Spring Conference Speech
Good morning friends, and welcome to our Spring Conference, exactly 699 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath, and just short of 40 years since Thatcher became Prime Minister. I’ll say a bit more about these two historical markers later, but I can assure you I’m still working on detoxifying the name “Maggie” in Scottish politics.
It is a real privilege, and a huge pleasure, to stand before you as party co-convener once again. Especially that, given what we will be discussing later on today, this role will probably not exist in its current form for very much longer. I'm sure we won't need to cancel the Easter break to get through an important constitutional change...
I would like to pay tribute to all those who have worked so hard over the last couple of years, navigating the Party through the structural review, the results of which we will be debating later on today. Standing Orders Committee and Operations Committee bore the brunt of the work, but I’d like to say a special thank you to James Thornbury.
Thank you, too, to all of you who contributed, in so many different ways to this work. And to each and every one of you for making this party what it is. I look forward to hearing more about your hopes and aspirations for the Party, our politics, and our country over the course of the weekend.
We gather together at a time of unprecedented political uncertainty. So unprecedented that it’s almost impossible to know what current affairs or issues to include in a speech. In fact, we can maybe only be certain that, when Theresa May says something will happen, we know that it probably won’t.
So we should focus on what we do know, and we know one thing for certain: that the age of individual action is dead; now is the time for social movements to seize power.
We have had 40 years of an economic system, propped up and enabled by a pathetic yet oppressive political system that has alienated people, marginalised communities, and destroyed so much of the planet. Neo-liberalism, with Thatcherism and its continuation in New Labour Blairism, has acted like a cancer.
It has eaten away at the very essence of what it means to be human. It refuses to accept that there is intrinsic value in caring for others, in being creative, and in cooperating with each other rather than competing for everything.
It has spread its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. It is destroying the NHS south of the border and the welfare state, commodifying education and culture, inflating housing bubbles and creating crippling debt.
And while it knows the price of everything, it understands the value of nothing. It exploits human labour, decimates non-human species, and pollutes our life support systems.
As if this wasn’t enough, all of this is compounded by a political system that tells people not to get involved, not to rock the boat, not to challenge the elites who cling to power, whilst all the time eroding their rights, distancing them from decision-making, and curtailing their freedoms of expression.
We see symptoms of this old world all around us: in the death throes of the British Empire, in the rise of fascism across Europe and the Americas, in the acts of terror stemming from hatred and bigotry, and, most alarmingly, in the imminent breakdown of our climate.
And we know that, in the current political landscape, it appears that it is only the Greens that are willing to take the necessary actions, including a radical shake-up of our democratic structures, to create an economy that works for everyone, and to tackle Climate Breakdown. On this last point, that all other parties in Holyrood voted down the Green proposal to declare a Climate Emergency last week shows us just how much work we still have to do.
But we get that we must act now in the face of the climate crisis.
And we know that we cannot do this alone. Greta Thunberg shows us that it’s not individuals that will change the world. It’s not even us all working as greens together with parliament. It’s all of us, pulling together with others who share our desire for a better world, building and growing social movements that will be the agents of change.
We understand that we don’t need to wait to be in power before we can use our influence to positive effect. Other parties think that change happens only by winning power and then imposing change on the people. But we know, because of our roots in participatory democracy and our experiences in communities, that real change is different: it comes from the people. So it is our job to work with these movements, be a part of these movements, walk hand in hand with them, nourish them and be nourished by them, so that we can change our world. Together.
I want to congratulate and praise the thousands of school climate strikers who walked out of classes on 15th March, and I extend a very warm welcome to the strikers who will be speaking to us tomorrow. The concern of a new generation for their planet is truly heartening. And it's a concern we must do everything we can to support. Our young people are leading the way in challenging the systems and structures of our politics and our economy. We must listen to them. We must take them seriously. We must give them their future. We must not be sidelined by the big corporate greenwashing that dissipated the energy of the 1980s environmental movement.
We’ve had 40 years of failed top-down approaches to tackling climate breakdown. The school strike movement is a real example of social movement driven change. I’ve said before that now is the time to be radical. This is what I mean by that. This is important because it’s exactly what we need right now.
Because the most important thing in the world is that we act now on the environmental and economic crises. Eleven years is our deadline for taking decisive action. Eleven years.
Eleven years ago we faced the biggest financial crash in living memory. And we have not managed to deal with all of the fallout from that, nevermind ensure it never happens again. So we’ve got our work cut out for us to make the next eleven years really count!
To do this, we have to draw as many people as possible into social movements: building, supporting and interacting across social and political divides and tribes. We’ve been told that top-down change is the way to do this. But this is wrong, and we’ve wasted decades on this. We now need to do what we should have done from the beginning. This isn’t a job just for politicians or political party office bearers.
Everyone has their own particular role to play.
And we’ve had practice; we know how to do this. We did a brilliant job of working alongside social movements during the 2014 Independence Referendum to make it progressive. Alongside a range of grassroots campaigns we transformed the campaign.
With your leadership we won the argument on currency, on immigration and on some economic arguments.
Independence went from being about Scotland being marginally better managed by bureaucrats in Edinburgh than those in London, to being about a fundamental transformation of the state. A transformation that would allow us to lead the world.
Similarly, we transformed the debate on the environment, nurturing the seeds of sustainability planted decades ago.
The oil debate shifted from an argument about who's oil it is to an argument about whether or not we leave the oil in the soil. And we're close to winning that. The divestment movement is gaining pace in Scotland. I'm delighted that the Edinburgh Science Festival has refused fossil fuel sponsorship. Another victory for the social movements we've worked with. Well done to all of you who’ve played a part in that movement.
Many of you will have had that moment of revelation during the IndyRef that this was a totally different way of doing politics. Better, more empowering, free of the cynicism of Blairite politics and its obsession with ‘brand’ over substance. Where other parties love doing things to the electorate, we know that politics is about bringing people with us.
And so we must our efforts into taking people with us on what is perhaps our most urgent journey: one away from climate breakdown. We can build on what we learnt in 2014. We can learn from the school strike movement, and the allied movement Extinction Rebellion. We must infuse these actions with our positive vision of the world.
And we must remember that, although we are now talking about 11 years to take decisive action, climate breakdown is destroying lives now. As someone who grew up in Zimbabwe the reality of that has made me particularly angry these last few weeks. We cannot afford to disconnect our activism for the climate from our activism for social justice.
Action on climate breakdown is about protecting the poorest in the world from the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters like Cyclone Idai. Action on climate breakdown is about making a more equal world. We can stop climate breakdown and we can make that movement a force that doesn't just save the planet, but one that creates a better world for all.
That's what our politics has always been about. Environment and social justice being totally inextricably linked, completely indivisible. We must build a better world as we beat climate breakdown.
And this brings me back to the Declaration of Arbroath and those well known words: “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom.”
Now, we know that there is a very literal application of these words: we do, indeed, seek freedom for our country.
But I want us to consider a broader value embedded in these words, which maybe requires a little bit of political license. We seek freedom for our country so that we can build a better world. But our task is bigger than that. We must not only fight for freedom for us, but also for the liberation of others.
Our movement politics is fundamentally about liberation.
From our deeply held belief in the right of freedom of movement must come actions to liberate refugees and asylum seekers from the chains of injustice and fear that bind them.
From our principle of respect for diversity follows a requirement to create a world in which no one faces persecution because of their gender identity, sexuality, race, ability or any other characteristic.
From our commitment to participatory democracy must come the relinquishing of power by the powerful to the powerless.
So, just as we stand in solidarity with EU citizens facing uncertainty over Brexit, so we must act in solidarity for all those fleeing war or disaster-ridden areas, turning to peacemaking and the provision of much-needed aid.
Just as we develop laws, processes and structures to deliver equality for all in Scotland, so we must seek to shine a light on the laws, processes and structures that oppress elsewhere. That Aberdeen University is very likely to rescind the Sultan of Brunei’s honorary degree as a statement in opposition to the country’s barbaric homophobic laws shows the power of working across communities and boundaries.
Just as we seek a transfer of power from Westminster to Holyrood, from Holyrood to local government and from local government to communities, so we must be prepared to give up power and position to redress the structural inequalities and cultural prejudices that pervade our societies, so enabling others to make their places in the world.
We have much work to do. And we know that one of the aims of Brexit is to distract us from the important issues of the day. But, if you’ll indulge me for one moment in that distraction, the important issues of the day, climate breakdown, the economic crisis, and an issue close to my heart, and the hearts of many right-wing Brexiteers, tax avoidance, we will fight this Tory Brexit all the way. Jacob, we’re coming for your millions.
I've said before that now is the time to be radical. That's more true now than ever before.
Our time has come and we must seize it. Our children’s children, our communities, our planet, and the future of humanity depends on it.