Leaders on the spot: Patrick Harvie

Published in The Student, May 3 2011
With Julia Symmes Cobb

The Student rating – 5/5: Radical, passionate and engaging, Patrick Harvie had us falling over ourselves to join the Greens.   What impressed us the most was the way he avoided essentializing students by talking not only about fees and graduate employment but a whole range of wider issues, inspiring us with his vision of a dynamic, caring and sustainable Scotland.

The combination of a faulty dictaphone, a late train and the Scottish Green Party’s offices being up five flights of stairs meant that The Student arrived outside the co-convener’s office hot and flustered. Greeting us at the door wearing a crisp white open-necked shirt and a broad smile on his face, Patrick Harvie, however, has an instantly cathartic and emollient effect on us as he leads the way into a small room and arranges some chairs amidst the tens of thousands of campaign leaflets waiting for the formal start of the campaign the next day.

Every interview in this series started with a broad set of questions asking the party leader about his or her view of how the Scottish Parliament had changed Scotland since 1999, what they thought it was its most notable achievement and how it had impacted upon the Scottish polity.  With varying degrees of disregard for the question, the other four leaders largely used it as an opportunity to reel off their party’s policy achievements over the past decade. Harvie was the only one to take it the way in which it was intended, exploring at length the basis on which the Scottish Parliament was founded and how the spirit of 1999 can be renewed: “It began with a very good vision of inclusive, participative ways of working. The constitutional convention started with a very good idea of Parliament sharing power with the people.”

“A dozen years on, however, we need to look again at how the Parliament works. Is it as inclusive as it could be? (Probably not). In terms of the online presence the Parliament had then, it was cutting edge. Twelve years on, it is in need of a wee bit of a refresh.  The internet changes, and we need to change with it. That doesn’t mean just MSPs tweeting or committees having a Facebook page, it means having space online for people to engage in the formal debate and to take part in the democratic process.

“What we don’t do any more is empower civic Scotland. Someone could spend their entire life filling out consultation documents and they would not have much effect because these consultations are a bit of a tick-box exercise”.  There needs to be, he adds,  “events around the country that people can participate in that actually inform the decisions that Parliament makes.”

Harvie, who is openly bisexual, highlights Holyrood’s abolition of Section 28 – the 1988 law that forbade teachers portraying homosexual relationships in a positive light  –  as one if its most notable achievements thus far: “There were some early issues that were quite difficult and quite controversial and a hard battle – like Section 28 – but the Scottish Parliament took the right decision. It set the right mood and the right tone for a progressive, inclusive Scotland, rather than one which was narrow and bigoted.”

He goes on to say, though, that this early radicalism has worn off and that the Parliament has powers that it is not using to make similarly radical advances, saying that “the existing powers we have – most of the other parties do not seem willing to use them to stand up against the cuts, the threat of peak oil and climate change. The Parliament is still being a bit timid about using its existing powers as radically as it could.”

Their gradually improving electoral success has, he claims, seen the party mature, moving from a protest organization to a fully-fledged political party: “At the same time as increasing electoral success, we’ve had a maturing of what the Green Party is in Scotland and the rest of the UK.  Fifteen years ago, some of the stereotypes that some people still have might have been still true. But now we’re much more capable of having a meaningful impact on the debate about the direction the economy is going in, and pretty much any aspect of Scottish government policy and local government – bread and butter issues like public spending, health, education, policing, and we’re able to unite those kinds of issues with the wider Green ideology, the wider Green concept about living within our means, about moving away from an unsustainable, exploitative economy. We have come along way from just road protests.”

The Greens, he argues, have played a fundamental role in putting Scotland well ahead of other European countries in adapting to the imperative of climate change and making it not only an environmental issue but an economic one: “The Climate Challenge Fund has supported hundreds of community groups up and down the country to take their own ideas about climate change forward; to turn it from a problem into an opportunity for a better and more equal society.  We’ve raised the issue of climate change right up the agenda; there is now much more emphasis on reducing the amount of energy people consume and that has got to be the best way of not just cutting emissions but cutting people’s fuel bills. We’re not going to have cheap energy in the future – it will be an expensive commodity – the only way to not break people’s budgets  is to use it more efficiently. We’ve made huge progress not only on the environmental argument, but the economic one as well.”

It is again a measure of the man that when asked about student issues he doesn’t launch into a pre-prepared spiel on fees and graduate employment that he must have recited hundreds of times before.

Instead, he espouses his vision of a shift of government funding from big business to small, and particularly to funds that would support young people set up their own small enterprises: “The Scottish Government for years has been throwing money at big business.  We need to start shifting that money. I’d like to shift all of it onto ethical procurement lines – onto fair trade, the living wage, and also from big business to small. I want to see a microfinance scheme for young people – to take their own idea and turn it into a business. There’s a lot of entrepreneurialism amongst Scotland’s young people, but they don’t have the opportunity to make it real. If you had a little bit of Scottish Government funding, you would quite easily be able to attract some of the wealthy philanthropists Scotland has to match that funding, and match it not only with their money, but also to match it with their skills and their time because a lot of what they would need to do would be mentoring – giving the experience of someone who has done it already.  All of these experiences need to be passed onto the next generation – at the moment there is no formal education mechanism for passing on those skills.”

Eventually, we get onto the issue of tuition fees, at the mention of which Harvie really steps up a gear: “If we’re remotely serious about the challenges facing us in the future – there are skills that will be vital that only a highly educated population will have. It will be immensely damaging if students are coming out of universities down south with forty or fifty thousand pounds or more worth of debt. Who are going to be the next generation of university lecturers, who are going to be the people who are going to spend another five or ten years in academia rather than trying to get the highest paid job they possibly can?”

The Glasgow list MSP has a very rhythmic, measured way of speaking; he slows down when he comes down to a key idea, pausing on key words for effect. He almost spits out the word ‘market’, as if to underline his distaste for the concept: fees turn higher education “into a pure market – the idea that education is just a private investment in your own personal future income instead of a social investment in something that will benefit society. I want to live in a society, not a market, and the idea we turn higher education into a marketplace is utterly indefensible as far as I’m concerned.”

As much as he makes clear his objection to tuition fees, he is equally critical of the other parties’ unwillingness to reveal in detail how they would provide free higher eduction: “The question that any student must ask themselves about the Scottish election is what are the parties saying they will do differently? Don’t just listen to a commitment to keeping higher education free. Ask the people making those decisions where the money is going to come from. If we say no fees or graduate taxes and we starve the universities and colleges of funding, we are not helping. A promise to not have fees without saying where the money is coming from is worth nothing.”

Progressive taxation, he argues, is the only way to put higher education on a stable footing for the future: “The Greens believe we need to be raising taxation on those who can afford to pay. That means income-based taxation and land and property based taxes. There are very, very wealthy people in Scotland who are not paying their share, not paying their way, not pulling their weight. It is possible with existing powers to defend public services like education by having wealthy people paying more.”

Before we move onto other issues, Harvie is eager to voice his displeasure that there seems to be a consensus amongst the larger parties that English students should face higher fees to plug the funding gap: “Putting up fees for English students risks universities not be able to attract those English students. We do want a university sector that is attractive – that brings people together who would not otherwise have met. That is a great cultural bonus that we would lose.”

Pointing out of the window vaguely in the direction of the University of Glasgow’s city campus, he has strong words for Anton Muscatelli and expresses disappointment that the student body and university management hasn’t been able to work together: “How is it impossible that we can have the formal elected representatives of the students, the protesters and the staff and the management all saying – ‘we believe in higher education, we believe in the values of civilization versus the market?’ If you have that unity of purpose, an institution like Glasgow University could be a massively powerful advocate against the UK government’s programme, quite regardless of party politics. It would be politically neutral, but they could say very clearly – ‘this is vandalism, and it has to stop’. Sadly, though, Anton Muscatelli and the senior management seem happy with the values of the market.”

With the Greens displacing the Liberal Democrats as the Scottish Parliament’s fourth party, he has Nick Clegg firmly in his cross-hairs, and embarks on an expansive critique of the party’s decision to join with the Conservatives at Westminster: “They told half the country that they were the only people to stop the Tories and the other half the only people to get rid of Gordon Brown, and Nick Clegg was sat in the middle saying ‘we haven’t made up our minds either way’, and then they went into the Coalition and betrayed a generation of people who were hopeful enough in their promises to vote for the first time. They can expect and fully deserve a significantly reduced vote.”

With Clegg neutered, he goes on to present his party as the alternative: “Do you want the Scottish Government vote after vote, week after week to be dependent on the support of the UK Coalition parties who not only signed up to the cuts agenda, but designed it. Or do you want the next government to have an alternative,  a Green group which will stand up to the cuts and take a progressive, left-leaning approach, and a pragmatic, realistic one?”

Out of all of the leaders we interviewed, the Greens leader was the only one of the five who showed a willingness to genuinely engage with our questions, giving clear, detailed and honest answers.  He did not simply have a back catalogue of carefully-honed soundbites to fob us off with, but had enough respect for his audience and the issues they care about to discuss them in a serious, analytical way.

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