A tree-hugger looks forward to power

When Robin Harper became the UK's first Green parliamentarian, he raised a clenched fist and declared: "Keir Hardie was elected at the end of last century and the colour of his century was socialist red. For the next century, the colour for the future of the world has to be green."

But Harper did not become a member of the Scottish Parliament because Scots are more environmentally aware than other people in the UK. The additional member system of proportional representation was responsible. It gave the Scottish Green Party 7.43 per cent of the second-choice votes for the Lothian region, enough for one top-up seat and a career change for the 58-year-old Harper, a naturally diffident Edinburgh teacher.

If the Greens can do as well in all eight Scottish regions in the 2003 elections, they could win enough seats to hold the balance of power. It is not wholly fanciful to imagine that Harper could become the UK's first Green minister.

Harper is universally acknowledged as by far the most likeable MSP, and he has a background as a genuine tree-hugger. "I joined the Greens in 1985, the day after Rainbow Warrior was sunk in New Zealand," he says. "I thought: there are goodies and baddies here and I'm going to join the goodies." But he has played a shrewd political game.

"Because of the seat in parliament, we're fighting well above our weight," he says. "We now get more publicity in one week than we used to get in a year - and an election year at that."

He admits that the powers retained by the Westminster government - control over the benefit system, much of energy policy, GM crop test sites, the location of nuclear submarines on the Clyde, as well as parts of transport policy - allow him to make only limited progress on Green issues in the Scottish Parliament. However, he has enough to be going on with. "Green issues are very difficult to get away from," he says. "Apart from the obvious ones like environment, transport, housing, farming and rural issues, the Green philosophy is very strong on human rights."

Harper is scathing about the performance of the Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive, particularly on transport, where he has been seeking road traffic reduction targets for two years. "The bottom line is they are spending 20 times as much on roads as they are on rail."

A prime example is the M74 extension south-east of Glasgow. Almost without warning, Harper complains, the Minister for Transport, Sarah Boyack, allocated nearly £300m to that one road scheme. "If spent on the railways, that £300m would cope with every single proposal on the table for the improvement of the Scottish network."

Harper is launching an organic targets bill and hopes to get commitments on the conversion of land and the production and sale of organic produce. In the remainder of this parliament, he expects major campaigns on water, GM crops and the reopening of the Borders railway line.

At the 2003 election, the Greens will again ask Scots to cast their first vote for their preferred party, but to use their second vote to signify their environmental concerns. Harper has formed a loose alliance with Tommy Sheridan, the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, but says "We are appealing to different sections of the Scottish community. The SSP get their support from disaffected former Labour voters, while ours is much broader-based." The two parties campaigned separately in the Westminster election and the Greens did as well as the Scottish Socialist Party, trebling their vote in the four constituencies in which they fought. Projecting that Scotland-wide could give them half a dozen seats in 2003.

The SSP and Greens dream of winning enough seats to become power-brokers. It is a foregone conclusion that the SSP would side with the Scottish Nationalists - but the Greens refuse to be taken for granted. Harper says cagily: "We have a policy commitment to a far greater degree of self-government for Scotland, so people in the SNP seem to think we would go in with them. No one should make any assumptions about what we would do."

But the question arises: would a Green minister use the official limo?

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?