Interview: Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Green Party
Harvie's out to show voters that his party's had a radical refit
THE Queens Cafe in Glasgow's southside is one of the last places you might expect to find the leader, sorry co-convener, of the Scottish Green Party. It's a splendidly old-fashioned establishment which dispenses Bovril rather than Bolivian Fairtrade and the shelves heave with jars of soor plooms, lucky tatties and parma violets. It's a place where a request for something colourful and exotic is more likely to result in a sauce-swirled knickerbocker glory being plonked in front of you, rather than a ramekin of organic beetroot hummus.
In fact, if it wasn't for an episode of the Jeremy Kyle Show (Your fianc's not fit to be a father) showing on a wall-mounted analogue TV you could almost believe that Harold Macmillan was in Number 10 and Lonnie Donegan was top of the hit parade.
Patrick Harvie is determined to shatter preconceptions about his party. As bacon and square sausage sizzle in the background, the lapsed vegetarian makes it clear the Scottish Greens are now radical and focused rather than woolly and whimsical.
The 38-year-old, in the area to protest against post office closures, believes the "cuts consensus" of the other parties has left many voters feeling disenfranchised.
He states of his Labour, Tory, SNP and Lib Dem opponents: "They spent 20 or more years courting and feting the self-same bankers that are now pariahs. They were all over the likes of Fred Goodwin.
"There is an ideological staleness across the other parties as well as a basic lack of honesty. They are trying to have a giveaway election and not talking about the cuts which they know they will have to make."
In contrast, the Greens are unabashed in proposing the sorts of tax-and-spend policies long abandoned as electoral liabilities by both Labour and the SNP.
"It's not great to be talking about increased taxation," he concedes. "However, the alternative is talking about cutting people's jobs, people's services and deciding who you want to throw on the dole."
Warming to his leftist theme he accuses his "social democratic" and Tory opponents of clinging to discredited Thatcherite economics. "None of them have got to grips with the failure of the de-regulated free-market model.
"They are still trying to reanimate that corpse, but it has gone."
He singles out Liberal Democrat proposals to privatise Scottish Water's debts as an example of bargain-basement monetarism.
"It's Jeremy Purvis (the party's finance spokesman] as Carol Vorderman, urging us to consolidate our debts into one manageable sum," Harvie quips.
As images go it's about as unpalatable as a fortnight-old plate of pie, beans and chips.The Scottish Green's shift from achingly middle-class, pilates-going do-gooders to socialist firebrands is highlighted by their campaign literature. Previous pamphlets featured a rainbow-scarf-wearing Robin Harper clutching a stuffed penguin. This year's effort has Harvie flanked by a red flag bellowing Scargill-style into a megaphone.
"We're not all about windmills and vegetarianism," chips in Veronika Tudhope, the party's likeable list candidate for Central Scotland. It's a statement which is blunted by an admission that her main hobby outside politics is "guerrilla knitting".
Harvie is unfazed by a suggestion that George Galloway's decision to throw his hat into the Holyrood ring could see him lose his Glasgow seat.
Draining a cup of builder's strength black coffee he states: "George is a strong, passionate orator, but if anyone is worried about the cuts they don't just need someone who gives great speeches on Trident and how wicked the UK government is. I agree with him on those issues, but we need a practical plan that the Scottish Parliament can implement and I've heard very little about that from George. Anyway, in terms of the Glasgow list, the shoogliest peg is the seat currently held by the Lib Dems."
Recent poll show the Greens tussling with Tavish Scott's party for fourth place across Scotland as a whole. Harvie just about manages to conceal his glee when quizzed about the prospect of the Lib Dems going into electoral meltdown.
"I'm sanguine about it," he states, stifling a smile. "But I don't want to take any polls for granted. Definitely not after last time, when the polls were very close and we suffered."
The Dunbartonshire-born leader is referring to the 2007 election, whose neck-and-neck battle between Alex Salmond and Jack McConnell, saw the Green parliamentary contingent unexpectedly slashed from seven to two.
Following the SNP's narrow triumph the party flirted with power by agreeing to co-operate with the minority administration. However, the loose alliance was buckled by Salmond's support for Donald Trump's dream of building a golf resort on the dunes of the Menie estate in Aberdeenshire.
It's an experience that still rankles with him. "It's a total disgrace that politicians, with one or two exceptions, chose to stand up for a rich developer rather than for the interests of the local community.
"Are we really saying that in an area like north-east Scotland the best economic policy we can offer young people is to be bag carriers for the mega rich?"
Harvie stresses he has made his feelings abundantly clear on the issue to Salmond, but will not rule out working with him, or Labour's Iain Gray for that matter, after the election."It will be important to work together where there is genuine common ground," he says.
However, the party has drawn up a series of non-negotiable "red lines". These include the ruling out of new nuclear and coal-fuelled power stations and a commitment to rejecting tuition fees or graduate endowments. The former Manchester Metropolitan University student feels so strongly on this latter issue that he has urged undergraduates to vote him out and "sack" him if he reneges on his pledge.
Messrs Salmond and Gray better not bank on racking up many air miles if the bespectacled former sexual health worker becomes deputy first minister.
"The Scottish Government's continued reliance on short-haul aviation would have to go," he states, when pressed on the conditions he would set down before considering taking his place in a future cabinet. We sometimes joke that we'll hold out for the ministerial rickshaw."
Britain's first openly bi-sexual party leader is proud of successfully steering an anti-hate crime bill through parliament. He reveals that bigoted barbs have been aimed at him by opponents at Holyrood, but is reluctant to name names.
"I'm aware of homophobic comments being made about me by some politicians, albeit not to my face. However, I think we've reached a point where people who hold ideas like that know they need to shut up and realise they won't make any friends by voicing those opinions."
The Green leader's republican sympathies mean he won't be joining in the royal wedding celebrations. "Let's be happy for them like we should be happy for any two people starting out in life together, whether they are getting married, co-habiting, having a civil partnership, or whatever. I'd rather we weren't spending huge amounts of public money on it and I'd rather the public attention was focused on what people who don't have all of that privilege. I won't be having any street parties."
Harvie again demonstrated refreshing candour when he recently told a gathering of business leaders that if he were granted more spare time he would spend it in the pub. Which party leader would the real-ale enthusiast take for a pint? "Oh, I think Annabel (Goldie, the Scottish Tory leader] is the most entertaining out of the four," he states without hesitation. "She's very funny and witty and I think on tuition fees the Green and Tory positions, although very different, are both honest."
Can we look forward to a blue-green alliance after May's election?
Harvie's laughter drowns out the jeers, whoops and catcalls of the daytime TV studio audience.
"I'd never vote for her," says Scotland's potential political kingmaker. "But I'll happily go for a drink with her."
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