Patrick Harvie: 'People know that we want to push the SNP out of their comfort zone'
Patrick Harvie was a student in Manchester in the early 1990s, the tail end of an era marked by police raids on gay clubs and an uncompromising chief constable who accused the city’s gay population of “swirling around in a cesspit of their own making”.
Out of the health panic around AIDS came the moral panic which led to Section 28, legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government to ban the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. Section 28 (known as Clause 2a in Scotland) was finally repealed by the Scottish Parliament in 2000, but not before a high-profile campaign to keep it.
It feels like we’ve come a long way as a society in the two decades since, but Harvie, an MSP since 2003, says that same “false moral panic” is evident today in the opposition to reform of the Gender Recognition Act. The legislation, which is expected to be introduced in parliament in the coming weeks, will make it easier for trans people to change their gender in law.
Harvie and I speak on the day polling is published by the BBC which shows the majority of Scots (57 per cent) support moves to make it easier for trans people to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate. Critics of the proposed reform say it will allow for ‘self-ID’, making it easier for men to access women-only spaces. On this issue, those responding to the survey were less clear – 40 per cent supported self-ID, while 38 per cent did not. Crucially, more than two-thirds of people surveyed (67 per cent) said they had not been following the debate closely.
“When I was a student, James Anderton was still the chief constable of Greater Manchester – he was ‘God’s cop’ who would send in squads of police in biohazard gear to raid gay clubs and was eagerly egged on by the right-wing media,” Harvie says. “The kind of stuff of we’re seeing now is reminiscent of that.”
Harvie believes much of the media coverage of the proposed GRA reform has been “horrific”.
“It’s reminiscent of the worst of the homophobic coverage that I remember seeing when I was growing up in the 1980s and when I was a student in the 1990s,” he says. “And it’s now being directed at a much smaller and more marginalised group – trans people.”
I don’t want Green politics to just be a protest vote. Protest is a big part of the movement and always will be...but protest on its own, without getting stuff done, that’s not enough.
Harvie, a LGBT youth worker before entering politics, says he remembers walking past billboards saying ‘Protect Our Children’ at the time of the debate over Section 28.
“It meant protect children from people like me,” he says. “What we now see as a result of the anti-trans movement is a far greater level of that kind of smear tactic. I’ve seen allegations coming out of the anti-trans movement of people being complicit with paedophilia that are reminiscent of the QAnon stuff [the US conspiracy theory].
“The BBC’s polling is not the first to show there is broad public support for what is being proposed and that it’s stronger with younger people and women. The way this is being manipulated and turned into a right-wing culture war from those who want to punch down from powerful positions is truly grotesque.”
I ask Harvie if he considers there to be any legitimate concerns over reform of the GRA. Last month, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) called on the Scottish Government not to rush through the legislation and to give it “more detailed consideration” amid concerns there could be consequences for data collection, participation and drug testing in competitive sport, the criminal justice system, and other areas.
“I’m sure there are people who have sincere questions,” Harvie says. “But the point about asking questions is that you need to be willing to listen to the answer. As well as those asking questions because they don’t know something, there are also those who are quite clearly cultivating false fears around this. GRA reform is about whether you have paperwork, whether you have a Gender Recognition Certificate – it’s got nothing to do with where you go for a pee when you’re out in a café.”
He commends the wider public for rejecting what he calls anti-trans “propaganda” in the same way it rejected homophobic arguments about gay men being a threat to children at the time of the Section 28 debate.
I ask him about Andy Wightman, the former Green MSP who left the party over its stance on trans issues and subsequently failed in a bid to be elected as an independent at last year’s election. Wightman, who felt it necessary to issue an apology in 2019 for attending an event on sex-based rights at which the feminist Julie Bindel was attacked by a trans activist, said there was a culture of “intolerance” within the party. In his resignation letter to the party leadership, he criticised a lack of “open and mature dialogue” on questions of sex and gender.
Does Harvie now regret the way the situation was handled?
“I regret very much the way his thinking went on those issues and that he appeared to be falling down a rabbit hole,” he says. “I regret that many people have gone in that direction.”
But would he welcome Wightman back into the party now?
“If he reflected on his views and realised he’d got some stuff wrong and wanted to have a conversation about that, I suspect there are people in the party who would listen.”
Following the power-sharing deal agreed last year with the SNP, Harvie and his co-leader Lorna Slater became Scottish Government ministers, the first time Greens have been in power anywhere in the UK. While Slater took on responsibility for green skills and the circular economy, Harvie’s brief includes two key planks associated with achieving Scotland’s environmental targets – active travel and net zero buildings.
Despite the obvious validation for the Green movement in Scotland that came with the move into government, there have been some early teething problems, such as when Slater was forced to announce the delay of a much-anticipated deposit return scheme and when Harvie found himself at the centre of a row with Greenpeace over First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s position on the Cambo oilfield in the North Sea.
Despite that, he remains upbeat about meeting the challenges that lie ahead. He reflects on some of the changes that have taken place since his days campaigning against the M74 northern extension, a project which finally went ahead with a near-£700m price tag.
“Every other political party in Holyrood – bar the Greens – was saying ‘build it’. Even when we won the public inquiry, we won the argument, the Labour-Lib Dem coalition at the time overturned it, the SNP and the Conservatives supported it as well. It’s deeply frustrating to see these opportunities that have been missed.
“However, we are now at the point where there is public support for the changes that we’re taking forward, whether it’s on transport policy, on the biodiversity crisis and looking to restore nature, there is a real change in public support and a real change in what is politically possible.”
The future of the oil and gas industry is one area where the Greens are happy to disagree with their power-sharing partners. Harvie expresses “a deep frustration” not only with the outcome of COP26 in Glasgow but the overall pace of change when it comes to tackling the climate emergency.
“The fossil fuel industry went through decades of silence and then through decades of trying to concoct a climate denial conspiracy,” he says. “It has now moved on in the last five, maybe 10 years – climate denial still exists, but it’s not their dominant strategy anymore. Climate delay is now their dominant strategy.
“Climate delay is every bit as dangerous as climate denial because it’s another route to failure. The feelings I have about COP are the same whether I’m speaking on behalf of the party, speaking in my government role or speaking as someone who was brought up by a family campaigning on this 30 or 40 years ago when those actions should have been taken.”
Harvie is confident that his position, and his own preferred timetable for decarbonisation, is one backed by public opinion. He’s right to be optimistic; the Greens achieved their best-ever result at the Holyrood election in 2021, increasing their number of MSPs to a record eight, although that number was reduced by one when Alison Johnstone took up the position of presiding officer.
But is he worried that the rewards for that electoral success – being in government with the SNP – may eventually damage the party in the same way the Lib Dems were damaged, possibly permanently, by joining David Cameron’s coalition government in 2010?
Harvie dismisses the comparison: “When they went into that coalition it was a fundamentally dishonest prospectus… I don’t think that’s the case with what we’re involved in. People know that we want to push the SNP out of their comfort zone – that’s what we did in opposition and it’s what we’re still doing.
“I don’t want Green politics to just be a protest vote. Protest is a big part of the movement and always will be – I’ll have no qualms about sitting on the road outside Faslane again now that I’m in this job, any more than I did as an MSP. But protest on its own, without getting stuff done, that’s not enough.”
Harvie knows more than most what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the opprobrium that now appears to come with the territory at Holyrood. His Twitter profile recycles a memorable quote from the Daily Mail, which once apparently accused him of being the “voice of the irresponsible left-led, anti-family, anti-Christian, gay whales against the bomb coalition”. While that may have been tongue-in-cheek, most seasoned observers now worry there is little levity left in Scottish politics.
The way [GRA reform] is being manipulated and turned into a right-wing culture war from those who want to punch down from powerful positions is truly grotesque
Earlier this month, the BBC’s former Scotland correspondent Sarah Smith spoke of the “vitriolic attention” she had received while attempting to do her job, including being called a “fucking lying bitch” in the street. Bang on cue, the SNP’s James Dornan tweeted that a new job in Washington would help her “escape all her imaginary woes”.
Harvie says “polarisation has clearly got worse,” driven in no small part by social media.
“That [polarisation] will cover misogyny, it will cover transphobia and the kind of homophobia I’ve described... and it covers the general polarised partisanship that we saw in the months running up to the Holyrood election last year. The Conservative Party were routinely pumping out allegations of corruption and memes about corruption – that was clearly utterly spurious.
“They’re not the only ones responsible for cultivating that polarisation… it’s been widely analysed that a slightly paranoid, conspiratorial mindset can be cultivated in the social media age. It’s been far worse in the US, but it’s still evident here and I think the anti-trans movement is an example of that.”
Following the signing of the cooperation agreement with the SNP, the Greens forfeited their right to a weekly question at First Minister’s Questions. I ask Harvie if he misses it.
“It’s only been six months, but one of the things you do miss is being able to speak on a range of issues. For the most part, when I go the Chamber, it’s to deal with the specific portfolio issues that I’m responsible for.
“But I have had long enough making speeches demanding perfection – I was more than ready to take on the responsibility of trying to deliver change, even if what I deliver isn’t perfection, even if there are those demanding more all the time.”