the basis you sound like you belong, or not.”
Chapman recalls waiting at immigration at Heathrow or Gatwick airport and being “staggered” at the difference in treatment between her and a black man with the same accent “and the same coloured passport” who had come from the same destination.
She adds: “It’s nothing like what non-British people, what immigrants would face here but I can remember as a teenager in Zimbabwe looking for funding for higher education, ‘you might as well not apply to that because you’re white and you won’t get it’ and some of the things that Mugabe has said subsequently about white people is appalling.
“There is something profoundly sinister in marking out people as worthy of different treatment, simply because they look, sound or believe something different.”
It is an increasingly common topic in the UK, particularly as immigration continues to be discussed at a national level.
“There’s been so much around immigration and the threat of foreigners coming here, taking our jobs, that sort of thing,” she says. “The whole welfare reform debate and the role UKIP is playing has certainly helped that.
“It has pulled Labour and others over to say immigration is a problem and you hear Labour shadow ministers saying, ‘yes, for too long our immigration policy was too lax’.
“On what are they basing that judgement? There’s no evidence it has been economically or culturally detrimental to the country. It’s pure discrimination.”
Chapman is pleased then that those allowed to vote in the referendum extends to everyone who has chosen to make Scotland their home and says the use of the word ‘foreigner’ is a “scare tactic”.
“I think it’s strategic. But I think it’s petty.”
What Chapman says both the election and the referendum will do is allow the Greens a greater chance to get their message across.
“They give us a real opportunity to say to people, we have a range of policies that most of you like, things that you’ve maybe not heard from a Green before but have been part of the party structure forever – wanting incomes that are sustainable, wanting to make sure we have better control to regulate corporations and banks and financial institutions, wanting to make sure people actually have a say in how their governments work.
“It’s become very clear to me how little trust people have for politics and I think that’s because we’ve spent the last 20 or 30 years saying, “no, we know best”.
She adds: “The Greens can use the two elections next year to show we are capable of getting elected for a start – that’s a barrier every small party needs to get over first.
“But once we are there, we will do whatever we can to restore power to the hands of the people – rather than the top 100 on the Times’ rich list.”