In August 2021, Scottish Greens struck a deal with the Scottish National Party (SNP) on a joint programme for government. For party co-leader Patrick Harvie, this has meant a chance to be in government after nearly 20 years in parliament, taking on the role of Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights. In this interview, conducted on the fringes of the European Green Party Congress in Copenhagen, he discusses prospects for independence, opportunities for an energy revolution, and how to channel the tensions that can arise between grassroots activists and policymakers.

Green European Journal: The Scottish Green Party has now been in government for over a year. What’s your assessment of how it has gone so far?

Patrick Harvie: The SNP has been in government for a long time, but they’ve only ever been on their own in government so they’re having to adapt to working with us on every issue. It’s a big change for both of us but it seems to be working. The opinion polls suggests that our voters like it, that they have some trust that this collaboration is built on genuine common ground without fundamental compromises of principle.

For Green parties, coalitions present a lot of risks. But I think we’ve got an arrangement that is allowing us to work on some really important things, like nature restoration, the circular economy, the heat and buildings agenda, active travel instead of road building, and free public transport for young people. There’s a huge amount that we’re getting done. I’d like to hope that it’s also setting a new tone for Scottish politics by showing that political parties can agree to disagree on some things but still work together.

What are your priorities for the remainder of the mandate?

For me personally, heat and buildings are priority. We have extremely poor energy efficiency standards in Scottish homes, and we are also overwhelmingly reliant on gas boilers. We’ve just announced a new package of grants and loans to help people move away from gas, and next year we’re going to be consulting on regulations that will require all buildings to reach better energy performance standards and to decarbonise. We need to do a million homes in this decade, and the rest by 2045. We cannot meet our legally-binding climate targets without an ambitious programme in that direction.

There’s also a very strong expectation that we will advance the case for independence. I don’t think anyone can look at the shambles of the UK Conservative Party over recent months and think “I’d like to be governed by that.” It’s not just that they represent a fundamentally different political agenda which Scotland hasn’t voted for since the 1950s, it’s that a lie was told to us in the 2014 referendum on independence. We were told that voting “No” would protect economic stability, give us a strong voice within the UK, and maintain our place in Europe. All three of those promises have been broken. We’ve been taken out of Europe after having voted overwhelmingly to stay in, we’ve had the powers of the Scottish Parliament undermined profoundly by the UK government and they’re continuing to do so, and we’ve seen political instability.

The consequences of those broken promises have been pushed onto the people who are least responsible for the political instability but are the most vulnerable. Fundamentally, there is a real need to put the question of independence back to the people of Scotland. Some of the polls suggest it’s not just neck and neck but that there is now a majority in favour of independence.

The UK Supreme Court recently ruled that a second independence referendum cannot be held without the approval of the Westminster government. Where does this leave the campaign?

First of all, of course the ruling has to be accepted and we respect the fact that the Court is not making the law or saying what would happen, it’s just interpreting the law – in this sense it’s a reminder that we have a fundamentally unfair constitution. The idea that the UK Conservative Party would have accepted the notion that they couldn’t hold their Brexit referendum until the EU gave them permission would have been absurd – they’d have thrown a fit. That is, in a sense, what they’re telling us; that we can’t decide our future without their permission.

We’ve now got the strongest pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament since it was created. We will continue to advocate for the UK government to respect this mandate. We want Scotland to make its choice peacefully and democratically, we wouldn’t tolerate anything else, but there has to be a route open for this otherwise some people would be tempted to look at less legal options and we don’t want that to happen.

If the UK government continues to refuse to engage, I think it will make people very angry and one option that’s been floated is that we treat the next UK election as a de facto referendum. We would set out our wider policy and how we would use the powers currently held at Westminster to improve the lives of people in Scotland, and we would then treat the votes for all pro-independence candidates added together as a mandate if it reaches 50 per cent. Some voters might find this unclear or messy, and legally it’s very different from having a single, unified “Yes” campaign and a single “No” campaign. It’s far from the ideal but we have a political impasse now. So if not a referendum, then what? There has to be a democratic route, and to be told that route is illegitimate by the same people who are blocking other legitimate routes is simply not acceptable.

How have the current circumstances, such as the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, affected the work you’ve been doing in government, for example around renewables or climate change?

First of all, the emergency response to the cost of living crisis has been really important in terms of directly helping people. I pushed through emergency legislation on a rent freeze and an eviction ban, and we’re working on longer-term proposals for rent controls as well. In terms of the longer-term agenda, and in particular the energy implications of what’s happening at the moment – this is consistent with what we were doing already. It creates a greater sense of urgency, but not a fundamental change of direction.

Most political parties in Scotland used to be fully committed to the long-term continuation and expansion of the oil and gas industry but now it’s only the Conservatives who take that position. Every other party now acknowledges that we must extract only within the limits of what we can use sustainably and that that limit is rapidly declining, and that we have to try and manage the coming transition fairly.

In Scotland we already generate as much electricity as we consume from renewables. There’s a small amount of gas and nuclear on the grid as well but overwhelmingly we have a highly decarbonised electricity generation and capacity already and that’s going to expand dramatically over the course of this decade. We’re going to be further doubling onshore wind capacity, we’re going to see a huge increase in offshore wind and we have some of the most advanced tidal research in the world. We’re going to be generating a lot of of excess green electricity, some for direct export and some to produce green hydrogen. Even if it’s using electricity from the grid, we know that that comes with a strong standard of decarbonised electricity already. There are concerns that there may be some residual element of blue hydrogen but overwhelmingly we’re going to be building a green hydrogen economy for Scotland.

Europe’s shift away from gas, particularly Russian gas, as well as away from fossil fuels more generally is going to be a huge economic opportunity, particularly for the parts of Scotland that have been traditionally dependent on the oil and gas industry. This is about showing them that this transition can work for them and can give them prosperity, jobs, and security for the future. It’s also an opportunity for Europe and it’s part of Scotland’s offer, if you like, for re-joining the EU because the energy resources in Scotland are a strategic asset for Europe. We’re likely to be generating as much green hydrogen for export as the whole of Germany wants to import.

Have alliances with community and civil society organisations contributed to helping the Greens achieve its objectives in government? Have there been tensions when grassroots activists have felt frustration with the scale and pace of change?

It’s probably inevitable that a party going into government for the first time is going to experience some of those tensions. It’s a different way of working. I know how satisfying it is to stand up and make speeches demanding perfection now. I’ve been doing it for 20 years and frankly I’m bored of making those speeches because it achieves very little. It can be more frustrating to deliver what’s possible and push at the boundaries of what’s possible but to not pretend that you can solve every problem with a speech.

Take the rent freeze, for example. Party members and organisations like Living Rent and others were very happy that we managed to achieve that. But before that happened, the Labour Party came to parliament with a half-baked proposal that wouldn’t have worked – that would have been illegal and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights – and we had to vote that down. Before we got to make our supporters and members happy, we had to make them impatient and that can be frustrating. We need to ensure they are constructive tensions rather than destructive ones.

A lot of the speeches at this Congress have expressed how Greens, whether they are in government or not, are both radical and pragmatic because the radical position is the only pragmatic position. It’s those who cling to a free-market ideology who are being irrational and unpragmatic. They are pretending that their ideology can defy science the reality of the physical world around us. Greens are about pragmatic solutions; they’re about making the world better. That means not making it perfect tomorrow or even the next day but making substantial steps in that direction and improving people’s lives. The rent freeze doesn’t solve every aspect of the private rental market. It doesn’t reduce people’s rents immediately and it doesn’t correct the fact that we’ve had a dysfunctional housing market for decades, but it does protect people right now from 10, 20, 30 per cent rent increases.

Since Brexit, has there been a debate about how Scotland sees its place in Europe?

Events since 2016 have deepened the view in Scotland that Brexit is a mistake. In UK politics there’s almost this sort of unspoken agreement not to talk about how harmful this has been. There are academics, journalists and campaigners who are trying to talk about it, but the political parties are incapable of recognising what a majority of the public are now saying across the UK: this was a mistake, this has done harm.

In Scotland, our political landscape is far more willing to talk about this, to acknowledge it openly and publicly, with the exception of the Conservatives. There are some exceptions, but overwhelmingly, the pro-independence movement is also about re-joining Europe and the anti-independence movement offers no path back into Europe at the moment.

This is the dominant question in Scottish politics at the moment: is our future within the UK or is it within the EU? I’m in no doubt that if that had been understood as the choice in 2014, that this was not about voting for independence versus the status quo but rather about choosing Europe or the UK, people would have chosen independence within Europe.

At the last party conference, Scottish Green Party members voted in favour of a motion to suspend ties with the Green Party of England and Wales. Do you see this as a temporary step connected to the issue of transphobia, or does it point to deeper divergences?

No. This particular move is specifically about the issue of transphobia. I know that there are many people within the Green Party of England and Wales who are taking that issue seriously and who are trying to make progress on dealing with those who promote transphobia within the party. It has been frustratingly slow for them and for us watching as well.

It’s an issue that’s very important to our members. We have a very clear and unambiguous position on intersectional feminism, trans inclusion, and wider LGBTI+ issues. After a couple of years of debating what we should do to challenge our colleagues in England and Wales about this and to put pressure on them to do more, eventually it became unsustainable to say that we would continue to have the limited formal ties we have with them.

The Green Party of England and Wales has the right policy and their leadership is in the right place, although could perhaps be more pro-active, but they have not dealt with a toxic minority who don’t represent party policy and who are extremely divisive and hostile on this issue. If they do deal with it, then we look forward to normalising relationships again.

There has been a great deal of turmoil in UK politics in recent years. How do you view the state of UK democracy now?

The British hard right doesn’t openly display the authoritarian fascism that we see in some countries where the far right uses flags and symbols and the paraphernalia of the far-right. The British equivalent is more genteel and patriarchal but it is no less dangerous. Some members of the Conservatives have fascist attitudes and will very happily punch down against any marginalised minority they can find if they think it’s going to win them populist support in the press or parts of the public where those attitudes have been deliberately stoked and hostilities have been created.

This UK government has breached human rights when it comes to deporting asylum seekers, for example, and it has profoundly undermined devolution which the Scottish public voted for more than 20 years ago. If we say that democracy and the rule of law need to be defended in the face of attacks from authoritarian regimes, we also have to say that democracy must be defended against apparently more civilised regimes which are also undermining democracy.

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