“Scotland is getting more different by the day”

Part Two of Green World’s interview with Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, discussing Scottish independence, differences between the Scottish Greens and the GPEW, the role of women in her party and questions of internal democracy.

Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie
Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie

Scottish Greens co-leaders Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie

Alan Story

This is Part Two of Green World’s recent interview with Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Greens. Part One was published on 2 June.  

Here, Slater answers questions about Scottish independence, the similarities and differences between her party and the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW), the role of women in the Scottish Greens, the current state of accountability and other questions about the internal functioning of her party.  

Alan Story asked the questions for Green World.  

Let’s look ahead and let’s assume the Scottish National Party (SNP) wins the 2021 Holyrood elections on a platform calling for a second Scottish independence referendum. Do you expect there will be such a referendum? 

Well, certainly they will ask for a referendum. The power to grant a referendum is actually not devolved. The Scottish Government has the power to hold referendum; they don’t have the power to make the UK recognise the results of it.

What do you think will happen if Boris Johnson says Scotland is not allowed to have a referendum?

The position of the UK Government on another Scottish referendum is becoming increasingly tenuous. We keep sending pro-independence majorities to Westminster and to Holyrood over and over again, twice to both of those parliaments. But I think that there is more for us, the pro-independence parties (the SNP and the Scottish Greens) to do in Scotland. We’ve all seen the damage that a 52/48 split has had in England around Brexit and I think while we could win independence on that basis, it isn’t the kind of grown-up consensus that I would hope to see. 

I think that what we need to do now is build a common vision of a future Scotland. And if that is as an independent Scotland, we have to make it an independent Scotland that a lot more people will sign up to. So yes, 52/48 would get us independence, but it could lead to a really divided horrible situation like we have in England with Brexit.  

To be frank though, Johnson is really helping us here. He doesn’t seem by any of his actions to care about the UK at all. Scotland has been excluded from consultations and briefings on the Covid-19 pandemic and they’ve been ignoring Scotland’s needs on immigration and our different needs under Brexit. They’ve been playing very dodgy games with devolved matters; they’re using retrospective law to power grab many powers that are coming back from the EU. There is some very dodgy stuff going on.  Johnson is not winning any new voters in Scotland. He is alienating Scotland day by day.

Many progressive people in England and Wales do support Scotland’s right to self-determination. What would you say in a few words to convince them why an independent Scotland is in Scotland’s best interests? And do you think you need to convince them it is in the best interests of England and Wales as well? 

I don’t think it’s up to Scotland to worry about the interests of the UK. Scotland is a tiny part of the UK, we are five million people. England is 55 million. The interests of Scotland have not been served by the UK. For example, we still have a fully public NHS; it hasn’t been privatised like the English NHS has.  

We have a much longer tradition of leftist social values and, the more that England drifts to the right, the more that England’s Parliament and House of Lords are shown to be dysfunctional, the more the English are obsessed with Brexit and nationalism and Trident nuclear weapons, the less and less in common the Scottish people have with the English. The Scottish people are feeling more like they have in common with the Nordic countries with their high taxation and excellent social systems and with their community-based politics, with their emphasis on renewable energy and working together in communities to make sure communities benefit from the resources and not just rich corporations. 

Scotland is different and it’s getting more different by the day.

I understand the Greens will be campaigning for independence on the basis of “civic nationalism”. What does that phrase mean? 

There are a lot of nationalisms being thrown around at the moment and I love the way that the Scottish Government and the Scottish independence movement has always been about that. If you live in Scotland, you are welcome to vote here and you can see that in how Scotland holds our votes as opposed to how the UK holds its votes. In Scotland, EU citizens can vote, for example, while we see EU citizens being stripped of their right to vote in England, starting with the Brexit referendum. Scotland is much more about recognising people who live here rather than people who have ancestry here. That’s a UK thing – you can’t vote because you are from the EU – that’s a different kind of nationalism: “You are not one of us”. Civic nationalism is that if you live here, you pay taxes here, you are one of us.

Some people say that Scotland as an independent country is not economically viable because it would be so dependent on fossil fuels from the North Sea.  What’s your response? 

The oil and gas industry makes up seven per cent of the Scottish economy. That is a significant chunk, but it isn’t anything like what most people think it is. If you ask the average person then they would say 40 per cent. It is nothing like that, it is seven per cent. I work in renewable energy. Scotland has 25 per cent of all of Europe’s renewable energy. We absolutely can make and base a Scottish manufacturing industry on renewable energy. It would replace that seven per cent and expand on it in sustainable industries. Remember: a lot of the powers needed to expand such an industry are not devolved to Scotland at this time. 

To move to another topic. What do you see as the differences and similarities between the Scottish Greens and the GPEW?

I think we have a better time of it because we have proportional representation (PR). In our country, we are a major political party and, unfortunately, the GPEW is much more niche with only one MP. It’s just much harder for the GPEW because of your first-past-the-post voting system. Here we can get things done and can point to our accomplishments. Caroline Lucas is, of course, hugely respected. I once saw a poll that said that she on her own was more effective opposition than the entire Labour Party (which I believe, by the way). 

Lorna Slater and MSP Ross Greer
Lorna Slater and Green MSP Ross Greer

We in Scotland can go back and say “look we have done these things”, it allows us to increase our vote share and to enthuse our member base. We are polling currently to get MSPs on the basis that we have worked for them. We can show that having six MSPs makes a difference and ten will make even more of a difference, of course, and we are working toward 12, 13 or 15. It is a much more positive place and that comes back to PR. You’ve got to have a foothold to expand out.

In policy terms, it has been suggested that the Scottish Greens are somewhat to the left of the Green Party here. Do you think that’s true? 

Scottish politics tends to be a jump to the left. Also the collapse of Labour in Scotland has opened up a whole bunch of space for left politics. In England, you are probably fighting with Labour because they are still known as a party of the left, for some bizarre reason. There seems to be a lot of confusion even within the Labour Party as to what their policies actually are. That is something that just doesn’t hold up here. If you want a party that’s unclear about whether they are a left party of a centrist party, you’ve got the SNP for that.

Some Green Party candidates here in England didn’t stand or stood aside in the December 2019 election. In contrast, Scottish Greens passed a resolution at your conference last autumn that said you weren’t going to do that. Why? 

Because we have PR here. Every vote counts. Why would we give up some of our seats? We have our own votes, we don’t borrow votes from other parties. There is a Green vote in Scotland so we don’t need to make pacts, we have a proper democracy up here.

And with elections to Westminster, it is the same thing. By standing, it meant that at hustings there was a Green voice. I got to go on television several times. By standing, we got a lot more press and publicity.  

There is nobody in the Scottish system that would give us anything in return for stepping down, we would gain nothing by standing aside here. 

And you didn’t stand aside for the Lib Dems?

Of course not, goodness no. They are all about Trident. They have got some really right-wing economic policies – absolutely not for the Lib Dems. Not for the Lib Dems, not for Labour, not for the SNP.  We are our own political party, we have our own vision for the future of Scotland and we will always defend it.

In the years between 2015 and about 2018, membership in the Scottish Greens dipped somewhat. In 2019, I read that your party made some constitutional changes and you ran as co-leader on a platform of improving democracy. So what is the state of democracy and accountability in the Scottish Greens?

Continually improving I hope. Which is all we can ask for I think. The membership statistics are an interesting one. Before the Scottish independence referendum, the Scottish Green party nationally had about 2,000 members. A couple of months after, we had close to 10,000 members. Our membership more than quadrupled in a very short period of time so there has been some natural drift back on that. But we are still over 6,000 members and climbing again now.

A big part of dealing with that membership surge and to improve party democracy and accountability meant we had a major restructure over the last three years. It was finally implemented last year. I was part of that process to lead that structural change and, instead of having one party body, one national council, we now have two bodies with a very clear remit. Our National Council is a vision and strategy body, which includes all branches and we have an executive body, which implements the will of Council. Having two bodies like that allows them to hold each other to account. Patrick [Harvie, Scottish Greens co-leader] and I, for example, are part of the executive body, which means that we can be held to account by Council. Previously, the party co-conveners were part of Council so there was no external body to hold them to account.

As well, Patrick and I have published what we hope to achieve in the next year and made commitments of various sorts to members, such as how we can be contacted. We absolutely expect to answer those commitments at conference on how well we did.  

Conference is our overriding democratic body and any member, in theory, can come to conference and speak. But that involves travelling, which of course isn’t possible for everybody to do and, to be perfectly honest, there are significant barriers for people speaking at conference. I’ve spoken at conference and I’m a capable public speaker and it's terrifying, pants-wettingly terrifying. It’s a huge barrier and I don’t think that we can really call ourselves a democratic party whilst speaking at conference is such a stressful, and sometimes hostile, situation. Conference must make everybody feel comfortable participating in.

Things are obviously up in the air with the Covid-19 pandemic, but what are your plans for your next conference of Scottish Greens? 

This year, because of the Covid crisis, we will be likely holding our conference entirely online. We haven’t planned the details of it yet. I would certainly expect to have online voting. Our constitution requires that we have an AGM and that will require votes so I expect that is something that we will have to implement.

One of my favourite political expressions is that “women hold up half the sky”. What are Scottish Greens doing to try to ensure that this can happen in your party? 

I am very active in the Women’s Network of the Scottish Greens. Getting the Women’s Network back up on its feet was a very big part of the platform that I stood on with the leader (in August 2019). Like all political parties, we have trouble getting women to stand for election, including for internal party posts. Our Women’s Network exists to try and help break down barriers around that. 

The other thing the Women’s Network does is that we have representation on all the party bodies. In everything the party’s doing – organising conferences, making policy, planning campaigns, and so on – there is someone there with their Women’s Network hat on going “and how are you going to deal with childcare, how are you going to deal with this, that’s going to be at bedtime when women are putting their kids to bed, how are you going to make that accessible to women, how are we going to make sure we have enough women.” In party selection procedures, we have experimented with zipping lists and we have tried gender balancing lists. [“Zipping lists” means moving candidates up and down lists based on gender identity.] The Women’s Network gets consulted on those sorts of mechanisms. We are doing fairly well on our mechanisms for gender balancing women, but what we are trying to do is more of the ‘soft stuff’.  

But it’s not just enough to use mechanisms for getting women into posts. If we actually want to have a party that functions well, we inherently need to get rid of those barriers. We’ve had some successes with that. The last two selections that I’m aware of, certainly in the Lothian region and for the co-leadership of the party and some of the other big selections, we have not had to do gender balance. So our promotion of women and our support of women in those instances has worked really well. I am not suggesting we are going to get rid of these mechanisms. But that tells me that what we are doing is working and we just need to keep it up.

One final question, Lorna. I was reading last night about the Green Future Group, an ecosocialist group within the Scottish Greens. It looks as if it has lots of younger Greens involved. It read that it fielded seven candidates on a slate in the summer of 2019 internal elections of the Scottish Greens and that all were elected. I know you are not a spokesperson for this group, but can you tell me a bit about them? 

It was a really interesting development and was something that I didn’t know about. It hadn’t included Green Future Group candidates for co-leadership in their campaigning. In Scottish Green politics we’ve had difficulty getting our members excited about internal politics for a long time. We often have positions on our national committees vacant because nobody stood for them or they are uncontested and people get elected because nobody is standing against them. I wasn’t involved in this group and do not know whether it will last or whether there will be other declared factions.   

But I’m hoping that, as we get to be a growing and more mature party, we have more factions. Factions are a feature of larger parties and their internal organisation. I’d be very excited to have more buzz, more chat about internal elections as I’m really tired of people getting elected because no one stood against them. In a functioning democracy we should have every single post contested every single time. We shouldn’t have people saying, “Okay, I’ll do that, I’ll stand again because no one else has stood”. So I think the Green Future Group is an exciting development for our party. 

Thanks for the interview, Lorna. And I look forward to coming up to Scotland in the spring of 2021 to do a story for Green World on your elections and to meet you in person… and not via a video conferencing call.