Harvie wary over coalition with SNP but says Greens could "potentially" achieve more in government

Political Editor Peter MacMahon sat down with Scottish Green's co-leader Patrick Harvie. Credit: ITV News

In the Scottish election so far the Scottish Greens have been characterised in two completely contrasting ways.

They paint themselves as the grit in the SNP's cautious centrist oyster, forcing the Scottish government to produce pearls of radical environment-saving, climate emergency-tackling, policies.

To their opponents they are nothing more than SNP-lite (light-green you might say), another independence-supporting party propping up Nicola Sturgeon's administration to achieve their shared goal of Scotland leaving the UK.

You'll hear both of these views expressed a lot over the course of the next month or so. Elections tend not to be a time for subtlety or nuance. The reality is a bit more complicated. 

Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie on a visit to Falkirk. Credit: PA

At the heart of that reality is an obvious dilemma for the Scottish Greens. How radical can they be and still get elected? And how much must they compromise to get even some of their policies enacted? Can the clash between principle and pragmatism be reconciled?

That was what I tried to explore with Patrick Harvie, the co-leader of the Scottish Greens, in the latest of our Representing Border interviews ahead of the Holyrood elections on May 6. 

What happens when the Green philosophy collides with the issues of the day? A few examples.

All the other major parties say we need economic growth to help the economy recover from the COVID recession. Yet the Greens do not believe in economic growth in the conventional sense - growth in GDP.

Harvie told me: "Just growth on it's own does not necessarily mean people's needs are being met, if the proceeds of growth are being hoarded by people who are already wealthy."

There was "a question about whether ever-lasting economic growth can exist on a planet with finite resources".

What about a very practical example, relevant to the south of Scotland? Most of the other parties back the expansion, including dualling, of the A75 and A77, vital road links for the local economy in terms of tourism and the ferry links at Cairnryan.

Harvie told me "better roads and bigger roads, that's not necessarily the same thing", and argued that the Greens policy free public transport for young people was more effective.One illustration this - where policy and potential power collide.

The Greens have long been in favour of abolishing the Council Tax, which they say is regressive with, in effect, lower taxes on better off people in larger properties.

On big issues like the Scottish government budget and recent votes of no confidence in ministers the Greens have sided with the SNP. 

Could they not have been more robust and told the party of government they would only support them if they abolished the council tax, a policy the Nationalists themselves once favoured?

Harvie says that in the first years of the last parliament his party's focus was on income tax, and says green influence made it fairer - with higher taxes for those on higher incomes. 

The second half of the parliament was dominated by COVID and that talks on local government financing stalled, he adds. 

But perhaps the biggest question of all for the Greens is whether they take the step their colleagues in many other countries have taken, and enter government, most likely with the SNP?

I asked Harvie if his party could achieve more in government. His reply: "Potentially, yes". He added he "has that aspiration" for his party, though he was careful to say his party and not necessarily for him.

He also said a minority government, which we have had for the last five years, had benefits as ministers could never be sure of winning votes, which was good for democracy and accountability.

Listening to the Scottish Greens leader you might come to the conclusion that many of his answers are of the 'one the one hand, on the other' variety. 

But be in no doubt that while the party continues to wrestle with the issue of reconciling principle with pragmatism, their radical intent remains: to change society fundamentally - and for the better, the Greens claim.

  • You can see my interview with Patrick Harvie for Representing Border here: