Here is my speech to the Another Europe is Possible conference (Another Europe is still possible: resisting hard Brexit & Trump) in Manchester on 1st April 2017.
Good morning everyone and thank you very much for inviting me to speak today.
I’d like to start by remembering the great anti-apartheid fighter and struggle icon, Ahmed Kathrada – or Kathy – who died this week. So much has been said and written about him and his life in the past few days, so I will simply use some of his own words to remember him:
“In death, you once more challenge people from every strata, religion, and position to think about how their own actions do and can change the world for better or worse.”
And that’s what we are here to do today: to be challenged to think and act differently, to work out how exactly we can create another, better, Europe – one with social, economic, and environmental justice at its heart. And I am looking forward to today’s discussions, to hearing about your experiences and opinions on the current shambles in which we seem to find ourselves, and thinking about how we can do and be so much better.
I am Maggie Chapman, Co-convener – co-leader – of the Scottish Green Party. I am an immigrant from the global south, and not a citizen of either the UK or any other EU country. I think it is important that we acknowledge who we are, to make us better able to use every weapon at our disposal to work together for a better world. So, as a Green, as a Scot – a Scot by choice – an immigrant from beyond the EU but one who looks and sounds (to those who care about such things) as if I belong here, and as a woman in politics, I have a voice and privileged position. I therefore have a duty, a responsibility, to use my voice and position as best I can to bring about the change I want to see in the world.
But where are we all just now? Well, in the week in which Article 50 was triggered, a week after an attack on Westminster, things for us on the left seem very bleak. We know that the wealth gap is increasing. We know that austerity has punished many poor and vulnerable people. We know that many lives have been lost as a result. We know that immigrants are being targeted and blamed for failing public services. We know that racism and xenophobia are being nurtured by our media and political elite. And we know that those responsible for our economic and political uncertainty will be the last to pay the price for the destruction and havoc they have caused.
The right has carefully built a coalition around Europe, regulation, immigration, blaming them for the UK’s failings. They’ve taken 40 years to do this. In reality, these things are all either good – regulations to protect people at work, immigrants who contribute so much to our communities and cultures – or in no way the problem that the right makes them out to be. But they’ve told people a really strong, convincing story, a very powerful narrative, about what’s wrong with their lives, their country, their world. And, importantly, they’ve told us who is to blame: immigrants, benefits ‘scroungers’, welfare cheats.
The left has hoped that these fears would just go away, or would be rendered redundant by the fact that they were not true. In 2014, I ran for the European Parliament on a pro-immigration platform which almost everybody else thought was foolhardy. For too long they’d sat with their buttocks clenched as political debate resembled that family meal where you hope your racist uncle will just stop talking, because you’re too afraid, or can’t be bothered, to tackle his prejudice. Across the UK, Scotland was one of only two regions where Greens put their vote up. But it had a bigger effect than that – it forced the SNP into taking a pro-immigration stance publicly. That has, over the past three years, had a huge impact on the debate in Scotland. It became part of the independence referendum debate and, in no small part, contributed to the 62% remain vote in Scotland last June, where all 32 council areas voted to remain.
The argument on immigration can be won – we just need to tackle it head on, instead of sitting with our buttocks clenched waiting for Nigel Farage, Paul Nuttall, Theresa May, or Donald Trump, to shut up.
It is quite simple: we are not going to let our NHS be stripped of its workers, our schools be deprived of their staff, and our friends be wrenched out of our communities, just to satisfy bigots. It’s gone way beyond empty moaning to become a real threat to people’s lives. And we must recognise that immigrants are much more important to our communities than simply cogs in the labour market.
Similarly, the right has told us that European regulation and red tape has led to public sector inefficiencies and prevented our national and local governments delivering the services we need. Regulations that save lives, protect our environments, and promote equality all face being discarded in favour of a laissez faire approach that we know will lead to greater inequalities, increased environmental destruction, and poorer standards of living.
So we need to win this fight too – by highlighting the true benefits of regulation – but more importantly, by ensuring our citizens understand why these things matter. The only way we can do this is to change the way we do and think about politics: we need active, engaged citizens participating in democratic processes and discussions on a daily basis: it is too important to leave to 650 people in Westminster, or 129 in Holyrood, or to a Thursday in May every other year or so.
For too long, we have left the garden untended – we have not made the case for what we want politically, but have instead chosen to avoid conflict. We need, now more than ever, to make the case for the world we want to see. And that is about building movements for participatory democracy, for a better environment, for workers’ rights, rather than hoping that some distant body will impose them upon us.
Our societies have radical traditions running through them. In England you once beheaded your King. Now, I’m not suggesting regicide … but I am suggesting that we find those radical traditions and that we build a progressive politics on them. In Scotland, Tom Nairn and others made a start on this over 40 years ago, and the 2014 independence referendum allowed us to make clear progress on this. Maybe, just maybe, Brexit puts this need into sharp focus for the rest of the UK, and enables the kind of genuine engagement with politics that we so desperately need.
We all know that the cause of the problems we face is a rigged economy – rigged because it delivers only for the 1%. The discontent that has focussed on Europe and on immigration is not caused by Europe or immigration. It is caused by alienation and a capitalist class running amok. If there is an upside to Brexit, it may be that it calls their bluff. Just as they built the story about immigration, regulation and Europe, so we need to create a story about the economy and society we want and need: an economy for people not profit.