Patrick Harvie spring conference speech 2023

Co-leader reflects on progress of Scottish Greens from grass roots to a party in government in speech to 250 people at conference. 

I want to tell you a tale of two parties… but probably not the two you've got in mind.

On this weekend, on this day, at this moment, we stand at a major junction. Two days from now we will see a new First Minister leading the Scottish Government. That’s the first government in the UK’s history in which Greens are the heart of decision making, overseeing programmes, delivering on promises, turning longstanding Green ideas into reality. 

But it’s a key moment too for the greatest battle we all face: the battle for a liveable planet.  The latest stark warnings from the UN at the start of the week make clear - yet again - this is not a time for pausing and prevarication. It is a time for action - urgent action - and that is what must propel us into the next week and every week.

So that is why I want to tell this tale of two parties.

The first is a party which is 50 years old this year. As coincidentally am I. Formed in 1973 - as in fact I was -  it was first called People, and two years later renamed the Ecology Party. Later the Scottish Ecology Party emerged, still part of the UK party. But they knew they were only really contesting elections in the hope of getting their ideas noticed. They were never getting close to getting anyone elected.

The winds of changes were blowing through other parts of Europe and the breakthrough of the German Greens in the mid-1980s inspired a further name change to become the Green Party. In 1990 our origin story moved on to a new chapter, with the Scottish Green Party becoming an independent party.

But those first decades brought little political success. Even a surge of Green votes in 1989 led to disappointment, as the absurd First Past The Post system prevented it from translating into elected Green parliamentarians. That generation of Greens looked around with envy as Green Parties across Europe made real headway thanks to voting systems that allowed new voices to flourish.  Many of those parties even made their way into governments: locally, nationally, sometimes with great success, sometimes with huge challenges. But always with a determination to make a difference.

This party, this first party, was what I joined in the year 2000. 

It was a party with one MSP, no councillors and not much prospect of breaking through. A tiny membership of less than 500 across the whole of Scotland, meeting at kitchen tables, in school halls and back rooms of pubs. But it was a party full of ideas and a burning commitment to a fairer greener Scotland that we knew was possible, but utterly lacking the capacity and the levers to make change happen.

Making change happen is the reason we exist - not just to pressure others as they early party did, not just to demand, but to deliver. Not just a party for the good times either - we’re here to bring a challenge into politics about the greatest crises humanity has ever faced, crises we’re already living in, but which require dramatic political and economic change if we’re going to avoid unthinkable impacts; crises which already threaten to destabilise our world more than any bout of inflation or even a pandemic can do. We exist for the hard times. If a Green party isn’t an organisation and a movement that’s willing to take responsibility when things are tough, then we’re nothing.

And back in those early days we had no opportunity to do that. No influence. Barely any voice. No access to where decisions are made. 

In the devolution era, things began to improve. In the 2003 we briefly rose to 7 MSPs but that 2003 rise proved fleeting too.  Since then we’ve seen coalitions, minority and majority governments, and we’ve worked hard to put forward bold but workable ideas and achieve what change we could, haggling for ever concession

But where we are now is so different. 

So the second party in this story is today’s Scottish Green Party. Just as full of ideas and just and burning commitment to that vision of fairer greener Scotland. Just as we were in 1990 and in 2003. But with a membership that has grown 15 times over, with branches throughout Scotland. 

A party with 35 councillors, in almost half of Scotland’s councils, working to deliver change for their communities from Shetland to the Borders.

In Orkney, our two councillors have secured a goal to reach net-zero in the islands by 2030, and have ensured blue carbon and biodiversity enhancements are priority projects for the council.

In East Lothian, our sole Green councillor Shona McIntosh has ensured a major Flood Protection Scheme will be based around ecological restoration of the river, working with nature, not fighting against it. 

And in South Lanarkshire, Kirsten Robb continues her fantastic Space to Play campaign, recently winning a vote committing the council to renew and expand play parks and opportunities for outdoor play. 

Our Green councillors are shifting the way we do local Government in Scotland, and they're making our communities better, greener, fairer places as a result.  

We're also a party from which 8 MSPs were elected in 2021, our highest ever number and our highest ever vote in a Holyrood election. And two of those MSPs serving as Ministers, entering government for the first time anywhere in the UK’s history. 

And a party that is enjoying by far its biggest ever sustained level of support in the polls. since the Co-operation Agreement was signed. A level of support that could see between a dozen and 16 Green MSPs elected.

Conference, after 18 months of Greens in government, the people of Scotland like what they see. More people are supporting the Scottish Greens than ever before in our history. 

And not only are gaining more public support than ever before, we are making things happen like never before.

Securing record levels of investment in walking, wheeling and cycling that would have seemed unthinkable even just five years ago: not just massively ahead of other parts of the UK, but ahead even of our Dutch neighbors.

Taking through the first ever Scottish Green Government Bill with our emergency legislation on rents last autumn, and that's ahead of our housing bill later this year bringing in permanent rent controls and new rights for tenants.

Agreeing a redistributive budget which takes money from the wealthiest and puts it in the hands of the lowest income families through the most progressive taxation in the UK and our unique Scottish child payment.

And none of this has stopped us campaigning actively for even more, as Gillian Mackay’s excellent campaign for safe access zones demonstrates - taking a hugely important issue and building a campaign around it that looks set to make a difference for people right across Scotland.

But that issue is one where progressive values have come under the spotlight in recent weeks, just like the equally important commitment to a full ban on conversion practices, or defending both our democracy and the rights of trans people by challenging the UK Government’s abuse of the Section 35 power to block the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

We need to be clear that a sincere commitment to progressive values cannot be an optional extra in a choice of a First Minister; it is a necessity.

And it’s not just the policies and the values. It’s also about the constructive way of working that’s written into the Bute House Agreement - genuinely both sides seeking common ground.

Yesterday I'm told that Kate Forbes said that she wanted to keep working with us… even though she has made it clear in a televised debate that working together simply meant us accepting her agenda… that's hardly the spirit of cooperation.

But conference, there is so much more to what we can deliver if, and only if, we see a First Minister who shares our commitment to the progressive values, the genuine spirit of cooperation, and the bold policy programme that runs through the agreement you approved. 

Some of what we do plays on a public stage. But the crucial part of being in government is building constructive relationships, the ties of trust, mutual respect and good faith. That’s what allows us to make the difference every day. So I want to thank my Scottish Green colleagues for the tireless work behind the scenes - just like Gillian, Ross, Ariane, Mark and Maggie have built those relationships with ministers and advisors across every portfolio, getting to grips with the machinery of government and making sure we make change happen at every opportunity.

And we’re working to make better links between Scottish and local government too; this week I chaired a working group bringing councils and government to find agreement about to strengthen councils’ financial powers, as part of a New Deal for Local Government.

At a time when politics has never seemed so charged, so divisive, so intent to tear down, we are defiantly bucking the trend.

We are doing so because that is who we are. But also because that is what we must do. Our  commitment to a fairer, greener and independent Scotland isn’t something that can be postponed. The clock of the climate emergency ticks louder with every passing day.

That is why we still have so much to do and why Greens are needed in the places where decisions are made.

On Monday the UN warned us that business as usual is failing. The Climate Change Committee told us back in December that the policies put in place over the last ten years are not big enough, not bold enough, not fast enough to meet Scotland’s moral and legal obligations. The Climate Plan which Scotland prepares this year must be and will be our most ambitious, most challenging ever. That is why the Scottish Greens need to be at the heart of that process.

So, we are achieving more than ever before, we are more popular than we have ever been in our history. The Scottish Greens are needed more than ever before. 

And, of course, it is for exactly that reason that there are people who want us back on the sidelines - the Right Wing press, the protectors of the status quo, vested interests, the big polluters, and of course Conservative MSPs like Douglas Ross and Fergus Ewing. 

Conference, these are the people who want to unpick, unravel or end the Bute House Agreement. These are the people who hunger for Green ideas to be kept out of government. They fear change, or have selfish reasons for preventing it. They are terrified by the idea that a better, more progressive politics born of good faith and trust might just succeed.  

Conference these are not nice people, not people any Green should be on the same side as. 

Of course, I understand the seduction of opposition. I remember it. There is a comfort in being able to demand perfection without every having to deliver anything, in haggling for a few concessions and celebrating them when they come. Watching what we see as the policy failures of others, and loudly condemning them. That’s where we have been for most of our past. 

It can even be fun. It’s easy. And it doesn't achieve very much.

But when you, our members, decided so overwhelmingly to back the Bute House Agreement in August 2021, we made that transition from that easrly party to the Scottish Green Party we are now. We followed the path of so many of our fellow Green parties, across Europe and as far away as New Zealand. We made commitments which you endorsed, which we are delivering and we are resolved to complete that work.

So, if - if - Monday sees a First Minister we can work with, and we deliver on our promises, we can go into the next election for the first time with a track record as a party of government, showing the results you get when you vote Green. If we do that, we will give ourselves the chance to continue to shape the politics of this country in the critically important years ahead.

So my story of two parties is also one of two futures. From this weekend let’s take renewed strength from what we have achieved and what we have learned. Let’s seize the opportunity of the next three years. Let’s be that party that not only called for fairer, greener Scotland, but made it happen.  

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