Patrick Harvie: 'Being in power is exactly where the Scottish Greens and green politics needs to be'

The Scottish Green leader on whether he relishes power, compromise, and his opinion of Fergus Ewing

Wine bar revolutionary”, “a bit creepy”, “extremist”, “bonkers”, “cocky”; Patrick Harvie has been called many things since his party entered government with the SNP in the summer of 2021.

The Scottish Greens co-leader is simultaneously cast as a power-crazy lunatic defined by eco-zealotry and wokeism and an impotent nationalist patsy, happy to set aside environmental activism in favour of a ministerial salary.

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For the opposition in Holyrood, he and his fellow co-leader, Lorna Slater, have developed into figures of ridicule.

Scottish Greens Party co convener, Patrick Harvie, poses for a picture as he departs a polling station at Notre Damme Primary School in Glasgow in 2021. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesScottish Greens Party co convener, Patrick Harvie, poses for a picture as he departs a polling station at Notre Damme Primary School in Glasgow in 2021. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Scottish Greens Party co convener, Patrick Harvie, poses for a picture as he departs a polling station at Notre Damme Primary School in Glasgow in 2021. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Some within the broad church of Scottish nationalism also direct their ire towards the two Green politicians. Fergus Ewing’s rage towards them is volcanic, Ash Regan views them as a danger to women and Kate Forbes would not have thought twice about booting them out of government.

But in government the party remains, sitting pretty with polling numbers that do not suggest a political project in crisis, unlike their partners in government.

And in Harvie, a politician who first entered Holyrood in 2003 – passing 20 years of parliamentary service in May – and 15 years co-leader, the Greens have a great survivor of the devolution era.

That characteristic is under scrutiny as the SNP battle with the beginning of a new political era amid police investigations and a Labour resurgence.

Co-leader of the Scottish Green Party Patrick Harvie at the 2023 Scottish Green Party Spring Conference at the Golden Jubilee Conference Centre in Clydebank in March.Co-leader of the Scottish Green Party Patrick Harvie at the 2023 Scottish Green Party Spring Conference at the Golden Jubilee Conference Centre in Clydebank in March.
Co-leader of the Scottish Green Party Patrick Harvie at the 2023 Scottish Green Party Spring Conference at the Golden Jubilee Conference Centre in Clydebank in March.

The Greens, and Harvie, are potentially convenient scapegoats.

Several SNP backbenchers and one former first minister have called on the party to vote again on the Bute House Agreement, pointing at the impact of gender reforms, the disastrous deposit return scheme (DRS) (much of which was ailing under solely SNP charge when Roseanna Cunningham first brought it forward), and proposals for highly protected marine areas (another policy led by an SNP cabinet secretary).

All of these policies have the imprint of the Scottish Greens, of social progressivism and environmental change, and were predictable targets of pro-business wings of all parties.

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Despite the concerns of SNP figures, this is exactly how the Scottish Greens and Harvie want it.

Delivery, delivery, delivery

In a previous Scotland on Sunday Insight piece, one Scottish Green source said that it was right for the Conservatives and other opposition parties to describe the party as “ideological zealots”, adding that this was not about to put the party off from being in power.

The source added, in reference to increased interventionism from the Scotland Office on issues such as DRS and gender reforms, that “the Tories are playing a deeply cynical game, we are playing a deeply ideological game. They are about staying in power and we are about making change”.

During an almost hour-long interview in the deserted, summer recess Garden Lobby of Holyrood, it became clear that this is a view shared by Harvie, a man clearly energised by his new-found position.

“The job is absolutely compelling, yeah – I consider it responsibility rather than power,” he says, when asked whether he enjoys the power of being a minister in government.

Referencing “immense challenges” of Covid recovery, runaway inflation and the cost-of-living crisis, he adds: “Nobody would ever find being in government easy at the moment. It is not about sitting in your office and feeling powerful. It’s about stepping up to the plate, taking responsibility for really difficult stuff.”

It is obvious, though, that Harvie relishes this new found access to the levers of government. What burns brightest, though, is his commitment to delivering what he views as positive change regardless of the prevailing winds.

“It [being in power] is absolutely where Green politics needs to be, not just me, not just the Scottish Green Party, it’s where Green politics and Green ideas need [to be], in a position to take responsibility and make a difference,” he says, accusing the Conservatives and others on the right of a “conspiracy mindset” and attempting to “almost reboot climate denial”.

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“We need government that is willing to tell the truth about that, but also to find ways to show that the response to that crisis is one that can make people’s lives better, make our economy fairer and more equal.

“I think the shift away from price volatile fossil fuels is a very, very obvious win in that regard.”

Our discussion comes as the co-leader is facing attacks from all sides of the political spectrum on the continuation of the Bute House Agreement. Some pro-independence MSPs and many commentators across the media share the belief the deal is a drag on the SNP, that ditching the Greens would reinvigorate the fortunes of the main governing party.

This analysis is often punctuated by accusations the party is unwilling to compromise, unrelenting in the belief they are right and that any instance of dissent is sinful. An approach opponents claim poisons the well around them and hurts the credibility of the government in front of voters.

This, unsurprisingly, is an evaluation rejected by Harvie. “It is a slightly peculiar analysis given that we are in a political co-operation agreement that did take substantial negotiation and compromise to reach,” he says.

“What’s in the Bute House Agreement is not the programme for government we would have written if there were 65 Green MSPs, it isn’t the programme for government the SNP would have written if they’d had a completely free hand.

“It has involved co-operation and compromise and that is when politics is at its best. That’s when this place [Holyrood] is at its best.”

Instead the divisiveness in politics is driven by those using “divisive rhetoric, almost Trumpian in its hostility and toxicity” who often, but not always, oppose Scottish independence. This opposition to pro-independence parties is, Harvie claims, the reason why the Greens are cast as belligerent and uncompromising wreckers.

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“Our track record is one of staying true to our principles, but genuinely seeking, where enough genuine common ground exists, to find a compromise that will work in the public interest,” Harvie claims.

“If you’re suggesting that we should simply abandon something like the climate targets because they are politically difficult. Well, if we were doing that, that’s when I would genuinely ask what’s the point of a Green Party, and we’re not willing to do that.”

It is on the issue of compromise, however, where the conflict of the competing desire to be principled on Green issues while willing to water down “perfection” to deliver a degree of change comes to the fore.

Harvie fundamentally rejects any suggestion of arrogance, stating his party does not take voters or the right to govern for granted, the key conditions for him of an arrogant political project.

He adds: “This is our first-ever opportunity to be part of a government shaping policy and delivering. The idea that we take that for granted, I think that’s further from the mind than it could possibly be. We are certainly resolute in saying that a transition to a green economy is essential.”

Referencing UK Labour’s recent U-turns on issues such as immigration, Harvie adds: “We have very little patience for those who, in politics, want to water down their principles to the extent that they are homeopathic strength and that happens a lot in politics.

“That, I think, is a sign of where politics goes wrong, where a political party goes wrong. You absolutely need to stay clear and true to your values.”

When pressed on the fact this sounds like the opposite of compromise, a virtue he has put front and centre of the positives of the Bute House Agreement, he is clear he does not accept the conflict between principle and compromise.

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“Compromise is about finding the best way to make a difference,” Harvie states.

“I could go back to the way things were before we were in co-operation, before we were part of the government, where all I had to do was turn up here and make speeches demanding perfection.

“It’s easy. It’s pretty lazy actually. It achieves nothing and you might feel a little bit self-satisfied that you’re right and everybody else is wrong, but you’ve achieved nothing, you’ve changed nothing.

“No. We need to be as a party in a place where we can make the biggest difference for people and for planet. That’s what we’ve been doing. That’s where we are and that’s why it’s the best place for us to be.”

‘The environmental crisis is an economic crisis’

​Aspects of criticism aimed towards the Greens and climate policy in general has focused on the accusation that – despite widespread acceptance that tackling the impact of global warming is needed – that going too far too soon will result in a backlash from the voting public.

This critique has been strengthened due to the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and inflationary pressures alongside more than a decade of stagnant wage growth, leaving many people on the edge of survival.

This has resulted in policy shifts such as Labour’s ditching of the Ulez rollout, it became central to the arguments against the DRS due to increased costs on producers and consumers, and is deeply embedded in concerns about the end of North Sea oil and gas extraction.

Threatening jobs or any financial outlay is viewed as voter Kryptonite and, while opinion polls often show support for climate policies, voting habits do not necessarily follow such support when policies begin to empty pockets.

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Harvie, however, says he believes the environmental crisis and the economic crisis are “intimately connected”, that to assume otherwise is an “error” and that future economic crises will be sparked by factors such as food system collapses, or energy and water resources.

“The environmental crisis is an economic crisis as well as the direct environmental impacts,” he says.

“It is genuinely worrying that this global crisis, this existential crisis, is being nominally recognised, but then immediately turned into a political football by so many others.

“Keeping people stuck on fossil fuels hurts people in their pocket. Let’s not kid ourselves that the current energy crisis is the last energy crisis. The longer we stay addicted to fossil fuels, the more vulnerable we all are collectively and every individual household that is still paying for fossil fuels.”

Scotland has a “real opportunity” to lead on climate policies, Harvie claims, to ensure that net zero and the journey to it is quick and “it is the positive opportunity for a better and stronger Scotland in the future”.

In the recent past, however, Green and SNP politicians in Holyrood have bemoaned the party’s incapability to control the narrative around its greener policies.

Sources have looked, often with the benefit of hindsight, and reflected on how discussions around gender reforms, DRS, and HPMAs got away from them and control was ceded to the opposition.

Why, then, have the Scottish Greens failed to convince people of their point of view on the necessity of these types of policies?

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For this, Harvie blames the media and misinformation spread by those on social media, pointing at “entirely fake maps” shared of no take zones supposedly planned as part of the HPMA policy.

But, the co-leader maintains, “the political appetite is there” for change.

“I do have sympathy with anyone who has been persuaded by those seeking to misrepresent these policies that they justify that kind of fear,” he adds.

“There are people reacting not to what the policies are, the consultation isn’t even published yet, but are reacting to the way that it’s being misrepresented by others who, certainly at a political level, you can find plenty of people who are willing to vote for the climate targets, but then vote against everything we actually need to do to reach those targets.

“Meanwhile, has there been a day this summer without images on our TV screens of climate emergency happening at an ever more severe and accelerated pace around the world, including in this country?

“That’s only the most extreme weather events that become themselves individual news stories. The deeper threat in many ways to everyday quality of life from the climate emergency will be as food systems come under pressure. That won’t be seen in images of burning fields, but it will be seen in the price tags attached to the things that we all need to buy every week of the year.”

‘A generation that simply hasn’t moved on’

Harvie has been the target, along with the rest of his party, of significant criticism in recent weeks as SNP debate about the Bute House Agreement gains traction during otherwise fallow months for political news.

One of those critics, however, was Robin Harper. A former leader, MSP and colleague of Harvie’s in the early days of devolution, Harper’s announcement that he would be voting Labour at the next election and that the Scottish Greens were “cocky and careless” came at a time of a much-needed boost to Labour’s fortunes.

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When asked about his relationship with Harper, the Green co-leader gives the sense the two of them were hardly extremely close. No face-to-face conversation for “a while”, Harper accused of being “basically absent” from party activism and no memory of when he last attended conference.

“It’s obviously disappointing when somebody that you’ve worked with in the past departs from where the party has been for a long, long time,” Harvie states.

“There was probably always a sense in which Robin might have been a bit less convinced on the issue of independence than the rest of the party, but where he’s gone to now, there seems very little reflection on the fact that he was willing to be candidate, MSP and effectively co-leader of a pro-independence party.

“Maybe he needs to reflect a little on why he’s moved away from where the party’s at.”

Parliamentary criticism has been particularly fierce from veteran SNP MSP, Fergus Ewing, and during the SNP leadership contest, defeated contender Kate Forbes also made it clear that working with the Greens was conditional on their support for her agenda, not a continuation of the Bute House Agreement.

Asked what he thought of the two politicians, Harvie said: “I think very different things about the two of them. We’ll probably agree and disagree about a range of different things, but one of them is a bright and articulate person and the other is not.”

Pressed further, he added: “The other is Fergus Ewing. He represents a generation that simply hasn’t moved on and come to terms with the reality of what the climate emergency requires of us all collectively.

“I don’t think that’s true of Kate Forbes despite the fact that I will fundamentally disagree with her on certain issues. For example, in the way that she raised some of the issues around HPMAs, I don’t think that was in a knee-jerk reaction of just saying this is a bad idea and it shouldn’t happen.”

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Asked if he put Ewing and Harper in the same bracket, Harvie adds: “Hey, [it] absolutely shouldn’t be. But it leans into the idea that Robin’s perspective is simply being used as a proxy by others whose real objection is independence.”

On Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader, Harvie is similarly dismissive, labelling Alba as an “ego-trip party”. He adds: “I think it is regrettable that some people have already forgotten that he’s a discredited figure given his past behaviour.

“The idea of an electoral pact with a political party with no electoral track record would be a little absurd.”

The topic of Salmond is where Harvie reserves some criticism for Forbes, however, when he is asked whether it demonstrates a failure of judgment for her to appear on the Alba Party leader’s Fringe show.

“I think that would be a fair question to put to Kate,” he says.

“I think for anyone to almost move on from what happened in recent years ... it reminds me a little bit of the way George Galloway became a sort of media platform a long time after he was regarded as a credible politician.

“There are clearly some people who perhaps need some encouragement to realise it’s time to leave the stage.”



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