Social justice trumps independence in Patrick Harvie speech

The Scottish Greens are in buoyant mood.

The party heads into the long campaign for the 2016 Holyrood elections with more than 7000 extra members than this time last year.

For those energised by the referendum but unmoved by the SNP’s pro-business centrism, the Greens have become the go-to party of radicalism and economic alternatives.

The party hopes to match its previous high of seven MSPs and even make it into double figures.

And in his conference speech, co-convener Patrick Harvie signalled that while the party supports independence, it prioritises social justice ahead of constitutional wrangling.

The 42-year-old Glasgow MSP also told members gathered at the Clyde Auditorium on Saturday that Greens would be free to disagree on the EU referendum “in a spirit of respect and friendship”.

Relaxed and tieless, Harvie shunned the podium in favour of the centre stage where, armed only with an iPad from which he stole occasional glances, he set out the Green stall on the economy, education and energy. (Before doing so, he led the 700-strong attendance in a vigorous rendition of Happy Birthday for fellow MSP Alison Johnstone.)

Whatever the Green equivalent of red meat is – raw tofu? – this was it. Harvie lambasted “the absurd fanatic ideology of the free market” and denounced Theresa May’s immigration address as “the most despicable speech I have ever heard from a party conference in the UK”.

Harvie defended the Scottish Greens’ participation in the Smith Commission on devolving more powers to the Scottish Parliament. However, he stressed that he was against any more backroom deals on the country’s constitutional future.

In practice, that would mean that the Greens would only support a second referendum on independence if it could be established there was public support for such a move.

Harvie told the auditorium: “We shouldn’t have allowed power to be sucked back from the communities, sucked back from the population into political parties and into parliaments. We can’t allow that to be the future of our democracy. So we say that the question of independence may well be put again but let’s say that the people of Scotland are in charge of that.

“We’ve proposed a citizens’ initiative, so that it’s the public who say when they’re ready for that question to be put, not political parties carving up a deal behind closed doors.”

The citizens’ initiative is a mechanism used by EU institutions to gauge public opinion on issues such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The party has yet to set a threshold on how many signatures would be needed to trigger the process.

However, a spokesman confirmed that if a rival citizens’ initiative against holding another referendum got more signatures, the Scottish Greens would respect the public’s wishes and not vote for another referendum in that parliament. The policy will still have to be agreed by party members.

This will be seized upon by Nationalists who always meant to renege on their post-referendum talk of a “Yes Alliance” and have been looking for pretext ever since. Harvie’s laudable affinity for participatory democracy can be spun as the Greens ratting on their support for independence. Those for whom breaking up the United Kingdom is everything can award their first and second votes to the SNP with a clear conscience. (Nats will also be irked – not that it takes much – by Harvie’s admission that “frankly patriotism bores me personally, I don’t care for flags of either kind”.)

But amongst voters unwilling to put social justice on hold until the constitutional question is resolved, the Greens offer an alternative to the centre-hugging Nationalists and a wounded Labour Party trying to find its way back to political relevance. Policies like 6500 apprenticeships in the energy efficiency sector are key to showing the Greens can be both for climate justice and jobs.

The speech wanted for structure and could have done with more rhetorical flourish but it was a clear statement of intent. The Greens are determined to stake out the progressive ground in Scottish politics and ready take on anyone who tries to claim it as their own.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Julian Paren and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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