Sketch: Wild times at the Scottish Green conference
Credit: Iain Green
The Greens have always been elusive creatures. For a time, scientists believed the group was struggling, with numbers pushed almost to extinction. In fact, at one point there were just two known adults living in the Scottish Parliament.
Conservationists were worried. Yet, following gains in the referendum and Scottish parliamentary elections, numbers seem to be recovering.
The Scottish Green conference was an ideal opportunity to study them in their natural habitat, with local groups migrating across mountains, rivers, and a weirdly patchy train service to get to Perth. Who are the Greens? What are they? And why?
Hopefully the next few days would provide some clues. They arrived in groups, greeting each other at the entrance. Snippets of conversation revealed an interest in active travel, sustainable shelter, and something called a Ross Greer.
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Inside the hall, low-level ceilidh music emanated from the stage. A balcony, high above, offered a safe place to watch them. But to truly get to grips with their ways, an observer would need to get closer. It was necessary to walk among them.
But how to go unnoticed? Wear a CND badge? Grow a beard? Smear yourself in allotment manure? Actually, it didn’t really matter. By nature relatively peaceable creatures, the security brought by a preponderance of numbers meant they were largely unconcerned by the presence of outsiders.
The group’s regional leaders lined up on stage. The audience paid tribute with a form of hooting.
Mark Ruskell welcomed them to ‘big tree country’. Councillor Melanie Main provided basic foraging advice, telling the crowd how, faced with the arrival of a large supermarket, her community had rallied to create a cooperative greengrocers.
Australian Green Giz Watson appeared, telling the conference she also came from Perth. “The other Perth,” she said, adding, “it’s quite different, by the way.”
The Australian Greens are much like the Scottish ones, she said, though they organise themselves somewhat differently. Scottish Green groups are typically led by a male and female Green – in this case the co-conveners, Patrick Harvie and Maggie Chapman.
A loud cheer went up when Harvie emerged from the undergrowth and wandered onto stage, which would suggest, unlike velociraptors, their vision is based on movement. They slapped their hands together, in what appeared to be a form of approval, or possibly to warn of approaching danger.
And Harvie had certainly come with a warning, telling conference that, if there is going to be another independence referendum, the Yes campaign needed a better answer on currency.
He said: “The toxic Leave campaign has generated hatred, division and resentment, just as the Trump campaign has in the US. In both cases, what brands itself as a people’s anti-establishment movement is in reality something truly dangerous.
“Nationalism is a very broad umbrella term. It is abundantly clear to anyone who has been involved in the Scottish political debate that the inclusive, civic form of national identity that informs the independence movement is the polar opposite to the aggressive and racist form of nationalism that led the Brexiteers down south to demand unethical medical checks on child asylum seekers.”
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, because some of what Harvie said was also confusing – with the co-convener telling a weird story about a cheese-shop owner who becomes really happy every time he remembers he owns a cheese shop. That is how Andy Wightman feels about being an MSP, he said.
Maggie Chapman followed the next day, with more fighting talk. “Theresa May says that I, as an immigrant, am not welcome in Britain anymore – that those born abroad are not welcome,” she said. “You know what, Theresa? I am happy to leave Britain. We are happy to leave. And we’re going to take Scotland with us.”
Leave and take Scotland with you. It was a hell of a threat, though it’s hard to judge how much Scotland would get in ransom.
After that they debated whether they are opposed to all capitalism, or just neoliberal capitalism. It was decided it would be wisest to start with opposing neoliberal capitalism, and then see how they got on from there.
They broke out into smaller sessions. Some sat, cross-legged, in a circle onstage. Others huddled round Andy Wightman’s MacBook. They appeared to have mastered the use of tools.
Isla O’Reilly closed proceedings. Warning that “No man, woman or non-binary person is an island”, O’Reilly paid tribute to those who helped organise the event.
She told them: “Independence is a state of mind,” which may be true, though it is also a state of state.
Next she moved onto the local elections, talking about the disappointment of failing to win a seat in a recent Highlands and islands by-election. “I spiralled into an ever too familiar pit of political despair,” she said, “You know the kind of thing. What’s the point in doing this? We can’t seem to make a breakthrough! Nobody loves me, I think I’ll just go and eat worms.”
Hopefully they were organic worms. Still, they can do better this time, O’Reilly said, provided they work hard, and truly immerse themselves in their local environment.
The message was clear – go out and win the local elections. If not, they can always forage for worms.