"For me, it’s got nothing to do with flags, or 300 years of history": the Greens' Patrick Harvie. Photo: James Glossop
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Leader of the Scottish Greens: "You don’t need to like Alex Salmond to vote Yes"

The co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, on why his party supports Scottish independence, and how it's not all about the SNP.

Patrick Harvie MSP is the co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party, and, perhaps more memorably, the “voice of the irresponsible left-led anti-family anti-Christian gay whales against the bomb coalition”, according to the Daily Mail.

“My mum was very proud of that, yes,” grins Harvie when I mention this description. “It was hysterical. More or less as soon as I got elected [to the Scottish Parliament] in 2003, I got involved in the issue of civil partnership – we felt very clearly, family law being devolved, that the Scottish Parliament should at least debate the issue... And I think that the Daily Mail fairly quickly decided, ‘ok, that’s the gay one, we’ll have a go at him every few months.’”

One of the reasons Harvie entered politics was the campaign to repeal Section 28, and he had worked as an LGBT youth worker before becoming a politician. He is visibly proud of Scotland, 15 years after devolution, for passing equal marriage legislation with the third biggest majority of any parliament in the world. “That was a real moment of unity,” he smiles.

In a year when Scottish-American actor John Barrowman’s “Glasgow kiss” in the opening ceremony defined Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, a Scottish politician with concerns like Harvie’s has much to be optimistic about. However, Harvie has a whole other political struggle on his hands, which despite the odds, he seems really rather cheery about: Scottish independence.

The Greens are in favour of an independent Scotland, a stance which continues to surprise some people, being from a leftwing party perhaps thought to be less enthusiastic about borders than the mainstream parties are. Harvie himself admits that support for the break-up of the Union is “not universal” in the party.

The general idea is that such a change would sufficiently shake up Britain’s political and constitutional establishment, which the party believes is wedded far too closely to Westminster’s whims. “Given that our political framework hasn’t significantly changed in nearly a century, since women got the vote”, Green party leader Natalie Bennett explained recently, “this is an opportunity to push for a written constitution with rights for citizens enshrined within it.”

In a similar vein, the Greens also support an EU referendum – although they would campaign for an “In” vote were it to come about. Their reasoning here is similar; an opportunity to rethink Brussels’ influence and the vested interests operating within the EU.

Harvie, who began leading the Scottish Greens in 2008 (his co-convener is Maggie Chapman), is up-front about the fact that the Greens’ pro-independence stance comes from a need for “dramatic change in our politics, our economy and our society”.

He says: “For me, it’s got nothing to do with flags, or 300 years of history; it’s about the future. And I think that the best way, not only of changing Scotland, but actually challenging the nature of UK politics and the way that it works at present, throughout these islands, is Scottish independence. It doesn’t give a guarantee of a utopian future, but it offers up possibilities that are closed to us at the moment.”

Harvie’s refusal to play on patriotism is a markedly different approach from his partner-in-cause, Scotland’s First Minister and notorious Saltire-huckster Alex Salmond. And although they are both fighting for the same outcome in the upcoming referendum, Harvie is quite clear about steering his campaigning and politics away from the combative mainstream debate:

“I think one of the things I’m happiest about with the way we’ve [the Green party] conducted ourselves is that we’ve shown it’s possible to disagree about independence in a spirit of respect and friendship, and I think that’s the tone of debate that Scotland deserves.”

Harvie is clear that Salmond has “won a really impressive mandate”, and is keen to acknowledge his “right to put forward his own view on the monarchy, or on retaining a shared currency – I’d rather see an independent Scottish pound – on a whole host of issues.”

However, he also argues that the Scottish independence debate on the “Yes” side shouldn’t be all about Salmond.

“The referendum is on one question only: should Scotland be an independent country? It’s not a referendum on everything on his [Salmond's] white paper on independence. It doesn’t endorse every SNP policy. But I think the smart folk in the SNP also understand that the Yes cause needs to reach beyond the people who have only ever voted SNP, or who like Alex Salmond as First Minister.”

Harvie, who is smartly dressed in a floral tie and waistcoat, down in London to deliver a speech alongside Bennett in the evening, decries the way the debate has been playing out in the media.

“These kind of, slightly artificial, mano-a-mano, one-on-one TV debates, I think, fail to capture the breadth of either argument. Alistair Darling wasn’t able to capture the breadth of the various flavours of devolution that the three UK parties are putting forward... And Alex Salmond didn’t capture the breadth of the arguments, the possible visions for Scotland’s future. These sterile, one-on-one debates – middle-aged man shouting at middle-aged man – are not the kind of debate that is happening throughout the country, in every town hall, church hall, school, or doorstep.”

Harvie doesn’t accept that the devolution offers from the main three parties in Westminster are enough for Scotland. His argument mainly stems from the Greens’ anti-austerity stance. “We don’t have budget control over Scotland’s finances,” he says, “so when the UK government cuts funding on higher education, or housing, or any of the services we call devolved, our budget goes down as well. And we can’t do anything to really fundamentally get away from that austerity agenda.” He champions what he claims would see a “demonstrable shift away from the political centre, ie not just the southeast, but the City of London, and the vested interests that are at the heart of the finance capital model.”

One challenge for Harvie and the Greens in the build-up to 18 September, other than achieving their desired outcome in the referendum, is to have their distinctive arguments heard above the louder voices in the SNP. Harvie is emphatic about this, conceding, “I don’t think there’s any great secret that I’m not a personal fan of Alex Salmond. It’s really important to remind people that you don’t need to like Alex Salmond to vote yes. Because this isn’t about him. This is about the country.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.