"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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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