My 2016 vote

Politics seems like a blur these days. At times a horrifically depressing blur. Hence the fact I’ve not blogged anything for a long time about Scottish politics. Since the referendum, in fact.

Much has happened since then, including the Tories’ surprise victory in the 2015 General Election and the forces of hell that unleashed, the SNP’s surge, Corbynmania and of course the EU referendum (more on that last one in another blog post coming soon).

But one other thing that has happened since then – and, frankly, it had been happening for some considerable time before – is my slow drift towards a desire to vote Green in the Scottish Parliament elections next month.

The independence referendum reinforced in my mind that the Greens were a principled, straight talking and radical party that wasn’t afraid to think big and think different. And as the referendum sparked – on the Yes side, at least – an unparalleled level of optimism, creativity and vision in Scottish politics, the Greens played a big part in selling a convincing, diverse and fresh case for independence.

Two things struck me about the Greens’ contribution to the referendum debate. Firstly, they made a case that was explicitly non-nationalist. Now, there’s a perfectly valid civic nationalist case for independence, but what the referendum campaign helped prove was that the argument was no longer owned or characterised by nationalism or the SNP, but by a diversity of voices.

(And the fact that there are nationalist, Green, socialist and many other approaches to a case for independence is one of the main successes of the referendum campaign: one of the key arguments in Scottish politics today is not merely independence versus the Union but lots of different parties’ and individuals’ competing views about the different routes to and benefits of independence. More and more, independence seems to be becoming a given, the starting point for discussions; meaning the key question now is what we could do once we’re there. That perception is a bit of a tangent for this post but something I would love to expand on in the future if I have the time and energy.)

The second thing that impressed me about the Greens during the referendum was that they were quite honest about their party’s divisions on the matter. There was a substantial minority – but minority nonetheless – in the party opposed to independence, their spokesfolk would frequently say. And this was due to the fact that independence was not the party’s raison d’être but merely a model of governance that they believed make their policies more achievable. There’s something extra-persuasive about a group who say they’ve not just gone for independence due to some inherent, unarguable instinct but as the result of a evaluation of the facts as they see them.

Of course, the Greens were, in the grander scheme of things, not among the bigger players in the referendum. The SNP and the major Unionist voices dominated on the whole. But the Greens, like the SNP (if not on the same scale) enjoyed something of a post-referendum bounce, and as their membership has rocketed so has their profile, their impact and their perceived chances in next month’s vote. There’s an optimism about the party, and they are now talking about providing a principled, constructive opposition to the SNP – something that would be refreshing in the face of the dogged, ideological “SNPBAD” messages being repetitively heard from the Unionist parties.

So far, so very political and so very referendum-shaped. My drift to the Greens is not just about all that, however. It is, thankfully, down to their policies too.

The Greens, more than perhaps any other party in Scotland, appear to have not only a vision that appeals to me, but one that seems more than with any other party to be is holistic and integrated – it’s not a collection of individual policies focus grouped to death but policies that all have their routes in a strongly-rooted, consistent, coherent philosophy. That philosophy is, in short (and as far as I can express) nothing short of a complete rewrite of how we do pretty much everything – from our economy to our environment, to our view of the planet and our view of our neighbourhoods.

Here’s what I mean.

I’ve seen a couple of talks and read plenty articles by Green candidate Andy Wightman. He’s second on the Lothians list and, it seems, is on a knife-edge in terms of whether he will be elected or not. He’s perhaps better known as a writer, campaigner and researcher on land reform issues, and his website on such matters is well worth a read. The stuff I’ve heard from him has convinced me of a couple of things.

One is that land is interesting. I’d never really understood or dwelt much on the politics of land (surprising, perhaps, given where I grew up), but Wightman’s powerful analysis has really got me thinking about why so much of our land is owned by so few people, what the impact of that is, and the benefit of it being different. An example of this is the idea of a land value tax (LVT) – a Green policy considerably shaped by Wightman’s research.

The idea of LVT is that you pay tax on the value of your undeveloped land. So it’s not a property tax or an income tax – it’s purely about what your land might be worth irrespective of what’s on it: in effect, imaging if there was nothing whatsoever done to it or built on it. One advantage of this is that it becomes no longer economically viable to leave land unused – whether that’s a sporting estate stripped bare for a few deer shoots a year, or an urban wasteland left empty or ruined due to negligence. If you own land, it’s in your interests to make it economically useful (as a home, or for businesses etc) or sell it to someone else. The second advantage – obvious, but worth stating – is that you can’t hide land. As we’re learning in the news lately you can easily hide money offshore. Land is a bit trickier to electronically wire to someone.

Thinking about this hammers home the point to me that land is – or should be – hugely important in politics. Indeed, you could almost argue that it is the figurative as well as literal foundation to everything a society rests on. It seems astonishing to think, for instance, that there is no single database of who owns land in Scotland. It could be literally anyone, hiding behind all sorts of companies and fronts, that owns vast swathes of the country without us easily knowing. Yet a register would highlight the inequality, make people accountable, and raise the question of why it’s like this.

This has a consequence for the principle of community ownership, which in turn allows for locally relevant and locally controlled economic activity. It makes people realise that the land around them is an asset that can and should be exploited, whether for affordable housing, for business, tourism or whatever.

That in turn links to the question – one of Andy Wightman’s favourite topics – of local government (1|2). In Scotland, he persuasively argues, our councils are huge, with average populations of over 100,000 people – whereas in parts of Scandinavia an authority might just cover a few thousand or even a few hundred people. That creates intimacy, accountability and relevance. It makes people connect more with where they live and the decisions made around them. My council for instance, is Highland Council. Something that is four hours’ drive from top to bottom and west to east cannot in any sense of the word be described as local. And can it even be described as government when councils’ hands are so tied (not least with the council tax freeze)?

That Greens stand for having smaller local authorities with real powers and freedoms is, I’m realising, important to me. In an age when decisions seem to be centralised more and more in the hands of rich elites, the idea of communities being reignited with powers that could make a real difference strikes me as terrifically exciting.

I’m waffling now, but basically I’ve been realising the more I look into all this just how much land is the central aspect of a Venn diagram that includes taxation, wealth, government, community development and, obviously, the environment. To rethink and reorder the country in such a fundamental way is appealing, exciting and urgent.

And there’s little to suggest the SNP are heading in that direction themselves. That’s not to criticise them unduly. I’ve voted for them in every election in my adult life (with the exception of the 2015 General Election when I voted Green for the first time). The SNP are a (mostly) left of centre party with a real commitment to making Scotland work. Nicola Sturgeon is a fine, principled politician and the SNP’s administration since 2007 and been, on the whole, about sound, stable management with a healthy dose of compassion, humanity and internationalism. That we finally got a referendum on independence, and all the optimism that unleashed, was an amazing achievement on top of that.

But since then, the SNP have seemed cautious – about (ironically) managing the status quo as safely as possible until… until what? I don’t know. The result of the EU referendum? A shift in independence support emanating from the disastrous government in London? I stand by my prediction that there’ll be a second independence referendum soon, but we shouldn’t simply sit and wait for that, and keep things ticking over nicely til then. The SNP will be a good government after this election (not to mention an entirely inevitable one, if polls are to be believed). But I do believe it’s important to have more Greens in parliament.

Of course, all this is not to say the Greens are perfect. They’re not. Far from it. There are a few policies of theirs I disagree with, not least in transport – their opposition to the upgrades of the A9 and A96 is thunderously bonkers for a start.

Yes it’s great that the Greens (mostly) support independence. But more than that they seem to have an energy and passion for making Holyrood work much better than it does in the meantime. Which it needs to. I’ll not regurgitate their manifesto and the parts that really make me excited for what Holyrood could be – instead, I’ll just direct you to it online and you can read it for yourself.

Nothing in politics is perfect. The Greens aren’t, the SNP aren’t, and this blog post – started weeks ago and eventually finished in a rush – most certainly isn’t. The SNP will make a fine administration in the next parliament. But I do think a hefty Green presence in Holyrood will help continue the move to make the Scottish Parliament dynamic, radical, and a place where conventional views of politics are turned on their heads.

And boy does politics need turning on its head these days…

So on May 5th I’ll be voting SNP in my constituency vote and for the Greens on the list.

(If you’ve made it to the end of this post, congratulations on your powers of endurance. Any constructive comments are very welcome.)

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