Euan McColm: Holyrood better for Harvie’s presence

THERE’S a deeply irritating tendency for some people to talk wistfully about how much better things would be if political opponents spent more time agreeing with each other.

Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

In an ideal world, there would be consensus on issue after issue and ­debates would lead inexorably to handshakes all round. Fortunately, we don’t live in such a perfect world and politics is full of the sort of disagreement that not only makes for ­(occasionally) decent ­theatre but ­ensures the checks and balances that good legislation demands.

Last week, however, a breakdown in Holyrood hostilities softened even my stony heart. By a huge majority – 105 to 18 – MSPs voted to make same-sex marriage legal and, in doing so, made Scotland a fairer place.

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Plaudits were tossed out like confetti, with Cabinet secretary for health and wellbeing, Alex Neil, and his predecessor in that post, Nicola Sturgeon, being credited for their ­vital roles in the introduction and successful passage through parliament of the necessary legislation.

Others were praised by campaigners and commentators for excellent –and frequently moving – speeches in the chamber. Tory Jackson Carlaw, SNP members Marco Biagi and James Dornan, Labour’s Jackie Baillie, and Liberal Democrat Jim Hume were among the many whose contributions enhanced proceedings. It seems almost unfair to single out any one politician as the star of both the debate and the campaign which led to it.

But, unfair or not, I intend to so do.

Tuesday afternoon’s Holyrood session did not only mark an important step in making Scotland more progressive, it highlighted just how far Green Party MSP Patrick Harvie has come since his (rather surprising) election in 2003. It confirmed my suspicion that he has spent the past 11 years quietly becoming one of our most impressive parliamentarians.

When Harvie entered Holyrood at the second Scottish Parliament election as one of seven Greens, it was reasonable to assume he’d remain an obscure figure in our democracy. Not only did his then party leader Robin Harper – with his long, colourful scarf and acoustic guitar – fulfil what demand there was for a lovable Green eccentric, but socialist Tommy Sheridan (still some years from being a convicted perjurer) had the man-of-the-people firebrand gig stitched up.

In the early hours of 2 May, 2003, when we learned that he had been elected as a list MSP for Glasgow, Harvie seemed little more than an ­accidental politician whose good fortune would mean four years of highly paid but pointless public service before a return to his day job as a sexual health worker.

And then, almost immediately, he displayed a surprising (to me and other sceptics, anyway) bit of political nous. While the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties thrashed out a deal to form their second governing coalition at Holyrood, Harvie issued a call for Scotland to lead the way in introducing civil partnerships for same-sex couples. At that time, there was an assumption that the matter would be left to Westminster and Scotland would adopt a version of whatever was agreed in London.

Not only was his intervention in keeping with the work he had been doing among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, it was eyebrow-raising enough to make headlines. It suggested Harvie understood that the most successful politicians are those who put their heads above the parapet. He saw a gap in the political agenda and decided to fill it.

Harvie’s proposal saw the matter debated at Holyrood. Had he not made that early call for civil partnership legislation, it is unlikely the Scottish Parliament would have done a thing about it. Yes, we’d have seen ­civil partnerships become legal but Westminster would have led us to that point.

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From some faltering, early speeches in the debating chamber, Harvie grew in confidence. Friends say it took a concentrated effort on his part. He’d only joined the Greens months before the election and believed he was ­making up numbers when he agreed to be a candidate.

The effort paid off and he made some valuable contributions. In a debate on whether gay couples should be allowed to adopt, Harvie and the now-retired Tory Lord James Douglas-Hamilton formed an unlikely but powerful alliance to argue for this right.

That was telling because, as his ­career has progressed, Harvie has shown himself to possess a pragmatism that’s rare among what we might describe as radical politicians. Most recently, we’ve seen this in loyal support of his SNP colleagues in the Yes Scotland campaign, avoiding clear differences on Nato, currency, and the monarchy while sharing platforms, and focusing on a broader “need for change” message. Harvie’s vision of an independent Scotland is not Alex Salmond’s, but unlike others on the Left (and make no mistake, Harvie stands considerably Left of centre) he understands that indulging in ideological bickering before September’s referendum is no way to win a Yes vote.

When Harper stepped down as Green co-convener in 2008 (of course, the Greens have a none-more-right-on gender-balanced joint leadership) Harvie stepped into the role, bringing to the party a sharper political focus.

Harvie’s Green Party has a way to go. In 2011, just he and Lothian’s member Alison Johnstone were elected to Holyrood and, with environmental issues forming greater parts of mainstream parties’ manifestos, it may be difficult for them to increase their presence in the Scottish Parliament in 2016. But ambitious (and cleverly populist) campaigns to have every home in Scotland insulated and for fans to have the first right-to-buy football clubs signal a determination from Harvie to move his party away from the fringes and just close enough to the mainstream that it might one day form part of a ­coalition.

We (probably) would have seen equal marriage become legal even if Harvie hadn’t kicked things off back in 2003 but he deserves great credit for his role. As I listened to him on Tuesday, celebrating the victory ahead and aiming sharp jabs at those who continued to oppose the inevitable, it occurred to me that Holyrood really is a better place for Patrick Harvie’s presence. There aren’t many MSPs about whom I’d say that.

Twitter: @euanmccolm