Evening Times column: We can build a greener, stronger Scotland

Posted on March 21, 2014

I have taken part in many public debates about independence and, as the referendum campaign enters its final six months, I am sure there will be many more.This week I’m doing one which, as a Green MSP, I regard as being on my home turf.

It’s been organised by Stop Climate Chaos, a broad coalition of organisations campaigning on the crucial issue of climate change. Although most Greens are pro-independence there are others who will be voting No or who remain undecided, and I’m sure this is true of climate change campaigners too.

Is there a clear reason why independence would be good or bad for Scotland’s contribution to tackling climate change?

Maybe it depends more on the kind of governments we elect in future, instead of the constitutional situation.

Of course there’s a lot of truth in that.

Scotland achieved a good degree of political consensus on our climate change legislation, but we have missed every single target so far.

All political parties want to say the right things but there’s little commitment to doing the right things.

Without transformed policies on energy, transport, housing and the economy we will continue to see failure on climate change, whether we are independent or not.

But oil-dependent Scotland would be forced to face reality with more urgency than the UK.

Both governments are still utterly committed to exploiting fossil fuels; they regard them all as positive economic resources.

But in reality the world has many times more than we can ever afford to burn.

By the leading estimates, as much as 80% of reserves will have to remain unused if we are to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Yet much of our economy rests on the perceived value of these same reserves, as though all of them will end up being used.

This means not only that the fossil fuel industry itself is profoundly over-valued, but also that whole economies are vulnerable as a result.

This is the so-called “carbon bubble” – not just an environmental threat but a gigantic economic crash waiting to happen.

At present, the UK Government is every bit as committed to the fossil fuel industry as the SNP Government in Edinburgh.

Scotland’s vast oil and gas industry creates economic vulnerability, not strength.

We urgently need to reduce our use of fossil fuels in energy terms, and reduce our economic exposure to the carbon bubble.

Independence doesn’t achieve that in one step, but it allows us to begin the transition to a renewable – and economically sustainable – alternative.

We can build a greener, fairer and economically stronger Scotland.

But I’d challenge anyone to show me how the limited powers of devolution allow us even to get started.

Column from Glasgow Now – data, privacy and the surveillance state

Posted on March 12, 2014

A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy.

So wrote a group of five hundred leading authors including names such as Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Tom Stoppard, in an open letter to the United Nations at the end of last year. They were trying to initiate a global campaign for a Digital Bill of Rights, and in the few months since then the idea has begun to catch on. But is it too late?
There can be no doubt that mass surveillance is already taking place, and that our own governments have gone way beyond any democratic mandate in developing it. The Edward Snowden revelations have exposed the extent of government surveillance in such a shocking way that even his critics cannot brush the matter aside. Nobody can be in any doubt that governments which claim democratic credentials, and even use international law as justification for war, are not behaving like law-abiding democrats.

But the issues of surveillance, data, and privacy go beyond what our governments are doing deliberately. Serious threats to our freedom and privacy can also arise from an incoherent or muddled policy. Over recent days concerns about the security of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of NHS websites have begun to surface in the national media. If websites which collect patients’ confidential data become vulnerable simply because the software running them has gone out of date, or because the NHS itself maintains no control over them, then threats to privacy may arise from an unregulated mess, rather than a deliberate programme of surveillance.

A similar lack of regulation can be seen in the private sector. A decade or so ago people might have been worried about how much information the supermarket loyalty card held about them; the issue has spiralled out of all control since then. Your internet service provider, your mobile phone company, your search engine, a host of other private companies which gather data about us all are currently able to use it without meaningful oversight or even our informed consent. As corporations control so many aspects of our lives, and exercise power which was once under democratic control, this opens up chilling possibilities.

Sometimes arguments about the public good are used to justify data sharing between companies or government departments. The desire to identify people who pose a threat such as terrorist groups or organised criminals, or to ensure that information relevant to child protection cases doesn’t get lost but is acted on; these are understandable attempts to use technology to help keep people safe.

But unless such activity is truly accountable, and takes place in a context of respect for people’s privacy and the presumption of innocence, it risks undermining basic principles of a democratic society.

This country rejected the proposal for ID cards, backed up by a database which would have tracked every citizen. There’s a real concern that we’re already getting most of what the National ID scheme would have involved, but this time by stealth instead of by conscious choice.

A global Bill of Digital Rights is important to campaign for. But agreeing it would take years; it’s crucial that we hold our governments to account right now, or by the time the United Nations even debates such a Bill the concept of digital rights could be a historical footnote.

Pride House at Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games means warm welcome for LGBT athletes

Posted on February 27, 2014
This week saw the very welcome announcement that Glasgow will be host to a ‘Pride House’ venue during this summer’s Commonwealth Games, creating a safe space and welcoming venue for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes and supporters, and anyone else who wants to know more about the challenges and positive developments in LGBT sport. First a feature of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the Pride House concept has quickly taken off with similar facilities in place for the London Olympics and plans in the works for this year’s World Cup in Brazil.

As host nation, Scotland has a positive story to tell about LGBT human rights, having taken huge steps just within recent decades. Relationships between men were illegal in Scotland right up until 1980 and the age of consent was not equalized until 2001. The repeal of Section 2A and recent legislation to allow same-sex marriage have been two of the Scottish Parliament’s most notable victories for LGBT rights. And this in a society which was once regarded as a socially conservative religious stronghold.

While it’s important to avoid any attempt to ‘politicize’ the Games, which will be first and foremost a sporting spectacle, they won’t take place in a vacuum. Just as the Winter Olympics in Sochi have provided an opportunity to challenge homophobic legislation and violence in Russia, we must take this chance to highlight the challenges people face in overcoming discrimination across the Commonwealth. Sport does take place in a context, and the Commonwealth is the political body which underpins these Games. It has provided weak leadership, to say the least, on the LGBT human rights abuses which take place in some of its member countries.

In many of those countries, LGBT rights aren’t about marriage or pensions, they are about life and death. According to a recent report by the Kaleidoscope Trust, same-sex relationships are still criminalised in 41 of the 53 Commonwealth states with penalties including life imprisonment and even death. Even where such laws are no longer enforced, a culture of intimidation and violence remains in many places. Much of this legislation has remained on the statute books since the days of the British Empire, placing on us a particular duty to support the development of LGBT rights in these countries.

Scotland has a great story to tell about our progress toward equality, and lessons we can share with those seeking the same change around the world. When the Games come to Glasgow this year I hope that we can take the chance to tell that story, share those lessons, and build links with those struggling for human rights and equality around the world.

Don’t give UKIP a voice in Scotland

Posted on January 23, 2014

DEMOCRACY is meant to offer meaningful choice, but it still leaves many people feeling the need for the occasional protest vote.

Protest can be a deadly serious business of course, as with New Labour and the Iraq War.

But often the desire to give political parties a kicking comes from a disillusionment with politics in general.

I would like to hope that at the next opportunity, in just four months, Scotland will instead register a positive vote for change.

The European Parliament election in May is starting to appear on people’s radar, and we’re being told by London-based pundits and pollsters to expect a protest vote for the anti-Europe UK Independence Party.

However, you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to see it’s an outfit that has less resonance north of the Border.

A YouGov poll has UKIP on a sliding scale; the further north you go in the UK the lower their vote.

In Scotland they’re neck and neck with the Greens in the race to take one of Scotland’s six European Parliament seats.

It’s clear that if we want to keep Scotland UKIP-free we need a strong Green vote in May’s election.

On one hand it’s easy to dismiss UKIP given their clown-like behaviour.

This week they had to suspend one of their councillors after he blamed the recent flooding on… wait for it… same sex marriage.

One of their MEPs, Godfrey Bloom, called developing countries “bongo-bongo land” and made insulting comments about women party members.

We also know that the party here in Scotland, what little of it there was, is mired in infighting.

But on the other hand, many people are understandably weary of an out-of-touch Westminster political class, and relentless tabloid headlines about “benefit tourists” and the meddling of “Brussels bureaucrats” only serve the UKIP agenda. When David Cameron labels UKIP “fruitcakes” he’s giving them the anti-establishment gloss they seek.

I believe we should instead be challenging what they really stand for.

UKIP’s immigrant-bashing rhetoric bears no relation to the facts on the ground, but fuels racism and resentment.

Their blinkered attitude to climate change is completely at odds with science and would prevent Scotland making the most of its natural resources and skilled workforce.

And their intolerance towards equality firmly underlines just how out of date and out of touch they are.

It’s clear that Europe needs to be more accountable, more transparent and more sustainable.

But I think most people in Scotland want to change Europe and not to leave it.

We understand the benefits of doing business across borders and welcoming those who come here for work. Migration to Scotland enriches our culture, strengthens our economy and is vital to sustaining many of our communities and public services.

Scotland’s not so daft as to ditch all that to keep Nigel Farage happy.

We need to stay in Europe… and we need change

Posted on January 17, 2014

As I write this, I’m already worried about how to hold your interest for a few hundred words on the subject of the European Parliament. It’s not a subject most people lose sleep over; we’ll be electing our MEPs in just a few months, but it’s unlikely to make headlines any time soon. In any case the media knows most people aren’t interested, so European elections generally end up focusing on domestic issues instead.

Although many people have a sense that Europe is important and that it’s where many of our laws are made, most people’s engagement with European politics is close to non-existent. That might be understandable given the remoteness of the institutions and the lack of media coverage, but it’s still a problem. Democracy only works well when people are in touch with the issues, and can hold their decision makers accountable. Whether you’re personally pro- or anti-Europe, nobody’s about to hold Europe up as a great example of democracy in action.

This year’s election might just manage a little more focus on European issues. That’s partly because in Scotland we have the added dimension of the independence referendum a few months later, which raises the question of Scotland’s possible route to becoming a full EU member state, and it’s partly due to the media speculation about how UKIP will do in the election. They’re not just an anti-Europe party; they also bring with them a load of other baggage from sexism and homophobia to the nasty, hostile and xenophobic nature of their anti-immigrant policies.
I’m sure there are people who’re sceptical about the EU but who don’t share those things with UKIP, and who probably feel very unrepresented. But just as important, I think there are also many people who do want to be in Europe, but who want it to change. The case for a more democratic, more accountable and more transparent Europe needs to be made.
That’s what the Greens are doing. Ahead of the election we’re holding an open primary to choose our lead candidates for Europe; anyone in Europe over 16 years of age who supports the values of the Green movement can vote now at www.greenprimary.eu. And we’ll go into the election itself on a platform of changing Europe to serve the interests of Europe’s people, not the corporate interests which dominate at present.
At a time when crucial decisions are being made about the future of Europe, we can’t afford to have them debated and decided behind closed doors. We can’t afford to have ever more power handed over to unelected cliques, as the current EU Commission is doing.
I’m strongly for staying in Europe, but we can’t ignore the need for change.
The election this year should see a debate about the kind of Europe we do want, not just a list of complaints about the kind of Europe we don’t want.

This week’s debates

Posted on January 12, 2014

Holyrood returned from the winter recess this week, and the two main debates were on Scotland’s Future and Scotland’s Economy. In reality, they naturally covered quite a bit of the same ground; since the SNP used the first to announce some measures for the forthcoming budget, and to restate the economic objectives of its childcare policy. And of course the referendum is increasingly the prism through which every debate is seen, so the opening debates of 2014 could hardly fail to rehearse the arguments on both sides.

Here’s my speech from the debate on Scotland’s Future, which is followed by Neil Findlay with whom I had a brief exchange of interventions, highlighting the consistency of Tory, New Labour, Coalition and the SNP in seeking continual cuts to Corporation Tax. It’s a trend which needs to be reversed if either side in the referendum debate wants a fairer taxation system instead of one which serves the interests of the Amazons and Starbucks of this world…

And here’s my speech from the economy debate… followed by a little post-match analysis on Newsnight Scotland:

We need to find lessons of peace in memory of the First World War

Posted on January 8, 2014

THE end of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this year will see a curious key-change, as the enjoyment and celebration of sport are followed by the start of the programme of commemoration of the First World War

Indeed for many of the countries who are our guests for the Games, it will be a reminder not only of the war itself, but also of the time of Empire, when many of them were still under British occupation, with few personal or political freedoms.

It’s never simple thinking about the way times change, applying the values of today to the events and actions of previous centuries.

But if we’re to commemorate the war I think it’s important to do so on modern terms, and not to gloss over the injustices of the time with words like “patriotism” and “bravery”.

This debate has opened up in recent days, with Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove complaining that “left wing academics” have been cultivating a myth of the First World War as a “misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite”.

One of Gove’s targets was the series of TV’s Blackadder, set in the trenches.

In reply Tony Robinson, who played Baldrick, was quite restrained and simply defended the right of teachers to use the series as one teaching tool among many, and one which nobody would mistake for a documentary.

I have no doubt that many who fought in the war did show bravery and, whether or not one considers it a virtue, patriotism.

But it would be wrong to acknowledge that without also acknowledging that this war was no unfortunate tragedy, as Mr Gove suggests, but an atrocity perpetrated by the powerful leaders of both sides, and that they were willing to expend the lives of millions of their own citizens.

Those who chose to begin this war may have sincerely valued bravery and patriotism when they were shown, but that didn’t stop them conscripting the unwilling or executing their own soldiers to impose discipline.

This was a time in which the governments of Europe, largely headed by branches of the same royal dynasty, rounded up vast numbers of young men from every city, town and village, herded them into muddy fields and forced them to murder one another, while telling them that it was noble.

To commemorate such a conflict without judging the actions of those who brought about such brutality, who squandered the lives of their own citizens and those of the countries they occupied in their empires, would be little more than empty jingoism.

A century on, it’s still vital that we strive to find lessons of peace in the memory of war.

Coming year will change landscape

Posted on December 27, 2013
Presents have been opened, sprouts have been eaten (or perhaps not) and a few green needles are on the carpet already.

As we all start counting the cost to our waistlines and our wallets, another Christmas is over.

Whether you treat it as a consumerist binge, a religious festival or a midwinter party, it’s a time for taking stock of one year and drawing breath for the next. So I can’t help contemplating the ghost of Scotland’s Christmas Yet to Come.

By the time we’re writing our Christmas cards next year we’ll have made one of the most important political choices ever put on a Scottish ballot paper. We’ll be surveying a new political landscape, whichever way that decision goes.

If it’s a Yes, we’ll be into transition mode.

The Scottish Government will be settling down to the welter of practical choices needed to turn independence from an idea into a reality.

The UK Government meanwhile will be preparing for a general election in spring, with Tory Ministers aiming for an overall majority this time and LibDem ones coyly eyeing the jobs pages.

Labour will have their work cut out seeking a majority which can still hold at Westminster after the Scottish MPs are surplus to requirements.

All parties at Holyrood, whether they were for or against independence, will need to adapt to the new reality or risk being left behind.

But even if it’s a No vote, the landscape would be changed.

Scotland’s dominant political force, defined for decades by the independence cause, would need to figure out what it’s for.

Finding agreement across its ranks about the answer to that question would be tricky enough, even before they try and communicate it to the voters.

But for those of us who see the referendum as a moment for Scotland to choose a new political direction, by taking the powers to build a fairer and more sustainable society, the question will be how much can ever be achieved under devolution, especially while the UK Government begins a scrap over Europe.

Either way there will be new challenges and, we must hope, new opportunities.

The biggest dividing line in Scottish politics will finally have been settled, the only way it can be, by the voters. In either scenario one of the big challenges will be finding a way to work together in that new political territory; accepting the democratic results, and healing rifts rather than making them wider.

I want a Yes vote, but whichever way it goes I want to see the country emerge stronger and able to make the most of the new political landscape we’ll be entering.

That would require a spirit of Christmas that we rarely see in our politics, but it’s long overdue.

Energy prices need long term solutions

Posted on December 18, 2013
After sustained anger and resentment about energy prices, and the Labour Party’s offer of a price freeze if they are elected in 2015, the UK Government has been making the headlines recently with a promise to cut bills by £50 in the coming year. Well Mr Cameron should enjoy those headlines while he can, because you can be pretty sure they won’t last.
For starters that figure of £50 is expected to be the average saving, and there’s no reason to imagine that the households who have been struggling the most with the cost of energy will see that much come off their own bill. People in smaller houses, and those who have been careful to save energy where they can, will see far less benefit. Even for those who do find themselves getting the average saving, it comes on the back of a price rise of some £120, so nobody’s going to be feeling that they’ve got money to burn at the end of the day.
But the longer term problem is about how this price cut has been engineered. By cutting the ‘Energy Companies Obligation’, the Government is telling the big (and highly profitable) power firms to ease off on the investment in energy efficiency measures such as insulation. But energy efficiency is one thing we can do which will save money for billpayers in the long term. Invest in energy-saving measures today, and you won’t only cut your bill in the coming year but in every year to come.

The UK Government has a dismal track record in delivering the improvements in energy efficiency that we need, and the result is that we’re not only paying high prices for the energy we need, but also for the energy we’re wasting through our roofs, windows and walls. It seems that, regardless of whether David Cameron ever really said “Get rid of the green crap”, that phrase sums up his true attitude. With it, he’ll be getting rid of the most rational part of the energy agenda – the chance to tackle both fuel poverty and climate change at the same time.

Nelson Mandela – Holyrood pays tribute

Posted on December 12, 2013

On Tuesday the Scottish Parliament paid tribute to Nelson Mandela, in a motion supported by all parties. Alex Salmond, Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson, Willie Rennie and I all said a few words. Here’s my contribution: