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Robin Harper: The Scottish Greens, the Union and me

Photographs by Anna Moffat

Robin Harper: The Scottish Greens, the Union and me

Robin Harper may have left the Scottish Parliament in 2011, but he certainly made his mark on the place.

Sitting in the Garden Lobby in his trademark rainbow scarf, he is greeted by parliament staff and MSPs of various hues. There are nods, waves and compliments – “you’re looking well”, “it’s lovely to see you”, staff tell him. Fiona Hyslop calls out a hello, Alex Cole-Hamilton promises to meet up soon, Daniel Johnson greets him, Bill Kidd jokes about how popular the former Scottish Green MSP is.

Before he stepped down, a then-Scottish Green staffer once told me that Harper “did the charisma” for the party. When I tell him this, he immediately sidesteps the comment and moves the spotlight away from himself. “I just love this place. The staff are absolutely brilliant, they are so helpful, so friendly,” he says. “I hope the MSPs realise how lucky they are to be supported in the way that they are by researchers, security, the post office, everybody.”

There is no doubt about the affection in which Harper, a former teacher, holds this place. He was in from the start, a lone Green – the only elected Green in the UK, in fact – in what was then called a “rainbow parliament” and included the Scottish Senior Citizens Party and Scottish Socialists. Correspondence came into his office from across the country as voters adjusted to a new hybrid system of first-past-the-post and proportional representation, and the new MSPs were learning how it all fitted together at the same time as the public was. 

Harper’s booking sheet shows he had “110 places to go, people to see” in the first month alone, and as work progressed on a new purpose-built parliament which would become Scotland’s seat of democracy, he had a hand in influencing its very fabric, questioning sustainability credentials. Before stepping down, Harper also pursued advances in organic farming and the retrofitting of buildings, and regrets the lack of progress made.

Scotland “woke up quickly” to devolution and the parliament’s purpose, he says, and while he is positive about the overall impact on public life, Harper is critical of the committee system and the quality of legislation. And, even with the party he once represented now part of the Scottish Government, he opposes its independence mission. Harper is convinced that devolution is not only preferrable, but necessary for achieving environmental goals – so convinced, in fact, that he’s campaigning with pro-Union outfit Our Scottish Future, the campaign set up by Gordon Brown.

Harper – part of the team alongside former Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie and ex-Cabinet Office civil servant Philip Rycroft – recently starred in an eight-minute video explaining that environmental imperatives are part of his thinking for backing the Union. 

“It worries me that it seems that the population of Scotland are thinking the Green Party have drifted away slightly from their central ethic,” he says of the party’s pro-independence stance. “That’s our core, isn’t it? It’s the environment and getting it right. I can’t believe this has happened.”

“I don’t agree with that backing independence,” he goes on, “and I was particularly distressed when Patrick [Harvie] said this is a one-off decision.”

At the time of sitting down with Holyrood, Harper had reached out to the leadership of the Scottish Greens over the video, but hadn’t had a response. “I know that they are understandably upset about it,” he says. “Because I’m an ordinary member, I can shout as much as I like about things I think the party haven’t quite got right. We are not a religious sect; by and large, they have been understanding.”

The party has grown in size and influence since 1999, and is now a party of government thanks to a post-2021 election deal struck with the SNP, known as the Bute House Agreement. Harvie and co-leader Lorna Slater hold ministerial office and it’s understood that they made an agreement on gender recognition reform, allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to apply for a legal change of gender on the basis of self-declaration, a red line in the Bute House Agreement.

The Gender Recognition Reform Bill, agreed in the final few parliamentary days before Christmas and now subject to a Westminster veto, is arguably the most controversial piece of legislation the Scottish Parliament has ever handled, surpassing the now-scrapped Offensive Behaviour at Football Act and reforms to hate crime and child protection laws.

Harper is among its critics, and believes its passage illustrates fundamental deficiencies in the parliament’s committee system. “In the early days, someone listening to a committee wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell which MSPs belonged to which party,” he says, and members worked in an “equal-handed way helped to polish up legislation”. But he argues that this is longer the case and serious reform is now needed. 

A former member or substitute member of six panels, including those on finance and procedures, Harper says he was “never happy about stage three”, which is “often just a question of nodding the whole bill through without taking too much time about it”, and says further debate should take place when things are “really contentious”. 

And he is critical of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee for its handling of the 150-plus amendments put forwards by MSPs for its consideration. “I don’t think one of them got more than two or three minutes’ consideration,” Harper says. “Almost all of them were agreed four to three, four to three, four to three. It was a sausage machine, it just ground on and on and on. That was not good committee work; it was a shadow, a palimpsest of what it should have been.”

He’s thankful that the tone of the debate amongst committee members was respectful though, and laments what he sees as an overall shift in tone in the chamber. Smaller parties have been swept away as voting patterns have changed, and the chamber more closely resembles the UK parliament now than it was designed to, with the party of government dominant for several election cycles and frequent interjections by the presiding officer in charged exchanges. 

It’s more “adversarial” now, Harper says, but it’s “almost unbelievable” how seldom anyone is held to account. “No one is being held to account in any sense of the word,” he says. “If our own Economy and Fair Work Committee acted like the Public Affairs Committee in Westminster, which is genuinely and rightly feared... They are ruthless, they really drive straight down. Our committee system hasn’t lived up to its initial promise. If we have committees where there’s a government majority, what’s the point, particularly if they’re important investigating committees or concerning finance in any way?”

With a clear vision about what he’d like to do differently, does Harper miss being an MSP? It was the right time to step down, he says, and he’s delighted by the progress made by his former staffer, Alison Johnstone. As he entered political retirement, she became a Green MSP for the Lothian region and is now presiding officer. Johnstone left Harper’s office after becoming a councillor, and the pair remain close. He remembers sitting in on her job interview and what one panel member said to him after she left. “It was, ‘right, Robin, she’ll keep you on your toes’,” he says, “and she did”.

“I would have been one of the oldest members, or maybe the oldest,” he says of his reasoning for stepping down. “I’m now 82, and I almost sort of regret it. Someone told me I could have gone on representing them in the parliament until I couldn’t stand up! I wasn’t tired of politics, but I felt that for a small, young parliament, there should be a chance for a younger person to come forward.”

There was also the matter of his differences of opinion with party policy. “My position would have been challenged and I would have lost,” Harper says of candidate selections. “That would not have been a good way to go out.”

The environment and democracy remain Harper’s driving passions. He fears the government’s focus on the former has been lost, citing the recent report by the Climate Change Committee that said Scotland’s lead on climate change has slipped, and he says the promise of devolution has not yet been fulfilled. The Scottish Government had the power to act on the retrofitting of insulation on homes, Harper says, and the failure to act means the loss of a “win-win-win situation” for the environment, domestic bills and climate change targets.

And there is, he believes, “much to be done” in terms of democratic reform and renewal “without splitting up” the Union. Our Scottish Future is his “major political project for the next couple of years” as he looks to present “a new idea of making the UK a better place”.

“As Donald Dewar said, and as I am never tired of repeating, devolution is a process,” he says. “Green Party philosophy supports this and mine does as well. That means you go on devolving power to local authorities and community councils. We have the worst ratio of elected representatives to head of population in Europe. Our present government have pushed things in the opposite direction and there is now more control of direction of local budgets centrally. Councils are restricted more and more on spending.”

But overall, Harper believes that the Scottish Parliament has made a positive impact, and elevated public engagement with politics. “If you hold a conversation with a taxi driver, it will centre on what’s happening in the Scottish Parliament at least as much as Westminster, if not more,” he says.

“At first people weren’t sure about what you could do and whether it was worth contacting an MSP, but they learned pretty quickly. Soon, very rarely would people write to their MP because increasingly rarely the problems that came up were to do with the remaining powers at Westminster; it was their MSPs they were writing to.”

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