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Idealists or SNP stooges? How a constitutional debate is engulfing the Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens have been accused of "capitulating" to their "SNP masters". But their interest in independence is far more radical. 

If you stop a Green voter in Brighton or Bristol on the way to the polls on 8 June 2017, they are unlikely to tell you they’re voting for Scottish independence. But on one level, they are. The Green Party of England and Wales is a separate entity from its sister party in Scotland. Nevertheless, in 2014 it became the only England and Wales-wide party to back Scottish independence. After the referendum, then-leader Natalie Bennett called for a “radical” new constitutional settlement.

Greens in England and Wales may be more interested in climate change than the constitutional kind, but in Scotland, the Greens have become unlikely villains - at least as far as pro-union critics are concerned. 

In March, when a second independence referendum loomed, the Scottish Greens confirmed they would back a Section 30 order in Holyrood, in effect allowing the minority SNP government to triumph over deepseated opposition. 

Then, after the early election was called, and it became clear that the Scottish Greens would field only a handful of candidates, rival politicians accused them again of being SNP stooges (the Greens say it is a lack of resources). Scottish Labour's election campaign manager James Kelly declared that the Scottish Greens "capitulated in this election in a desperate attempt to help their SNP masters". 

Given the controversy, the occasional Holyrood-watcher might be forgiven for thinking the Scottish Greens were recent converts to independence.

Not so, says Andy Wightman, the Green MSP for Lothian and a diligent collector of old manifestos. The Scottish Greens split amicably from the party south of the border in 1990 – because they believed so strongly in radical devolution. Indeed, a founding document published that year, and quoted by Wightman in the Holyrood debate on a second independence referendum, stated:

“The Scottish Green Party supports demands for an independent, self-governing Scotland, as throughout Europe Green Parties support other local demands for regional autonomy.”

“We have always had a commitment to autonomy,” Wightman tells me. “Sometimes we call it autonomy, sometimes we call it independence.”

Indeed, the idea that the Scottish Greens only recently converted to independence – trotted out by SNP supporters as well as indignant pro-union types - is a source of frustration for many. “We’re not a nationalist party,” Wightman says. The Green version of Scottish independence is instead a step towards a post-national world. “We have a deep commitment to no borders.”

If the Scottish Greens’ version of independence has been slow to emerge, it may be because it was obscured by the man who was for many years the face of the party – Robin Harper. Known for his rainbow scarf, Harper was elected the first ever Green MSP in 1999, but his priority was the environment rather than the constitution (he voted No in 2014).

However, Harper stood down in 2011. Today, the figurehead of the Scottish Greens is instead Patrick Harvie, a longstanding MSP who is strongly in favour of independence, and is standing in the 2017 general election for Glasgow North. According to the Green activists I speak to, Harvie, rather than Harper, is more typical of the party view.

This is not surprising, given the 2014 referendum transformed the Scottish Greens. Outside Scotland, the independence movement is often associated exclusively with the SNP. But for those who suspected Alex Salmond’s party was a front for the tartan trews and oil brigade, the Greens were a more comfortable fit. In the fortnight after the referendum, membership of the Scottish Greens tripled, from less than 2,000 in the summer of 2014 to more than 6,000 by the start of October.

Kim Long was part of this wave. She stood for the Greens in the Glasgow city council elections earlier in May, and won.

“The independence movement was very broad,” she tells me. “Yes, the SNP was a part of that but there was a lot more. 

“One of the key differences is that in the Scottish Greens, we don’t want independence as an end in itself – it is a process of being part of a nation where power is devolved to the lowest level possible. I believe in power to communities.”

Long argues that the Scottish Greens can force the SNP to be bolder, including in councils such as Glasgow: “The SNP were expecting to get overall control of the council – they haven’t. The role of the Greens is to keep pushing.” One contentious issue is the SNP’s cuts to council budgets. “All of the arguments they make for independence could be used against them in terms of how they treat local authorities.”

In February, the Greens managed to win concessions in the Scottish government budget – specifically releasing £160m extra funding for local authorities, and the scrapping of plans to raise the threshold for higher rate taxpayers. 

To members of pro-union opposition parties, though, it seemed the Greens were the enablers of the SNP. “Greens have secured just £29m of new money from tax… Budget will pass + cuts will come cos of Greens,” tweeted Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. 

So how do the Scottish Greens fit into the Green movement as a whole? The Green Party of England and Wales is fairly comfortable with its northern ally’s independence cravings. Like Bennett, Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP and co-leader, used the 2014 referendum as an opportunity to demand a new constitutional set up for the whole of the UK. A leading Green MEP, Molly Scott Cato, went one step further when she publicly backed Scottish independence in March 2017. On the eve of the Scottish independence referendum, Green activists from not just England and Wales, but also France, Poland, Slovakia and Catalonia arrived in Edinburgh to campaign for a yes vote.  

With its repudiation of nationalism and the existing constitution, the Green model of independence is far more radical than that of the SNP. It is also far less likely to come to fruition. Unless a hung Parliament occurs again, the Greens in Westminster cannot hope to play the pivotal role in government enjoyed by their Scottish counterparts in Holyrood. These MSPs, in turn, number just six (the SNP has 63). If the Green movement is relaxed about the prospect of Scottish independence, it has little to lose.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:

“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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