Comment: Patrick Harvie on why Holyrood needs to be bolder
In recent years the task of writing an annual political review has stretched the power of hyperbole ever further. There was the growth of xenophobia and hostility to migrants. There was the predictable failure of the centrists’ strategy of leaning into the far right (“if we just give them a slightly more racist immigration policy, maybe they’ll stop voting for the racists”) and the almost inevitable loss of a Remain campaign founded in tepid assurances that Better Things Aren’t Possible. Then US politics jumped its umpteenth shark just months after the UK’s Brexit vote. And since then reality’s scriptwriters have kept defying our expectations by finding new ways to make things worse, every month or two.
The faultline between Scotland and the UK’s political landscape has kept growing, while leader after leader of the anti-independence parties (some coming round for a second pass while marking time till they’re fitted up for ermine) pipe up to tell us that everything’s just peachy with the precious union.
Few people on the pro-independence side took seriously the assurances of sweeping new devolved powers. But since Boris Johnson ascended to the job that Eton presumably taught him was his by right, it has become clear that there are no more Tory moderates. They have all thrown their lot in with a leadership clique which appalled them only a year or so ago.
Against this backdrop it’s understandable that many of the ‘soft No’ voters of 2014 are moving in the direction of Yes. I suspect they won’t go back. They’re being pushed away by a UK politics which seems to invite their rejection, perhaps more than being drawn toward a Scottish politics which doesn’t yet fully realise their aspirations.
The Greens have always believed that Holyrood needs to be bolder with its powers whatever the ultimate constitutional destination. And this has once again been a big theme for us this year.
Scotland wouldn’t have its fairer income tax system without Green influence, and this year we took steps to achieve long overdue reform of local taxation. Because of COVID it will likely remain unfinished business, and council tax valuations will be more than three decades out of date. This cannot go on.
In October MSPs took the courageous step of backing John Finnie’s bill to give equal protection for children from assault. I’m delighted that Scotland showed leadership by backing the Greens’ bill to enhance children’s rights and end the use of violence to punish children.
The SQA shambles also highlighted the constructive Green approach, with thousands of affected young people campaigning for a solution, but many political voices either defending John Swinney’s every word or demanding his sacking. Ross Greer was not only persistent in challenging the flawed approach from the start, but also completely focused on fixing the injustice and letting young people move on with their lives.
This year our constructive political approach has been needed more than ever, as we collectively face the climate and public health emergencies.
The Climate Bill was one of the first items on this year’s agenda, and we won improvements including the establishment of a citizen’s assembly on climate. But all too often the Scottish Government’s approach to the climate emergency focusses on targets instead of action. In Channel 4’s climate election debate, Nicola Sturgeon claimed the transition away from oil and gas was “under way”. The same month many SNP voices were actually celebrating the fact that North Sea oil and gas production had reached a seven-year high. They can’t have it both ways.
School climate strikers have provided a radical voice of reason around the climate emergency. They recognise that we have only a 10-year window of opportunity to turn this around, and that doing so means rejecting an economic system which has driven both environmental breakdown and inequality.
That’s why the Scottish Greens’ budget priority of free bus travel for over a million young people is a policy that joins the dots. It will give young people the mobility and freedom they need, while also shifting towards public transport.
Scotland has been missing climate targets largely because of poor transport policy, so the Greens have also worked hard to increase the budget for walking and cycling infrastructure to £100m for the first time, and we’ll keep pushing for Mark Ruskell’s proposal for default 20mph speed limits for residential roads which the SNP and Conservatives rejected last year.
Green transport is one area where people hoped to see positive long-term benefits from the COVID response. The Green MSPs have been seeking those opportunities, while also holding the Scottish Government to account on the immediate handling of the pandemic.
All parties committed early on to set aside party-political point scoring, a promise that some thought could barely last five minutes. I’d say it held for a good ten or fifteen. It has been truly dismal to see some opposition parties trying to weaponise every aspect while giving the UK Government a free pass. But it’s equally wrong for the SNP to overclaim on their record. They have come round to an elimination strategy, but they came to it late. In the early stages they made some of the same mistakes as the UK, as the death toll attests. Alison Johnstone was widely recognised for pushing early on the approach to testing, and time has shown she was right.
The First Minister has won many people’s trust in this crisis. She is after all capable of expressing empathy and speaking in whole sentences. It’s a damning judgement on the UK Government that this constitutes a high bar.
As for the recovery, Nicola Sturgeon’s stated commitment that post-COVID we must become a fairer, greener and more equal country is let down by the lack of action to make it a reality.
In housing for example, Andy Wightman tried to protect tenants from rent increases and arrears. When the SNP and Conservatives did a deal on providing support for landlords instead, Andy warned there would be a spike in evictions. We are now seeing that prediction come true.
COVID’s health impact is hardest on older people, but its economic impact looks set to hammer the young. Recovery will be a long haul, but astonishingly the Scottish Government appointed a professional representative of the super-rich to chair its Advisory Group on Economic Recovery. The ink was barely dry on his report before he was dismissing the green movement as “ideological zealots”. Mr Higgins is clearly not a man whose advice should carry much weight.
COVID has also postponed other important work that Holyrood should have been doing, like making progress on bills like the reform of the Gender Recognition Act. That delay owes much to the growing culture of transphobia in political parties and in much of the media. It tears my heart out to see the old prejudiced tropes which used to be directed at lesbian, gay and bisexual people now being recycled and targeted at an even smaller and more marginalised minority, trans people.
Every party leader and editor who has allowed such toxic attitudes to fester should know that the equality movement is strongest when it’s united, and we are determined to remain united and achieve the long-promised progress on trans people’s rights.
It remains to be seen whether these extraordinary times will stretch the power of hyperbole to breaking point. Remembering that Brexit was once the over-riding crisis in most political media coverage seems almost quaint now. The harm of Brexit is still bearing down upon us, but needs to be seen in context of a global pandemic; the continued rise of a far right which now openly promotes wild conspiracy theories; geopolitical gamesmanship in new online frontiers; and of course, the ongoing human sabotage of our own life support system and our destruction of the very living world around us.
Hope is hard work these days. But it’s still the most worthwhile work there is.