Patrick Harvie: "Join our cause"
Mark called these extraordinary political times and I was going to begin by suggesting that 2016 might just be the weirdest year in modern politics - it has been bizarre. I think my greatest sympathies this year go out to Charlie Brooker, whose Screenwipe for the year is going to have to be about six hours long in order to fit everything in! We've watched throughout the UK as – for example – the Labour Party continues on its apparent course toward meltdown. MPs who seem to want a leadership election as often as UKIP have one! Who find themselves somehow riding the crest of a wave of political engagement and yet resenting in. Maybe it's something about the Westminster machine that changes them once they've been there a little too long. Maybe it's something about a Westminster culture that just is inherently hostile to a people-driven politics. To the politics of social justice and the common good. To the kind of change that increasingly people know this country needs. But not every self-styled 'anti-establishment' campaign genuinely deserves that tag, or indeed works for the good of the people that carry them.
UKIP recently – their MEPs have been a little too late, perhaps, discovering the benefits of having a European Health Insurance Card to ensure free medical treatment when they travel abroad, because you never know what might happen, and I gather that some pundits in Scotland now are already investing in 'David Coburn for leader' merchandise, just for the laugh! I don't know if this party of the disgruntled Basil Fawltys could become any more of a self-parody, but in reality this isn't a joke. Because the toxic Leave campaign – UKIP included – has generated the kind of hatred, division and resentment just as the Trump campaign has in the US. In both cases, what brand themselves as a people's anti-establishment movement, is in reality something truly dangerous. Nationalism is a very broad, umbrella term. It's abundantly clear to anyone who's been involved in the Scottish political debate over recent years that our inclusive, civic form of national identity that informs the independence movement is the polar opposite to the aggressive, and racist form of nationalism which has led some of the Brexiteers down south to start demanding unethical medical checks against child asylum seekers trying to make their way to safety in this country, or indeed the increasingly explicit white-nationalism which the Trump campaign is tapping into.
Trump's delusional, aggressive, bullying and bigoted character is something that I think many voters in the US are wising up to. It's something that's been clear to us in Scotland and I think it's worth just our taking a chance, if any of us have colleagues, friends or family who are voters in the US – share some of that back story of our experience of this odious man. Because it was Greens in the Scottish Parliament who were the only MSPs who stood up to his environmentally destructive golf development in the North East, while almost every MSP who took part in the planning enquiry as to whether the thing should have been called in the first place had to first declare for the record their membership of the Cross-Party Group on Gold, just so that everything was above board. And once he started campaigning against wind power in Scotland, again it was Greens locally and nationally who stood up to the toxic rhetoric. The idea that you, even if you don't like wind turbines, even if you think some of them might be in the wrong place – the idea that you compare wind energy, renewable energy, clean energy to a catastrophe, a disaster, a terrorist atrocity the Lockerbie bombing. The man should be thoroughly ashamed of himself. And so Greens took the lead in calling for him to be stripped of the accolade Mr Salmond had given him of membership of the Global Scot Network and I'm pleased to say that Nicola Sturgeon reversed that decision after our campaigning for that for some time. But the last Donald Trump reference I'm going to give is the story that I will share until my dying day. The fact that after crossing swords with religious hierarchies over many issues from abortion rights to LGTB equality, I am after having been complained about by Mr Trump to the Parliamentary Standards Authority, I remain still the only MSP ever formally cleared of blasphemy!
Let's make sure that with any contacts that we have with our friends and colleagues, family members in the US – we send out the message to all campaigners – all campaigners in the US who are seeking to keep that man away from power. Let's give them our support and solidarity and make sure that the voters in the US see him for what he is.
As well as that disastrous campaign and toxic campaign that we've seen in the US, we've seen a new Westminster government form. I gather that today it 'celebrates' and the rest of us commiserate its first hundred days in office. A new prime minister who as Home Secretary was the person behind the notorious racist 'Go Home!' vans, and she's filled her cabinet with other racists. With incompetents. What some of our friends in the US might call 'the deplorables'. We've got a new UK International Trade Secretary, the disgraced former minister Liam Fox who knows so little about international trade that the World Trade Organisation feel the need to correct everything he says after he addresses them. We've got a Brexit Secretary in the UK who doesn't understand how Europe works and whose comments from the dispatch box are immediately walked-back by Downing Street as merely 'personal remarks'. The UK has a Foreign Secretary loathed by the international press, other world leaders, and to be blunt, plenty of his own colleagues as well. But not to be outdone, their Home Secretary is determined to be the most xenophobic, inward-looking reactionary one against them. The appalling proposal at their party conference for the racist foreign workers register. Something which Greens have led a campaign against in Scotland, and I know for a fact that I am not the only MSP who has had emails from businesses, from people who are running small businesses in Scotland, proudly saying that they will refuse to comply with that disgusting policy if it ever becomes law. We have to send a message that Scotland is unwilling to accept that and that we will support any businesses that take that principled stance.
As for the Scottish Conservatives. Well, they've managed to clear out some of their old dinosaurs. Bring in some bright young things, but they've brought another bunch of old dinosaurs along with them. Brash young Breitbart readers sitting alongside dusty landed Etonians and Baronets. I'm not sure how comfortably they'll sit together, but clearly one of their first campaign themes, banging the drum for fracking. Pushing the Scottish Government to give the green light to every form of unconventional gas extraction they can manage, I really want to thank the Conservatives for that intervention. Genuinely. I think it is exactly what we need to ensure that the Scottish Government dig their heels in and turn a moratorium into a permanent ban which is exactly what needs to happen.
As for the SNP themselves, they are adjusting to minority government once again. Parliament as it should be! A little bit of compromise, a little bit of co-operation and ministers knowing that they turn up to vote, turn up to work, without the votes being in the bag already. I don't think that's good for ministers of any political party. I don't think it's healthy for them to turn up knowing that they barely even need to open their mouths and that everything they want will sail through Parliament. I think it's good for ministers, it makes them raise their game, that they are going to have to work for their programme. They're going to have to work at their agenda and they are going to have to give ground as well, because there are high expectations. There are high expectations not just inside the political parties and the political bubbles and the activists, but amongst Scotland's wider population as well. Why on earth did we argue for deeper devolution if we're not willing to use those policies? We've got the ability to have fairer tax policies and to protect public services and investment in Scotland. Greens have had to work hard to challenge the SNP on fracking and on the wider fossil fuel agenda. We're going to have to do so again to challenge them on issues like Air Passenger Duty – a massive tax break for the aviation industry which will give the biggest benefit to wealthy frequent flyers, while our public transport services are over-priced and under-funded.
We're going to have to challenge them on their commitment to supporting Heathrow extension as well. The massively unsustainable proposal that the UK government is yet to make a final decision about. I have to apologise - Heathrow are not running a free bar here at the Scottish Green Party conference. I'm very sorry about that. Anybody who wants me to invite them next year – no, I won't be buying you a free drink if you take that view! I doubt any of us would be comfortable having them anyway, but the idea that that level of corporate access was given at their party conference, while Friends of the Earth and other environmental organisations had to be across the road because they had been priced out – I think that sends a worrying signal. But there is more that we can do, working alongside the SNP and pushing them to go further.
They have strong commitments on increasing childcare, but we have to make sure that they don't just tick the box on quantity, but that they make sure that it's quality, that it's flexible enough to meet people's needs in the real world, and that the people doing that work are treated well and paid at least the living wage just as those in the care sector in more wide terms should be able to expect.
They've made welcome commitments as well on reforming the system for looked-after children in Scotland and we will look forward to seeing the detail of those policies and wherever we can work with the SNP or need to push them to go further beyond their comfort zone, we'll do that, because that balance of constructive and challenging, that's what voters know that they get from the Greens, and it get results, and I'm convinced that that track record is one of the reasons why so many voters chose this year to give us their vote and help treble our numbers in parliament. And it has been an absolute joy for me to be able to work with so many new colleagues.
Alison, I've worked with of course for many years, both within the team when she worked for Robin and since she was elected first to council, and then as an MSP. But this year, she's wasted absolutely no time in getting back to work after the election, working alongside her colleague Dan Heap on the research term, building a campaign for a change of direction in relation to the UK's sanction regime. A regime which causes so much additional poverty, so much additional stress and ill-health. And for what? Only for turning the benefit system and the social security system as it should be into a system for bullying people into low-paid work. That sanctions regime achieves nothing in the way of the common good and only achieves grinding people down into further stress, ill-health and poverty. Well, that regime itself is not being devolved, but Alison and Dan have shown that the employment programmes that are being devolved can refuse to comply with it, can refuse to hand on information to the DWP, and can protect tens of thousands of people in Scotland from having sanctions applied to them, and they worked tirelessly to persuade the SNP that this was not only possible, but necessary and they got the job done and that achievement will stand for years to come.
I've also had the great pleasure of working with John Finnie for a number of years before now as well. I gather - I'm told that John, the last time you were at a party conference in Perth it might not have been a Green Party conference! We are overjoyed – overjoyed! - that after a difficult discussion, where you led and contributed to the argument against NATO membership in Scotland – I am overjoyed and we are overjoyed that you're here at a Green Party conference making sure that that voice for Scotland as a global voice of peace remains on the political agenda. But he's also in recent weeks secured a commitment from the government to promise to secure the future of Highlands and Islands Enterprise in his own electoral region, including its social remit which goes way beyond the narrow approaches of supporting growth at any cost, and that's something that I think many people in the Highlands and Islands region will certainly welcome.
As for Ross Greer, I have to admit a few of us in the room behind the backstage were debating how many of us might have been in the party for longer than Ross has been in the world but since Ross has been around in the party, I think everybody who's known him and worked with him has been bowled over by the talent and the energy that he's brought to the party. And since his election as Scotland's youngest ever MSP, he's already secured agreement from parliament that we're calling for the devolution of the responsibility to provide decent, humane and well-funded and well-resourced support to the asylum seekers and refugees who are living here and whose fate and whose well being has been handed over and outsourced to Serco and other private-sector companies with such a dismal track record. We need the ability to provide that housing, health and education and other services in the public sector for the public good and to a standard that Scotland can be proud of, and Ross secured the agreement of parliament to make that a commitment.
As for Mark - as Melanie said - he's not only back in office, he's back in his old office, and he's taking up the baton as the voice of the Greens on energy and climate change. Absolutely critical work for us to do to pressure the Scottish Government. We've managed to secure, as you heard in one of those films, the ban on underground coal gasification. That was only done because Greens and others put pressure on Fergus Ewing - who thankfully now has nothing to do with energy policy – put pressure on him to add underground coal gasification to the moratorium. Well, we should be proud of that, but we must not rest, and I know that Mark will not rest until that clear and permanent ban also applies to fracking and unconventional gas. In addition, he was the only person in those energy debates since the election who's joined the dots and said we shouldn't be proud to welcome Ineos importing shale gas that's been extracted irresponsibly in another country. We need to be building the sustainable jobs, the low-carbon jobs, and the non fossil fuel reliant jobs that Scotland will need in the future.
And then of course we have Andy. There's a shopkeeper in Glasgow that I know that I go into. He runs a cheese shop and every time I go in, it's as though every few minutes, he sort of remembers – he runs a cheese shop! This brilliant glow and excitement appears on his face. The only other face that I see that look on is Andy Wightman. Every other day, some brilliant new scheme appears to him and I see that sense of excitement about what he's going to be able to achieve in the Scottish Parliament. Already he's been putting the Scottish Government under pressure on local taxation, or rather on the lack of local control of taxation. The idea that we further constrain the ability of local councils to make economic decisions that are right for their own local context. The idea that we not only remove that power from them now, but at some point in the future, the government seems to want to replace council tax, not with something fairer and more local - not with a property tax based on modern property values- but simply assign a share of national taxes to them. That would effectively abolish local taxation altogether, and Andy Wightman if anybody among us is the person to make that case that we need to reinvigorate and reinvent local democracy, as well as local economic decision making in order to meet the needs of people in Scotland, and the case for abolishing the council tax needs to be heard, replacing it with something fairer, modern and more progressive - and more local - and I know that Andy is going to do a fantastic job in making that case.
I do also need to talk up the incredible energy and talent and commitment of our staff team. For the first time since 2007, there are too many of them for me to list, but I hope that you have a chance – there's quite a number of folk from the parliamentary staff team who are around today and tomorrow at the conference – I do hope that you have a chance to chat with them and get to know people and understand the incredible and energy and commitment. None of us could be able to do what we do without that massive and really re-energised staff team helping us every day of every week.
The track-record of Green achievements that I've gone through, and the idea of 'more to come' obviously has huge resonance in the context of that minority government. That return to minority government. And there are challenges and opportunities ahead. Both in budget – in terms of what we spend money on, and on taxation, as well as how we frame laws that are better-conceived than some of the SNP's early efforts in the last session, some of which – like the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act – simply need to go. But the opportunity that we've got is to engage with ministers and with civil servants to make sure that the Green agenda is well heard and in the coming months, we're going to get into the budget process for the year ahead. There is a huge opportunity. An unprecedented opportunity that Scotland has never had before to develop an anti-poverty budget. An anti-austerity budget, and we've already put that case to the finance minister Derek McKay.
We do have to have commitments on existing SNP policies. We need to see commitments that the policies that they have on paper will not just lead to tick box exercises, but real improvements in the quality of public services and in the wellbeing of people delivering those services. But we also need new commitments to invest in real improvements, for example to that social security system that we're now finally able to add to in Scotland.
We need to restore the value of public sector pay which has been lost and eroded year after year since the financial crash which public servants did not cause.
And we need to invest in the transition to a stable economy which invests in quality jobs which will last for the long term. But if we are going to do those things. If those ideas are going to be made a reality, it is also clear that we need a bold approach to Scotland's new taxation powers.
Now I know that the SNP will take their manifesto as their starting point, but let's be clear: it is essentially a stand-still tax policy. A tweak here, a tweak there, nothing substantive, nothing fundamentally redistributive. Why should we have worked so long to give Scotland the ability to make our own choices on taxation if we are not going to use them with boldness and creativity.
People like Derek MacKay and frankly people like me, can afford to be paying more in tax than we do at present, and we must if we are to be serious about protecting public services and investing in the future. And so the SNP must make significant moves from their manifesto position in the direction of progressive tax if they expect to see Green support for their budget plans in the coming months.
There is a choice ahead for the Scottish Government: either support those who agree with a progressive politics that they have long supported but are yet to deliver, or lean to the right of the chamber and work with the Conservatives.
I think frankly that should be an easy choice for them to make and I hope that they will take that opportunity to work with us.
Over the coming months as well we will be working towards delivering those additional Councillors in communities up and down Scotland that Melanie talked about.
Scotland deserves real local democracy. Local government that is genuinely local and able to govern, but also councils that listen. Councils that are made up of people with their roots in the community and with a sense of how to empower their communities rather than merely to make top down decisions which people cannot influence. And that is the track record of Greens around the world, not just in Scotland but in the rest of these islands and globally.
Over the course of the next two days I hope you take the opportunity to share your experiences, share your skills, and explore the campaign themes for the months ahead, making the case for real local democracy in Scotland.
I can't speak to you today though without speaking about two of the most critical issue which face Scotland.
The consequences of the appallingly reckless campaign for Brexit, the lies of the Leave campaign, which sought to manipulate people and who have still never apologised for, just days after saying "£350m a week on the NHS? We kinda made that up." A disgraceful, manipulative, and deceitful campaign which has bullied people into voting away our own rights. Scotland didn't do that, but a great many people in the UK did. Damaging people's own interests, fueling hatred and division. It is, in many ways, the most reckless political campaign that I can remember. And it is now being managed by the most clueless government.
Adrift without a plan. Apparently the other day, Andrea Leadsom was telling us all that British tea, jam and biscuits would save the day. We’ll be exporting tea, jam and biscuits to the Chinese. Has she figured out where tea and sugar are even grown? The level, the level of detail which the UK government is offering, or which any of the Brexiteers are offering still seems to boil down to two mindless slogans: Brexit Means Brexit, and Take Back Control. Well, I don’t want Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, taking back more control of this country. I don’t think the people of Scotland voted to let them.
The economic cost alone of ripping this country out of the European Union have been estimated 80,000 jobs, a £2000 drop in average incomes. The STUC’s priorities, which I think we would share very strongly, say that we need to safeguard workplace rights. The fair work agenda which is put under so much threat by taking rights which have been hard won at European level and handing them back to a right wing government in London. They put explicit support for overseas workers and their right to stay here as our friends and our neighbours, a right which the UK government is STILL saying they’re not yet able to commit to. A priority to retain the human rights act, and most particularly, to abandon the destructive and unnecessary austerity economic programme. These are the kind of commitments that we need to give to Scotland. As well as that, we’ve been working with our colleagues in other European Green parties, including in Ireland and Northern Ireland, where some of the most appalling consequences, ill-thought out, consequences of this reckless campaign which throws into question the future of the Common Travel Area between these islands.
We need to continue to build on that work, w need to continue to make those links, and we need to continue to demonstrate that our movement, not just the Green movement, but the wider movement for keeping Scotland in Europe, is explicitly internationalist, forward-looking, and progressive. Scotland’s mandate, that 62% Remain, is being utterly ignored by Theresa May’s government. Well, we will respect that mandate. We will commit to keeping Scotland’s place in Europe because that’s what the people living here voted for.
And yet… One of the consequences, one of the consequences of this vote is that the Scottish government MUST be supported in their decision to publish a consultation on a bill for an Independence Referendum. Because there’s an unresolved democratic deficit. A fundamental conflict. Much as we voted and campaigned for a Yes vote, and others did, Scotland voted two years ago, by 55% to remain part of the UK. Scotland voted by 62% to remain part of the European Union. Now, even if the Better Together had not tried to pull the wool over people’s eyes by saying that voting Yes to independence was the only thing that would be a threat to our membership of the European Union, and even if the Leave campaign had not been riddled with lies, there is a fundamental conflict still, between those two referendum results, and it may yet come to pass that the only way to resolve them is to put it to the people once again.
So, later, there will be a debate at this conference, not just on the consequences of Brexit, but also on the decisions that the party has already made to begin laying the groundwork for a Green Yes campaign. We need to convince people of the values that our Green Yes campaign took two years ago, and so we will also continue to strengthen the case for independence because, it’s not just a case of rehearsing and repeating everything that was in that big book of answers that was in the SNP’s White Paper. Let’s just take the currency union for starters. With the UK set on its self-destructive course for leaving the European Union, where does that leave the idea of a currency union, between an independent Scotland in the EU, and a UK outside of the EU.I think that’s going to prove even more unconvincing than it did in 2014. But as well as that, we also need to build the case for Scotland to overcome its remaining over reliance on the fossil fuel industry, on oil and gas, because we cannot afford and we will not permit a new Scottish economy and a new Scottish currency to be a petro-economy or a petro-currency. That is not a sustainable future which can offer prosperity for this country or sustainability for the world.
Finally, I think we do have the opportunity and the responsibility to reach out to some of those, to many of those who may not have been convinced in 2014. People who perhaps thought long and hard about that referendum, and may have ended up voting No. Many of them Labour voters, who share much of what we would like to see in the fairer, more sustainable, more just society, and who increasingly say that Labour is not in a position to deliver it.
Well, instead of merely witnessing meekly the racist and xenophobic hatred we have seen this year, we need to commit to the inclusive values which would let us offer a welcome to the refugees in our society, and those who need to reach our shores and all those who migrate to Scotland, who make Scotland their home enriching our culture as our friends, our colleagues and our neighbours. We can deliver that. So I say to those people who weren't convinced in 2014: help us deliver it. Join our cause. It surely annoys them as well that there is no British route to nuclear disarmament. But we can deliver nuclear disarmament. So help us to deliver it, and join our cause. We also need to end the reckless and destructive Tory austerity agenda, to build that fairer, more decent and equal society. We can deliver that. So help us, and join our cause.
We’re moving to a year in which Scotland is going to decide how our local communities are going to be run for the next five years, when Holyrood is going to decide whether those local councillors will have the freedom to renew and reinvigorate local democracy, or just hand out more cuts to public services. Where Holyrood will decide as well whether we’ll build a fairer economy, sharing the wealth that all of us generate, but which has been worded for so long by so few. It’s also a year in which we may have to make a critical choice about the country’s relationship with the world around us. Allowing to remain and recommit a modern, progressive European country. Friends, in all of these, have a vital role to play. Your campaigning will make all the difference. So thank you for your energy, your creativity, and your commitment, and have a great conference.