Change often seems impossible, but once it comes, change is inevitable

Scottish Green Party Spring Conference 2018

Good morning friends.

It is great to be here in Greenock with you all, for what I know will be a great day – talking about politics, learning from each other, catching up with old friends, meeting new friends, and perhaps even having some fun.

And we gather together at a time when things seem more unstable and unpredictable than they’ve been for a while; when institutions that have survived for centuries are starting to crumble; when the old world is dying, the new world is struggling to be born, and monsters are, indeed, all around us.

We are on the brink of great change. And it is up to us to decide on, and then design, the nature of that change.

Throughout history, change has often seemed impossible. But once it comes, it seems THAT change was always inevitable.

From votes for women to the end of apartheid, many along the way could not see success. When it came, it was quick, and decisive. This year we celebrated 100 years of (some) women being allowed to vote for the first time in the UK. Next year will be the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa. We need people who are committed to making the change we need to see in the world. And we know that we are the people leading that change, right here, right now.

Europe and the European Union are much on everyone’s minds just now. In 2014, in a European Election dominated by UKIP (remember them), and a race to the bottom on who could be meanest about immigrants, we stood for a just, welcoming Scotland. We were the first political party in Britain to break ranks on immigration: we made an overtly positive case for immigration and open borders. We felt so strongly about it, we even put it on a mug!

And we did this, just like we do what we do in the Parliament, in Councils, in our communities and neighbourhoods, because we are committed to creating a different kind of world. The world we are working towards is one of equality, social justice and non-violence; it is a world where radical participatory democracy is how we make decisions; and it is one where the exploitation of our environment, and the destruction of our climate, is not a function of the economy.

These pillars that guide our politics, and our practice, give us a very firm foundation on which to stand. And they provide us with a way to analyse and understand what is happening around us, so we might know how to change them for the better.

Social justice

We do not have to look very far at all to see evidence, and the very real human cost, of social inequalities and injustices. Significant health inequalities persist between rich and poor, with the gap in healthy life expectancy between Scotland’s least deprived and most deprived communities being 26 years for men and 22.2 years for women. Premature mortality has increased in each of the last 5 years. We know that, whilst employment rates might be rising, this masks the very real insecurity that many precarious workers, like those on zero hours contracts, and increasing numbers of self-employed people, face. And don’t get me started on the gender pay gap: 48 years after the Equal Pay Act and the World Economic Forum says pay equity is still over 200 years away – well bollocks to that. I won’t be around in 200 years, but none of our granddaughters, great granddaughters or great great granddaughters should be having to fight this battle.

And while I’m talking about smashing the patriarchy (and how painfully long that is taking), do we really want our daughters, nevermind our granddaughters to have to suffer gender based violence, or to live in societies where campaigns like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are needed because discrimination and prejudice are rife. And yes, when we’re talking equality, it has to be intersectional.

But we know that we’ve got some of the answers to these issues: Greens have led the way with policies whose time have well and truly come: a Citizens’ Income, Living Wage, a green industrial strategy to reboot our economy, equal representation, genuine equalities education, and so much more. But we also know that we do not have a monopoly on good ideas, and are open to learning from others too: I am very pleased that we have the Equal Representation Coalition and Women for Independence with us this weekend, sharing ideas, and perhaps also offering us some constructive criticism, helping us to do better.

But just having the right answers is not enough: we then need to communicate them to others, in ways that make sense to people where they are. We need to work hard, in our communities and neighbourhoods – not just in Holyrood or in Councils – going beyond our comfort zones, challenging ourselves and our own practices and behaviours, to reach out to more and more people to show them how these ideas will transform society for the better, and that we can be trusted to deliver and maintain that transformed society.


Some of those conversations will be easier than others. We know that our commitment to nuclear disarmament is shared by a majority of Scots. And yet the UK government is spending more than a £100billion on renewing Trident, supposedly to keep us safe. But this is a defence strategy which relies on the absurd assumption that hostile governments will never develop the technology to find a large submarine hiding at the bottom of the sea; it is a defence strategy that, sadly and despite hopes to the contrary, the Labour Party at Westminster is utterly signed up to; and it is a defence strategy that does nothing to address the real threats we face, like climate change, and does nothing to deter other threats, as we have seen recently on the streets of Salisbury.

We remain committed not only to the removal of Trident from Scottish waters and soils, but to full nuclear disarmament. We remain opposed to NATO, an imperialist structure of war that inhibits the creation of peace-building and peace-making countries. Warfare is unacceptable on our streets, so it cannot be legitimate to sell weapons of terror to Saudi Arabia and other countries to pursue war elsewhere.

An interventionist, militarised foreign policy is not in the interests of our safety and security, nor that of regions in which the UK has recently intervened. We should not underestimate the ramifications of such interventions: without the invasion of Iraq there would probably not have been civil war in Iraq; without that civil war ISIS would not have got the foothold it did; with no ISIS we would have a very much reduced refugee crisis; and with a very much reduced refugee crisis we would remove the fertile ground for the far right across Europe.

Rather, we want a Scotland that pledges non-violence, not only in its foreign policies, but also at home in how it treats refugees and asylum seekers. We want a Scotland that opens its arms to the world, holding out hands of friendship, dignity and respect. And we want a Scotland that uses the institutions and instruments of the state for peace-building and peace-making.

Participatory democracy

Now we know it is not just enough to have the right policies. It is also important that people get to decide how they are implemented and how their communities are designed and controlled. We have heard much – perhaps too much – about ‘taking back control’ over the last couple of years. The Leave Campaign of the EU Referendum was obsessed with the notion of taking back control. They talked about ‘our borders’, ‘our money’, ‘our taxes’, ‘our economy’, and ‘our security’. And yet the ‘our’ they were talking about certainly did not include us – they were not really talking about our borders, our money, our taxes, our economy, or our security.

It has become increasingly clear, if it wasn’t before, that Brexit is just an elaborate strategy to create borders and build walls that will threaten peace as we see in Northern Ireland; to funnel more money from public services and the workers into private, off-shore bank accounts; to secure better tax avoidance and evasion mechanisms for the elites; to create an economy of precarity and vulnerability for the rest of us; and to use the security apparatus to create a surveillance state. This is the road to authoritarianism. After nearly a decade of austerity, the obvious next step for the elites, who are so desperate to cling on to power and to their wealth, was to stoke the fires of xenophobia and anti-politics, causing division and increasing distrust across and between communities.

What we need to do, and do loudly, urgently, and with conviction, is to enable individuals and communities to use their knowledge, experience and expertise to actually take control of their lives: to make decisions about things that affect them, and to have power to change the things that need changing. And again, we have led the way on this, pioneering participatory budgeting with Leith Decides 10 years ago, demanding proper community empowerment in our planning system, fighting to democratise our places of work and our places of learning. Our commitment to radical, participatory democracy is THE antidote to the authoritarianism of the Conservative government at Westminster, and it is therefore the way to open up the spaces for inclusive discussions about the politics of the everyday, where people live, work, learn and play. This is how we really take back control.

Climate change and environment

Because we have seen the damage that the anti-politics of neoliberalism has done over the last 40 years. It has enabled the plundering of the earth’s precious resources and the pollution of the planet we and every other species relies on for life, all the while enriching the elites and exacerbating inequalities. We have been right about climate change, species loss and environmental destruction from long before anyone else cared. And we have never lost sight of how important these issues are, nor how utterly intertwined they are with social and economic justice. We have always led on these issues, perhaps most recently on securing the ban on fracking in Scotland.

We were able to win the fracking ban because we were able to build a social movement around the issue, with and as ordinary people in our communities, with and as grassroots organisers. Our theory of change – of how we make the impossible inevitable – is through social movements. And our biggest strength in this is that we are not alone.

Our theory of change is social movements

I am sure that many of you will have been as moved as I was watching the younger generation react defiantly, passionately and purposefully against gun violence and the might of the NRA in the United States – millennials may succeed where even Obama failed. We have witnessed emotional outpourings of love, bravery and support for Kurdish Afrin in the face of brutality by the Turkish state, and we, once again, reaffirm our solidarity with the Kurdish people. And we have seen, in the last month, just phenomenal solidarity by students across the UK with their university staff who have been on strike in defence of their pensions … A special shout out to the student occupations across Scotland – particularly Aberdeen!

These social movements, our social movements, are working against the old institutions of imperialist, patriarchal elitism. The institutions of previous worlds are creaking. They are in crisis. They are being brought down.

By us: working together, across communities. By mass actions. By mass movements. This is the key to unlocking the door to the new world that is struggling to be born.

So we must work on building and sustaining our social movement. To do this, we must present to those not yet convinced a positive vision of what the future could be. A great wordsmith, Leonard Cohen, once said ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. The first crack in the armour of the old imperialist institutions was the Independence Movement of 2014: the light got in and we were able to start imagining a different world: a world where the market did not make decisions about whether or not people lived or died. Our green voices, our radical voices were central to that vision.

So we must tear at the cracks and let more light in. By opposing the destruction of our climate in the name of short term profits; by decentralising power and promoting radical democracy; by defending peace against war and against nuclear proliferation; and by showing how and why equality and social justice is good for everyone.

We greens have always led the way. We have always been the light that creates the conditions for change and sparks the inevitable. And I am so proud, and honoured, to be here with you, sharing this exciting moment of change with you all.

Thank you.

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