Lorna Slater: "We're annoying all the right people"
In the few short months since becoming an MSP, Lorna Slater has been called an “eco-Marxist,” an “extremist” and an “inexperienced chancer”.
Two of those descriptions came in the same article, a piece by Andrew Neil which, if nothing else, at least compared Slater favourably with her Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie: “[Slater] is the brighter of the two and sounds more reasonable – which makes her more dangerous.”
There’s little hint of danger when she appears for our interview in the sedate surroundings of Dunbar’s Close, a hidden garden which lies just off the Royal Mile.
We chat as dog walkers pass by, crunching gravel underfoot. At one point a black cat ambles into view, weaving in and out of the bushes.
It could be Slater’s spirit animal as – to her critics, at least – Slater has had a somewhat miraculous rise, going from being a relative unknown to a Scottish Government minister in a matter of months as a result of the cooperation agreement between the Greens and the SNP.
And it’s the deal with the SNP which has led to some of the more excitable commentary about Slater and her party colleagues.
Asked if she’s worried about the Greens being referred to as “extremists,” she says: “Letting climate change rip with no mitigations, no attempt to prevent it, is very extremist. If you thought living through a pandemic was bad, you haven’t tried to live through the breakdown of your biosphere yet.
“It depends on where you sit on the spectrum of what you consider to be extreme. If you consider subsidising aviation fuel to not be extreme, but somehow subsidised bus fares are extreme to you, we won’t agree.
“We can’t continue on with business as usual; we have less than 10 years to transform our economy and society or else we’re going to face breakdown of our biosphere, which means millions of deaths, food shortages… it means large parts of the world become uninhabitable.
“Radical thinking is required. There is too much cosy consensus that we can just carry on as we are with just a few electric cars and bamboo toothbrushes and it will all be fine. It won’t be fine, it’s not fine.”
But what about the commentariat, those sections of the press who have never had an easy relationship with the SNP but are now openly hostile to the Greens?
“There is definitely a section of the right-wing, wealthy, white-man media who is increasingly out of touch with where mainstream politics is,” Slater says.
“The idea that economic success is [built on] maximum exploitation, maximum extraction, that it is an accumulation of material goods, that is out of date. That isn’t how young people think; that isn’t how most people think. Most people do think that tackling the climate crisis is really important; most people would like cheaper trains; most people would like a national care service. These are things that are absolutely important to everyday people and if commentators don’t get that, then they are living in the past, in old politics.”
“We’re annoying all the right people,” she adds mischievously.
Lorna Slater was born in Canada in 1975 and set off for Glasgow in her mid-20s with the intention of travelling around Europe, but she never got that far. She settled in Scotland, eventually becoming an engineer in the renewable energy sector.
Two weeks after the independence referendum, she joined the Scottish Greens, the start of a political journey which led to Holyrood seven years later.
In 2019, Slater was just one of three women in Scotland chosen to go to Antarctica as part of a project led by Homeward Bound, a leadership programme for women in science. During the trip, she met Christine Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and one of the architects of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change.
“You can see with your eyes the impact of climate change because Antarctica is such a vulnerable environment,” Slater says. “You can see bare rock where there should be ice and snow.
“We visited a colony of Adélie penguins which had lost its first hatching of chicks that year when the snow melted too early and all the chicks drowned.”
Lorna Slater photographed for Holyrood by Anna Moffat
As seminal as the trip was, however, in helping shape her views on the climate crisis, it also helped guide her nascent political ambitions.
“I had intended to stand as leader of the party before going on that trip. In my application video for the course I said I wanted to learn the skills I needed to stand for leadership in my political party but also lead Scotland into a more sustainable future. So I was going on that course with the intention of learning the skills that I wanted to have.”
Slater says the last few months have been a “wild ride” and admits to being taken aback by the presence of photographers throughout the Scottish Parliament building, not just in the chamber itself.
Along with Harvie and their colleague Ross Greer, she was caught breaching Covid restrictions shortly after the election when surreptitiously photographed in an Edinburgh pub, just a short walk from the First Minister’s residence at Bute House. They later apologised for what they called an “honest mistake”.
The photograph marked the start of the discussions between the Greens and the SNP, discussions which culminated in the signing of a cooperation agreement between the two parties and the first-ever Green government ministers anywhere in the UK.
I’m not going to call anyone names, but I am going to challenge my colleagues and myself to be proactive on anti-racism, on anti-sexism on anti-ageism, anti-ableism… when we see old, able-bodied, rich white men losing emotional control over the kind of policies we’re bringing in, we’re doing the right thing because it means they’re ceding power to young people, disabled people, women, people of colour, immigrants…”
Last week, it was announced that Slater would become Minister for Greens Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity.
Critics of the deal have said it does little more than give Nicola Sturgeon an independence-supporting majority while strengthening her government’s green credentials ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November.
But Slater says the agreement is about more than just a second referendum.
“We already had a pro-independence majority in parliament – this deal doesn’t change that. The Scottish Greens were always going to support legislation to bring another referendum, so actually that’s not what this deal is about.
“What the deal is about is getting cooperation on some of the crisis issues – the climate crisis, the housing crisis, the post-pandemic economic crisis. Those things need stable government, they need vision. We want to leave a legacy for generations to come.
“When you look at the approach the UK Government is taking to things like oil and gas extraction and expanding roads and airports, I think independence is crucial to tackling the climate crisis in Scotland.”
But while the SNP and Greens both believe in an independent Scotland, their vision of what that country would ultimately look like differs.
Slater says the SNP was wrong to base the economic case for independence in 2014 on oil and gas.
“We’ve known about the climate crisis for 30 years,” she says. “We thought it was wrong at the time, we said it was wrong, and we will continue to say it’s wrong.
“Extraction of oil and gas is one of the excluded items in our cooperation agreement, it’s one of the areas where we’ve agreed to disagree because we know our parties have different views on that.”
Despite the challenges and dire warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which last month warned that global warming is a “code red for humanity,” Slater does not agree with the methods of Extinction Rebellion (XR), the group which was vowed to cause maximum disruption in an effort to force the issue of the environment to the top of the political agenda.
“I have chosen to tackle the climate crisis through party politics, but I’m not going to judge their approach. Protests are meant to be inconvenient otherwise why would anyone pay any attention to you? I’m not saying I agree with everything that Extinction Rebellion does, but the idea that you can protest without disrupting seems to misunderstand what protest is about.”
Slater reads from the IPCC report at Holyrood last month | Image: Shutterstock
But while Slater doesn’t subscribe to XR’s radical position on protest, she does share the movement’s interest in radical new economic ideas, namely modern monetary theory (MMT).
She recommends The Deficit Myth by Stephanie Kelton, a former chief economist on the US Senate’s budget committee who has acted as an adviser to one-time US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
In crude terms, Kelton’s thesis is that powerful economies with their own currency can simply spend their way out of a crisis by printing money. While garnering growing levels of interest, it’s a theory which remains controversial.
“We need an absolute fundamental change in how our economy works, but the levers you need to change that are relatively subtle,” Slater says. “The current capitalist system is based on maximum damage to the planet to get maximum profit and that includes exploitation of workers.
“I hope the pandemic has opened up people’s minds in terms of what we can do with the economy.”
Slater says continuing to use the British pound in an independent Scotland, once the policy of the SNP, would be a “terrible idea”.
“Modern monetary theory tells us that the UK Government, because they are a currency creator, can create as much money as they want through quantitative easing, we’ve seen that through the furlough scheme. They can literally print as much as they want. In Scotland, we can’t create pounds – we don’t have the ability to do that. We are then in the position of being like a child getting an allowance from its parents. So we need to be able to control our currency.”
Amid talk of the UK Government attempting to win hearts and minds in Scotland to protect the long-term future of the Union, a major fault line opened up between London and Edinburgh on immigration when just a week after the election, attempts to deport two men from Kenmure Street in Glasgow led to a huge protest by local residents.
Slater’s answer to concerns about the performance of the Home Office is straightforward – she wants to scrap it.
“The Home Office itself is fundamentally racist and has an inherent bias. When institutions are dysfunctional, they should be broken up,” she says.
“Institutional racism isn’t about any one person. I do my best not to be racist, but I was raised in a school system where nearly every book was written by a white man, very few were written by women. Not a single school book – not a single novel or textbook – was written by a person of colour.
“While I as an individual very much hope I’m not a racist, I was raised in a biased system. You can’t point at one person and say it’s their fault – it’s when the whole system is built that way. That’s what I think the problem is with big institutions like the Home Office.”
If the Home Office is institutionally racist, could the same be said about the Scottish Government?
“I have no particular comment on that,” Slater says. “It’s not good enough to be passive and static on these things, we need to be proactively seeking out different voices. I’m not going to call anyone names, but I am going to challenge my colleagues and myself to be proactive on anti-racism, on anti-sexism on anti-ageism, anti-ableism… when we see old, able-bodied, rich white men losing emotional control over the kind of policies we’re bringing in, we’re doing the right thing because it means they’re ceding power to young people, disabled people, women, people of colour, immigrants…”
I ask about Andy Wightman, the former MSP who left the Greens following a row about the distinction between sex and gender. Wightman failed to get elected as an independent at May’s election, but is in the running for the Political Hero award at Holyrood’s annual political awards. Slater accused Wightman of exercising his “male privilege” when he left the party, saying “most people have no idea who he is”.
She now admits she was “probably unwise” to make those comments but answers “no comment” when asked if Wightman is a loss to her party.
“I really don’t want to comment on that,” she says when pushed. “I was his campaign manager when he got elected. After he resigned, I wrote him a letter asking him to reconsider and he chose not to do that.”
On the wider subject of the trans debate and Gender Recognition Act (GRA) reform, she says: “My trans friends are very scared, some of my other LGBTQIA+ friends are feeling very scared. I think it’s sad that we’re in a situation where my trans friends don’t feel safe to go out. They can’t participate in local five-a-side football or take a swim at their local pool.
“They put their health at risk because they don’t feel safe to use changing rooms. That’s really frightening. Trans people should be able to participate fully in society. So yeah, it terrifies me. I don’t think trans people are a danger to women – bottom line.”
Slater says she hopes some of the heat will be taken out of the issue with the passing of the GRA reform legislation, that people will be able to “move on”.
Are there transphobes in the Scottish Parliament?
“No comment. I’m not going to call out any of my colleagues, but it is time to move on from this issue.”
Slater says she remains optimistic about the future, that the twin challenges of the pandemic and the climate crisis can be met. She says she’s borrowed a phrase from Figueres, her fellow traveller on the trip to Antarctica, and that she calls herself a “stubborn optimist”.
That optimism, however, doesn’t extend to COP26, which she says is likely to be an “exercise in backslapping and greenwashing without anything coming out of it”.
But on the longer-term fight to save the planet, she adds: “We are not powerless. I say don’t be despondent – we’re going to see in this parliamentary term that a Green vote is powerful.”