Wed 28 Aug, 2013

The answer to a more sustainable, fairer future for Scotland is Yes, writes the Co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, Patrick Harvie

 

Over the past year, despite the mudslinging, I’ve actually enjoyed the early stages of the referendum debate. It’s slowly beginning to dawn on people just how big an opportunity we have to define what sort of Scotland we want to be, under both Yes and No scenarios. Eventually, the Better Together parties will need to put their cards on the table and describe what further devolution they’d propose, and what political vision they have. It’s also forcing many in the SNP to think more deeply about what they want to do with the independence they believe in so strongly.

Most Greens agree there will be far more opportunities to advance our core values of sustainability, fairness and peace with a Yes vote in the referendum. The well-worn Green maxim that ‘small is beautiful’ applies to many of the positive arguments for independence. We also look at the long-standing Westminster agendas of privatising services, stigmatising immigrants, attacking the welfare state, backing vested interests and promoting military aggression, and we see little prospect of change under any likely government. We’re under no illusions that we’ll win every argument in an independent Scotland, but there’s far more potential for a transformational agenda than Westminster can off er.

Which is why it’s been frustrating to listen to the constant refrain of ‘reassurance’ on issues like the monarchy, the currency and defence. I’m convinced that there’s a substantial group of voters out there who are open to a compelling argument on independence, even if they’re not convinced yet. But I find it hard to believe that they’ll move over to a Yes vote unless we stress what can be diff erent, and better, about independence.

Over the last year my Green colleagues and I have been trying to present alternative ideas for an independent Scotland. We don’t want to repeat the failures of the market-obsessed centre-right UK; we see an exciting role for public and community ownership in Scotland’s renewables, railways and more. We don’t believe in the myth of US-style taxes and Scandinavian public services; we’re willing to be honest that a better society needs to be paid for with radical tax reform, and that equality is in everyone’s interests. We don’t just want to move Trident south of the border; we want to make it as hard as possible for the UK to keep operating it at all. And we want, at the very least, to see some open debate about the right of the people to choose their head of state. On a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues, we’re going to keep putting forward ideas that we hope will resonate with undecided voters – the ‘missing million’ in this debate.

I look forward to welcoming the Jimmy Reid Foundation to our party conference in Inverness this autumn to talk about their Common Weal project. Providing voters with a positive vision of how Scotland could be a fairer, more democratic country will be key to persuading those who are undecided to move toward a Yes vote. Our poll carried out earlier this year revealed that the prospect of a fairer and more equal society matters much more to people than just making the economy grow faster; it could be a huge motivating factor in the referendum.

But September 2014 isn’t everything. There are urgent environmental and social issues failing to get the attention they deserve. Th e Government missed the second annual climate target in a row, reinforcing doubts about the commitment that all parties made just a few years ago when they voted for the Climate Change Act. Th e reaction from MSPs and media was muted, and the response from the Government was, if anything, to shift down a gear on sustainable transport policy.

The Government’s action plan on climate change was presented to Parliament in June after six months of consultation. I shared the immense frustration of environmental campaigners that the Government made almost no changes in response. Th e referendum will continue to dominate the headlines over the next year, but this should not be an excuse for Holyrood to ignore the urgent task of making good on those “world leading climate targets” the First Minister likes to bang on about so much.

This year we’ve also been trying to contribute to a broader debate about housing, and in particular the private rented sector, which has doubled in size over the last ten years. A housing sector that in recent decades was treated as an undesirable or temporary option for students and people on low-incomes is now providing for a much wider part of society for whom home ownership is out of reach and social housing is simply unavailable. Greens want to see this sector transformed to give tenants a more powerful voice and a better standard of service from landlords and letting agents.

I dedicated a member’s debate to the shortcomings of the Government’s deposit protection scheme, which only had a 50 per cent take-up by the deadline. I want to see stronger action on illegal evictions and harassment, on energy efficiency and an end to insecure leases. The forthcoming Housing Bill should be an opportunity to set out a more coherent approach to private renting.

My Green colleague, Alison Johnstone MSP, has been at the forefront of our work on food this past year, and there’s been no shortage of issues to tackle. Greens have long advocated simpler supply chains, local produce, better animal welfare and clearer labelling for shoppers. All these issues have come to a head in recent months. The horsemeat scandal exposed the failure of prioritising cost over provenance, while our own FoI requests revealed that none of the chicken being served in schools in six of Scotland’s seven cities is Scottish. Over the summer, it has seemed that the food industry’s only response to the growing food crisis is synthetic lab-grown burgers.

Alison has pressed ministers to make progress on long-awaited plans to set up a Scottish food standards agency, and we remain concerned that vested interests are trying to stifle its remit before it’s even up and running. The corporate stranglehold of our food system must be broken.

Alison has also pushed hard to highlight the threats to bees and other pollinators. Ministers’ resistance to the precautionary principle on the issue of pesticides was bizarre and we still need to see much more done to protect the pollinators that keep food on our plates.

The end of the Scotland Bill Committee and creation of the Referendum Bill Committee meant a bit of job-swapping for us, as Alison took my place on the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee. She has provided a refreshing voice on this important committee, continuing to question the narrow and self-defeating pursuit of GDP growth, which does nothing to narrow the inequality gap or to build resilience in our local economies. Alison has taken the Scottish Government to task on their £10 million RSA grant to tax-dodgers, Amazon, whose online operation is driving local retailers out of business, and she got an assurance from John Swinney that he would look at the possibility of preventing public contracts being awarded to firms that use zero-hours contracts.

Alison has also continued to highlight the chronic cost of childcare and the way this exacerbates women’s employment issues. We’ll keep challenging the SNP to deliver on their recent childcare rhetoric.

My Better Buses campaign to highlight Glasgow’s substandard bus service seems to have connected with a wide range of passengers. This year saw further cuts and changes to routes in Glasgow by First, who seem unmoved by widespread criticism over the reliability and affordability of their services. I was pleased that Glasgow City Council decided to commission a study into the city’s services, and I very much look forward to the debate around Iain Gray’s private member’s bill on bus regulation.

This summer, long sick of that dismal bus service, I took the plunge and bought myself a nice new bike (in green, of course). It’s brought it home just how much we need to do to change the culture on our roads. Alison has been leading the charge to try and convince the Government to show greater leadership in this area. In May, the second huge Pedal on Parliament demonstration left ministers in no doubt about the strength of feeling from cyclists. They’re a vocal bunch, and are right to demand better infrastructure for cycling and walking. The Government did announce an extra £10 million, thanks to growing pressure for investment, but this really is loose change when compared to the £6 billion now committed for the upgrades of the A9 and A96.

On a positive note, I’ve been particularly impressed by the Equal Marriage campaign over the last year. It’s been fun and positive and I recommend the campaign’s latest video, ‘It’s Time’, to everyone. We finally have a draft Bill before Parliament and while I am determined to push for the strongest and boldest legislation, I also believe that we must find ways to make the campaign for LGBT equality a global one, against the background of political violence people face in so many other countries. The Commonwealth Games next year clearly offers a context for that.

Finally, it has been a real pleasure getting to know Jean Urquhart, John Finnie and Margo MacDonald a little better. Though sadly, we’re still not treated equally with other parliamentary groups, getting Green and independent MSPs together (our staff refer to us as “Grindies”) has allowed us to support one another and co-ordinate our work.

Our new group caused a bit of stir when we decided to use our once-a-year debate slot to discuss the legacy of Thatcherism. I believe we were right to take the opportunity to challenge a free market ideology that did so much damage to Scotland and the UK. We share similar political outlooks and I look forward to continuing to spice up Holyrood with a distinctive ‘Grindie’ viewpoint.

Published in Holyrood magazine

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