Impatient for change: interview with Ross Greer
Ross Greer’s political career arguably began aged 14.
That was when he “led a coup” against the sixth years at Bearsden Academy to take control of the eco committee, after the older pupils repeatedly failed to turn up to meetings.
“I persuaded the others not specifically that I should be in charge but that the sixth years no longer should be,” he recalls. He and fellow concerned pupils made sure they turned up to the crunch meeting in healthy numbers, knowing that very few of the sixth years would attend.
“I wasn’t quite stacking the meeting, you know that classic Labour party thing in those selection meetings, but it wasn’t a million miles off that.
“I made sure the numbers were going to add up in favour of the outcome that I wanted.”
Masterminding regime change in the eco committee was just the beginning. Greer was soon immersed in politics, joining the Green Party at 15, representing the Scottish Youth Parliament in his senior school years and leaving his Strathclyde politics and psychology degree in 2012 to work for Yes Scotland. Then in 2016, he shot to national fame as the youngest ever MSP to enter Holyrood and now, at 26, is a seasoned politician and campaigner.
His party’s education spokesperson, he was instrumental in pushing the Scottish Government into a u-turn over its controversial schools assessment system in August, an event he names as his proudest parliamentary achievement to date.
He had warned loudly for four months that the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s system for assessing grades would disproportionately disadvantage young people from deprived backgrounds.
The Scottish Greens threatened to back a motion of no confidence in education secretary John Swinney unless Swinney met four key demands in full, including the restoration of grades where they had been lowered. Swinney met all four demands.
Greer acknowledges that there were some who argued the Greens should have backed the no-confidence vote anyway given the general disquiet around Swinney’s handling of his brief, but he rejects this: “My responsibility as a parliamentarian was to the young people who were being affected by it and I used the influence we had to guarantee that a solution was found.”
Still the youngest person sitting on the Holyrood benches (Kate Forbes the finance minister comes next, at 30), Greer is the closest the parliament has to the voice of the younger generation and he has earned a reputation for speaking his mind.
This month he has been defending climate action group Extinction Rebellion after it blockaded News Corp-owned newspaper printing plants, asserting that “protest movements are consistently unpopular when they take their action and are vindicated by history”. But it was his comments 18 months ago on Winston Churchill that marked him out as a politician willing to go places others wouldn’t.
He described the war leader once voted the “greatest Briton” as “a white supremacist mass murderer”, basing his remarks on Churchill’s recorded views on race and the British government’s policy of exporting rice from India during World War Two in the face of a famine in Bengal which ultimately claimed some three million lives.
Greer’s comments made international headlines and the backlash was swift and largely vitriolic. Did any of it alter his view?
“No, it didn’t change my view. It certainly made me more determined to just speak honestly and speak the truth even when people don’t necessarily want to hear it,” he says, pointing to the UK’s “deeply unhealthy” relationship with its own past.
But the outspokenness had a cost. He describes it as having been “dangerous” to him, resulting not only in “a volume of abuse and threats far beyond what I’d received before then or since” but in “serious threats”.
“I’ll be honest: it has changed the way I go about my daily life,” he says. “What I did absolutely put me in a more vulnerable position.
“But I was still acutely aware of the fact that I was doing that with all the privilege of being a white man in a position of relative power. Although it wasn’t easy for me, it was a horrible experience in a lot of ways, I hope that by doing it I made it easier for the next person.”
Greer came of age at a time of highly polarised political debate. Is his willingness to speak plainly a generational difference with other politicians?
“That might be part of it,” he reflects. He points to the student movements of the 1960s in countries like Germany when young people rebelled against the culture and society of their parents’ generation.
“I think we’re going through, not exactly that but I think we’re going through a period like that now where you have people across society who want a fundamental break with what came before. And with my generation there’s a lot of deep-seated anger motivating that.”
Greer’s own first political memories are of the Iraq War; he was in high school when the recession started in 2008. Another far greater recession is now upon us and the climate crisis will define his “entire adult life”.
On top of that he points to “colossal issues” of racial and gender injustice. (He could add the challenges of low paid, insecure employment, student debt and housing shortages.)
His generation, he says, is acutely aware that “either we have to fight for something fundamentally better or it’s going to get a lot worse very quickly”.
He is keen to make clear that this anger on his part is not against his parents’ and grandparents’ entire generations, but at “a tiny number of people who got to live incredible privileged lives at the expense, not just of others living at their own time but at the expense of future generations as well”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he does not believe that the centre ground is something to be coveted. Compromising, he feels, tends to mean letting one side win “and it’s usually the side that already had the power and was committing the injustices”.
But in a democracy don’t we often end up in the centre ground just to get things done?
“I think it’s important to know where it’s important to compromise and where it’s not,” he counters. While arguing that the Greens-SNP budget deals have been reasonable compromises, on issues of “profound injustice” he sees no room for compromise.
By way of example, he says: “Basically for me the issue of trans rights is an important one,” but doesn't want to get into a detailed conversation about it. He mentions the refugee debate as one where “moral leadership” is required. The progressive left, he feels, has been too ready to compromise on the issue of immigration when the right has not budged and this amounts to "capitulation".
Greer’s politics are heavily influenced by his faith. He was brought up in the Church of Scotland and still runs a church youth group. “I grew up in an environment where the message was we are called to go out and do good things, we are called to love each other and loving each other can be costly but it means making the world a better place. Loving each other does not simply mean a kind of passive being nice to people, it’s actually something much, much more challenging than that.
“It was a long time after starting to do politics that I realised, this is probably what led me here.
“A lot of young people of faith are worried that if they are really open about their faith then other people will presume that they are socially conservative or reactionary.
“Hopefully I can set some kind of example that that’s not the case.”
His party’s radicalism is nowhere more evident than on the defining issue of climate change. “The one word that describes discussions around the climate in Scotland is hypocrisy,” says Greer. He expresses exasperation at the four other parties’ view that “we can simultaneously be a world leader on tackling the climate crisis and pursue a policy of maximum North Sea oil extraction after 2050,” reserving particular disdain for the SNP government.
So what would the Greens do? The party secured free bus travel for the under 19s in this year’s budget. “I, we, want to extend that to all forms of public transport for everyone”, he says, pointing to car use as the single biggest driver of emissions growth. The party would take the billions allocated to road-building and invest it in public transport infrastructure.
And he wants a just transition away from oil and gas – “turning the taps off as quickly as possible” (aiming for 2030, when the International Panel on Climate Change believe climate ‘tipping point’ will be reached) – with a tax on oil and gas companies to pay for it. “The key thing is not to have this transition funded by the population at large.”
He is not inclined to accept the view that voters might have to make sacrifices to reach climate targets. “To literally save people and planet, to stop the climate crisis, a small number of people needs to feel desperately unhappy and lose out; the overwhelming majority do not. The small number of people I’m talking about are the richest and most powerful people on the planet.”
But he accepts that progressive environmental policies are not always instantly popular when first mooted, noting that when the Norwegian Greens started making Oslo city centre car-free the measures were “immensely unpopular” at first. By the time of the next election, however, the party doubled its vote-share because the air was cleaner, the city centre was more pleasant and pedestrianisation had boosted businesses.
“Where that becomes a challenge is where the benefits are not felt before the next election,” he acknowledges.
Do political leaders need to accept becoming one-term wonders to do what needs to be done, then? “I’m at the point where I think we as the Greens have a moral obligation, everyone has a moral obligation, to go all-in for the next 10 years.” He doesn’t believe enacting these radical policies would make the Greens unpopular but knows where his priorities lie: “See if it has cost some of us our political careers, that’s really not a big sacrifice to make; it’s no sacrifice at all.”