The Centre has Collapsed, for Greens our time has come

Scottish Green Party Conference Speech, October 2018

Good morning friends. Welcome to our conference, and a special welcome to conference newbies, and to Grace – thank you for being with us.

And thank you, Christy, for that introduction. It is so good to see you all this morning, to be here with you. There were a few days, earlier this week when I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d make it here today. Some of you know that I had surgery on Tuesday. Can I just say that I love morphine. But I love the NHS even more, and I want to pay special tribute and give my heartfelt thanks to the wonderful nurses, surgeons, anaesthetists and others who looked after me so well at Roodlands General Hospital – they are all heroes!

And because of their excellent care – and morphine – I am here today. Excuse me if I grimace at any point – it might be the pain, but it might also be because some people don’t think we still have a problem with the patriarchy.

Every year, when conference approaches, I ask myself why I do this, why you lot matter to me, why what we do is so important. This year is a little bit different, in some ways. We don’t have a national election scheduled – not yet, at any rate. And yet there is still so much happening.

I know that, over the course of the weekend, we’ll all hear more about what our elected representatives in Holyrood and in Councils have been doing. I thank them all for their hard work.

We’ll also hear about, discuss and debate, two of the big constitutional issues of our time: Scottish Independence and Brexit. And I’ll come back to each of these in a little while.

But, in many ways, much more importantly, we’ll hear, if we choose to listen, to the real green politics of our members: the campaigns and activism happening up and down our country, in the rest of the UK, indeed, around the world. Some of these activities make media headlines: huge well done to all of you involved in the many and various tenants rights campaigns, banning assault on children, immigrant solidarity actions, slavery-remembering campaigns and anti-Trump protests across Scotland. But many of the actions that you, our members do to change the world, go un-noticed. I would just like to take a moment to acknowledge these, and to thank you for doing what it is you do.

Because, in many ways, these are the activities and goings on that are most important to me. Being a part of something much bigger than our parliament, or our representative democratic structures. Because these structures are the institutions of a dying world. I know I’ve said this before – I’m sure you’ll allow me a bit of recycling – but that Gramsci quote: “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” is still true, still strikingly relevant.

The morbid symptoms we see – the monsters – are all around us: Brexit, the tarnishing of immigrants and ordinary people as scroungers, Austerity, the insatiable desire of capitalism to suck dry our environmental resources. We see the devastation of the old systems everywhere we look.

And it is precisely this that I want to focus on this morning: Green politics, our politics, give us the skills and the tools to navigate our way into the new world, as long as we are prepared to be the midwives for this new world. More than this though, our Green politics, our radical politics can show how hope and compassion can win over fear and indifference. Now is the time to be true to our radicalism.

Because the centre has collapsed. Where being moderate, where triangulating to the centre, were seen by many as the way to success, they are no longer. Moderation has never delivered the kinds of radical change we know we need to see in the world. It wasn’t being moderate that got the anti-fracking demonstrators freed from prison. It wasn’t by being moderate that the apartheid system in South Africa was overthrown. And it certainly wasn’t by being moderate that some better off women won the right to vote 100 years ago.

People across the country understand that, from the economy to the constitution to the environment we face deep crises, and they are looking for those with the proposals, and the convictions, which match the scale of the challenges before us.

One of the areas where it is most obvious that the centre has collapsed is in social security. The last Westminster Labour government and the Tory-led administrations from 2010 onwards have crushed people’s lives using what they call welfare reform. The old centrist aim of a welfare system based on means testing is simply no longer possible. Instead we have a choice between the Tory immiseration strategy and a universal basic income. As we approach the centenary of the brutal murder of Rosa Luxemburg, her belief that we face a simple choice between socialism and barbarism has never been more true.

Over the past 30 years we have seen various attempts to locate the responsibility for stopping climate breakdown with individuals and their lifestyles. And of course it has always been in the interests of the wealthy and the corporations they own to shift responsibility for climate breakdown from their actions to our actions. Well I believe we can all take personal actions to stop climate breakdown. But those actions have to be radical political actions to change our society and economy: divestment from fossil fuels, a just transition in our energy economy, valuing environmental resources as more than just commodities, the end to the agribusiness complexes that pollute and contaminate our world.

We were all horrified by the graphic images of plastics in our oceans. But the answer cannot be banning plastic straws or merely encouraging beach cleans – as important as clean beaches are. As Greens have always argued the answer must be to stop the big corporations who benefit from single use plastics from producing them in the first place unless they are absolutely necessary. And it must be to stop those who profit from dumping plastics in the sea. Where others think that recycling is enough, Greens have always known that we need an economy that sees nature as a partner with humanity, rather than a resource to simply exploit.

According to the IPCC we could face climate breakdown in 2030, or we could have transformed our world. And the things that will keep our climate stable are the things that will make everyone’s lives better. Less work, time with our friends and family, better food, more vibrant local economies, clean water and air. And yet people talk about halting climate breakdown as if it were a cost. It is only a cost if you are profiting from the destruction of our planet. It is time to take these corporations head on. The 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, their cheerleaders and the governments they have captured must be our targets.

Because what we need is system change not climate change.

We need a transport system that meets the needs of all our communities. At the moment our country is scarred by cuts to rural transport. Our cities suffer from the emissions compounded by grand scale corporate lying about diesel emissions.

We need a totally new approach. We need to nationalise the railways now. We need our buses to be run for communities not for profit. We need to harness new technologies to provide universal high quality public transport. And – personal opinion (for now, I hope!) – I think that public transport should be free – thanks to the Young Greens for your motion!

In international affairs we have seen the move away from cooperation. Brexit is only one manifestation of this. The Trump regime is systematically undermining agreements, from the Iran nuclear deal to UN Convention on human rights. Most seriously the US is undermining international action on climate change and human rights.

But Greens always knew that states negotiating on behalf of their own interests, drawing up nation to nation deals, wouldn’t be enough to deliver the change we need. Our commitment to peace making and to global social movements is needed more now than ever if we are to see negotiations on behalf of global commons taken seriously. Governments won’t give us change, we must demand a better world.

The old certainties of the market economy sank 10 years ago. And all attempts to refloat that economy have failed. We are at risk of another crash. Possibly bigger than in 2008, and conventional economics has no answer to the question posed by so many in 2008: what have we learned from the crash. When students at Manchester University started asking why their economics course hadn’t adapted at all to economics after the crash, they set up “Rethinking Economics”. And their lecturers had no answers to what economics after the crash should look like.

Before modern medicine, apothecaries would treat all sorts of ailments by applying leeches to suck the patients’ blood. When this didn’t work – and in many cases, it didn’t – the answer was simply to apply more leeches. So it is with austerity. When cuts make things worse, the answer has been, of course, more cuts, with similar consequences for our society to those blood-drained patients. In the UK, in the US and elsewhere, governments spent money they didn’t have to try and save capitalism. But that wasn’t enough. We saw, on our streets, in our banks, and in our pockets, a catastrophic experiment in the economic equivalent of bleeding with leeches. And as I think we can all agree: we’ve had enough of these cuts.

We demand an economy based on planetary health and human wellbeing. We’ve always argued for this. Now is the time to give full voice to the demand for an economy that puts people and planet ahead of profit.

But it is not just about changing the policies we make or implementing policies we’ve been advocating for decades. Our Green politics is quite clear: we must also change how we talk with people about politics – how we appeal to them. We must change what politics means to people. We must change how society works.

We know that scaring people is not a good way to convince them to change. Shouting and haranguing people will not bring them onside. Alienating people by telling them they not good enough, or are ignorant or stupid for not doing the right things will only push them further away from us.

Rather, we must act with compassion, with understanding and in love. We must listen as well as talk. We must give space for others to think, learn and change. And we must not be afraid to think, learn and change ourselves.

I think that the approach that our politics points to is that of social movements. Social movements are the animating force in history – we know that movements like Occupy, the movement for Scottish Independence, and movements against austerity like UK Uncut, can change societies. The campaigns for Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and the rise of Podemos show that social movements are making an impact in party politics too.

And if Green politics is about anything in terms of an organising principle, social movements give us that organising principle: we have never believed we should exist as an elite political party with personality politicians, protected from the daily machinations of life by ministerial limos and parliamentary protocols. Rather, we know that our strength lies in our commitment to move beyond the old institutions of representational politics by intertwining it with genuine participatory democracy. But this isn’t just a strength of Green politics, it is fundamental to how we do things. Bringing people in, giving them power, creating inclusive and dynamic decision-making processes are our life blood.

And with participation comes a responsibility to work with others, to seek common cause, to break down institutional and societal boundaries. And we have been doing this over the last four decades: we have stood alongside the anti-nuclear and peace movements, we have been and continue to be an integral partner in the feminist movement, we have spoken out for social and environmental justice together with communities and organisations across the world. We understand the importance of solidarity, of standing with the vulnerable, marginalised and oppressed, of the immense power in collective organisation and mutual cooperation on which the trade union movement is based.

Perhaps the most effective example of this was how we worked with others in the run up to the 2014 Independence Referendum. We sought – and found – common cause with RIC, WfI, National Collective, even other political parties, to deliver an exciting vision of a very different Scotland: a progressive Scotland that would be a global force for good. That Independence campaign could so easily have been the “It’s our oil” campaign. Rather, because we and so many others worked together, stood together, fought together, it was a campaign for a socially and environmentally just, peace-making Scotland. We must not underestimate the impact this has had on issues like currency, the decentralisation of power, and very strikingly, in comprehensively winning the argument about fracking which many in other parties were determined to see go ahead. This extraordinary working with others allowed us to have an impact on Scottish politics where green ideas have a resonance well beyond that in many parts of Europe and certainly beyond the rest of the UK.

I am confident that we do understand that our strength lies in building common cause across political and other boundaries, and that we will continue to do just that, treating others as equals, as partners. I think these values are needed as we fight for democratic control of Brexit, and I look forward to seeing how we embrace these values when we debate our position on the People’s Vote – the principle of which I am very much in favour of. Similarly, I think that there is clearly common cause to be made with those determined to see a better Scotland: over 100,000 people on the streets of Edinburgh just a couple of weeks ago, and the phenomenal support for SIC’s fundraising campaign – nearly £50,000 in just 5 days – show just some of the opportunities for us to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to work with others and be a part of delivering that better, green, fair, peaceful and welcoming Scotland.

That is our task. Our challenge. We want to create a new world that people are desperate to live in rather than the racialised dystopias of the right or the daily dissatisfaction of the centre – a dissatisfaction that people have had enough of. Our radicalism can take us there. We have seen, very recently, Greens across Europe doing well. And there is a pattern to their success: where others pander to racism and hatred, Greens stand up to the forces of evil. Rather than spread fear and hate, they give people courage and hope. And they didn’t do this by talking only to themselves, by alienating others, by being tribal. They did it by looking out beyond themselves. They did it by having one foot in their Parliaments, but also, very clearly, one foot on their streets.

We have always been a radical party, a party with solutions that deal with the root causes of the problems we face, rather than simply treating the symptoms. That is, after all, what radicalism is – going to the root of things.

As radicals, we can, and will, deal with the root causes of inequality, environmental destruction and climate breakdown.

We can, and we will, transform our society.

Our time has come.

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