Interview with Ross Greer MSP

Ross Greer is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for West Scotland. He is a member of the Scottish Green Party and previously worked as a campaign co-ordinator for Yes Scotland from 2012-14. He assumed office on 5th May 2016 and, at 21, is the youngest MSP ever elected. He is the Greens’ spokesman on Europe and Foreign Affairs. Here is what he had to say.

To start with let’s look at ideological stuff. When would you say that first became politically aware?

I suppose it would depend on what you consider as political. My earliest memory of world events was 9/11 and the War in Afghanistan. I remember when I was eight thinking that the Iraq War was wrong and I knew that there was protests going on, my church for example was organising coaches to go to demos. It was environmentalism that really got me intro politics. I joined the Greens and Greenpeace when I was fifteen because of this colossal urgency to address climate change, but there was no defining moment that made me explicitly political.

Which political thinkers, theorists, figures etc. influenced your ideological development and outlook on the world?

There is a tradition on the Left to read Marx and Engles and then moving on to people like Gramsci, Lenin, Trotsky and so on, but that never appealed to me. I recognise that these people were interesting thinkers, and there’s a lot of good stuff, for example in the area of Euro-communism, but I’ve not taken this academic approach to ideology. I’ve more been influenced by events around me. I feel fairly confident and grounded in what I believe so I’m more concerned with trying to implement it through campaigns rather than obsessing over tomes from one hundred years ago about how to raise the proletariat.

You describe yourself as a socialist, so what does socialism mean to you?

For me, if I was being pithy about it, I would define socialism as ‘giving a shit about other people’. A more serious definition would be an ideology that seeks to fundamentally redistribute wealth and power in a society. If you want to use old school language then that workers should control the means of production, rather than have a class of people running society whilst not making a contribution. I’m not of the school of politics that says that only class matters because race, gender, sexual orientation and identity all obviously matter, but I believe socialism is about redistributing power, particularly in an economic sense, to redress the imbalance of power through all of those dynamics, from gender and race to most obviously class.

As an open supporter of independence would you wish to see the instantiation of socialism in a post-independence Scotland or would you prefer a Scandinavian-style social democratic system?

I think that what is most likely is Scandinavian social democracy as a transitional step before socialism. It is very unlikely that in the year after independence we would have created a perfect workers’ republic. I’m not going to say that it is impossible but it is very unlikely in the immediate future. One of the problems that we have is that many people think that social democracy is socialism, which of course it’s not. If we believe that capitalism fundamentally involves exploitation of one group for the benefit of another, there is no way in which social democracy can be accepted as a compromise.

On a related note, would you describe yourself as a nationalist or does your commitment to independence come from a different set of ideological premises?

I’m definitely not a nationalist. It’s very important for me and the wider independence movement that a lot of the things we are talking about are nothing to do with nationalism. It is a means to achieve a certain set of outcomes. Don’t get me wrong I think that independence is in itself a good thing for democracy, but more importantly, it is about the changes which we can bring about afterwards, particularly in respect of green politics. I support independence because I believe that the British state is an unreformable, post-imperialist disaster zone, but Scottish independence also gives us the opportunity to create a more equal society, get rid of Trident, move towards a republic, stop military adventurism and so on.

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Does Patrick Harvie dabble in Frank Sinatra impressions? (Scottish Green Party)
Moving onto foreign affairs, in your manifesto the party put a lot of stall behind the idea of creating a more peaceful, but we are living in a dangerous time with threats varying form cyber-warfare to Islamic militants like ISIS. How would you go about promoting a more stable and peaceful world?

The idea that implementing one or two policy initiatives would create global peace is nonsense, but reducing economic exploitation would vastly reduce the scale of conflict and the potential of future conflict. We have a history of traveling around the world and taking anything that we possibly can, and by ‘we’ I mean Europe and, more recently, the white western world. The reality is that there are large areas of the world where the map makes no sense because white men drew it with straight lines to divide up their empires. And this creates further conflict, just look at the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example. Or you could look at the drug war in Mexico being caused in large part by western drug laws, that’s an area of domestic policy with huge global ramifications.

Do you believe that an independent Scotland should join NATO?

No. The Berlin Wall fell years before I was born and NATO is a relic of that era. It creates further unnecessary tension with Russia – who are obviously not blameless themselves – but there’s also the issue of Turkey, our NATO ally, waging war on the Kurdish people, who are our most effective allies against ISIS and who want nothing more than self-determination and security.

Some on the Left, including myself, have argued in favour of creating a national humanitarian service in which Scottish workers would be sent overseas to build up the infrastructure of these countries and thus improve that country’s stability. What do you make of this idea?

That is essentially what we were arguing during the 2014 referendum. We want to redefine what is meant by a defence policy and that’s exactly what it should mean.

In the party’s 2016 election manifesto the Greens said that they wanted to create a Scottish diplomatic service. Would this be something that you would want to happen within the framework of the UK or would it be something that you would begin to do in an independent Scotland? 

We can start the process now. Part of that is about achieving independence and building the apparatus of an independent state, and the more of this we do the easier it will be to convince people that we could be independent. But another part of that idea is that the devolved government can deal and co-operate with other nations. This would be a way of boosting co-operation with other nations because of our moral obligation to these countries, in the developing world for example, partly as an apology for the last few hundred years but there’s also a clear benefit for us in strengthening international dialogue in areas currently devolved such as health. As an internationalist representing an internationalist party, I would be looking to boost Scotland’s reputation on the international stage in order to help people around the world because we have the resources and skills to do just that but it’s also an area which will bring significant benefits to people here.

The final area of foreign policy I want to talk about is how Scotland can act on an international stage. Your manifesto speaks about supporting the oppressed around the world, including support for measures like boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Would a Green administration seek to recognise the statehood of areas like Kurdistan and Palestine? And if so, how would Scotland play a role in prospective negotiations?

We support the plight of oppressed groups like the ones you mentioned. The example we would sometimes give is in the case of Norway who have been involved for a number of years with the peace process in Colombia between FARC rebels and the Colombian government. Norway is about as far away from Colombia as you can possibly get, but it was obviously relatively neutral in the conflict and so could be the location for negotiations. There are some cases where we can facilitate negotiations but there are others in which we clearly need to come down on one side because the other side is in the wrong. Take Israel/Palestine as an example. We do need to come down on one side of that conflict because the Israeli government is occupying Palestinian land, and committing war crimes and human rights abuses against the Palestinian people with the overwhelming military, economic, and political support of the most powerful countries in the world. Scotland essentially already does recognise Palestine but an independent Scotland would likely do so officially and almost immediately. Neutrality in many situations is simply taking the side of the oppressor.

Now on devolved domestic affairs, the steel industry in Britain is in crisis at the moment and people across the political spectrum are calling for a partial or total nationalisation of the steel industry. A few months ago Liberty House took over the two Tata plants in Lanarkshire. Do you think that there should have been a stake in the plant from the community or the Scottish government to prevent a future crisis?

Old school socialism would often say state ownership is best but there are many situations in which community ownership makes so much more sense. A model like community ownership should be looked at for the steel industry but there are immense challenges. There has to be a recognition that we can’t go on like this whilst the global economy changes and that re-industrialisation cannot mean going back to the 1970s because that won’t work. We support the right of workers to co-operate and to turn their workplace, with state assistance, into a co-operative. We need to recognise that our industrial future isn’t in the same kind of mass-production our past was. As well as this the need to take action on climate change by transitioning away from fossil fuels presents a huge opportunity for a new industrial strategy.

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Power to the people! (Scottish Daily Mail)
Public transport is an area that has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and is key to environmentalists to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. In regards to reducing Scotland’s dependence on oil derivatives, do you think that the Scottish government should follow the example of Norway and ban all fossil-fuel cars by 2025?

That is an ambition I would like to have but the reality is that you can only do something like that if you are confident that the public transport system would be able to cope. At the moment Scotland does not have a good enough public transport system to do that. From a political perspective I have a problem with it as well. To have Greens trying to ban everybody’s cars would take us backwards in terms of our public perception. What is more helpful is to say that the Greens want to create a world-class public transport system and as such you’ll barely need to use your car. There’s massive infrastructure problems and the way to do that would be to take the railways and buses back into public ownership, and possibly creating a public transport system that is completely free, however that goal couldn’t be achieved without investment to boost capacity.

The SNP have a terrible record of privatising ScotRail services rather than taking them into public ownership. As I understand the devolved settlement gives Holyrood the final say on transport matter so do you support the renationalisation of the railways?

Yes, but it needs to be the buses and the ferries as well. Our proposal in the past has been to set up a not-for-profit company which can bid for contracts. We can bring rail lines back into public ownership at the break point of the contract in 2022, but we need to signal the intention to do that in 2019. I think Labour are with us on that one and there is reason to be optimistic as lots of SNP MSPs support this as well. The bus service in rural parts of Scotland are shocking and re-regulating the buses would be the solution to this, but the problem is political will and the SNP government doesn’t want to do that.

The NHS was a big problem in the Scottish referendum campaign and the EU referendum campaign, and Holyrood has operational control over how the NHS is run. One of the things your party spoke about was increasing LGBTI acceptance, and this being the case do you support ending the men-who-have-sex-with-men blood donation deferment?

Yes, absolutely. Countries that are less socially progressive than Scotland are moving in that direction and there is no scientific basis for the ban. The medical knowledge on the issue has moved on. All we are doing is stigmatising a group that is already stigmatised and oppressed in society, and preventing people from giving blood at a time when we need more people to do so.

Policing is another area that is totally devolved and the issue of police scrutiny has been in the headlines following the release of the report into the Hillsborough Disaster. There have been questions asked of Police Scotland about their competence and about how they are perceived in the communities that they serve. Do problems in the police stem from a lack of funding or are the problems systemic more systemic?

It’s both of those. There is a serious issue of funding. There are control centres and front desks being closed. Because the police force was centralised, it now has to pay VAT. The Scottish government were told this but did it anyway, and obviously if you pay VAT that will squeeze the budget. A lot of the bad practice that existed in Strathclyde, for example, has now been exported around the country, particularly in regards to the treatment of sex workers and in the policing of protests and demonstrations. There is a very fine line between political oversight and political interference and that is where the difficulty is. In Glasgow years of community policing has reduced crime rates dramatically so there are positive steps that we can take to improve the perception of the police, and this will in turn reduce crime.

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The Scottish Greens are much more left-wing than their English counterparts, and long may that continue. (BBC)
Moving onto non-devolved issues, employment is still the preserve of Westminster and if the Draconian Trade Union Bill is implemented Holyrood would be unable to mitigate it. How would you agitate to stop the bill being passed and would you go as far as supporting a general strike?

Yes, I’ve been calling for a general strike since 2010 in opposition to Tory policies but this attack on trade unions would provide a good focus for such a strike. When you’ve got Tory MPs coming out and saying that it is frankly Francoist in its fascism, it’s probably not a good piece of legislation. The leader of the STUC has said he’s willing to be arrested, as have I in the past. The Scottish government have said that they would not comply with the law in this case but we have not had a cast-iron guarantee that they wouldn’t use scab labour during a dispute between workers and the Scottish government themselves.

The reason that people have jobs in a capitalist economy is so that they can exchange their labour for a wage to survive and provide for their family. Do you believe that in the future Scotland should attempt to decouple work and income through measures like a universal basic income?

Yes, ideally on a UK level but I recognise that this is more likely to happen in an independent Scotland. Although [the Green Party] often refers to the measure as ‘citizens income’ its important that we move away from this as a Green government would also want to provide universal basic income for some non-citizens like refugees. It is an important measure as we need to compensate people for labour that is currently not given a financial value such as grandparents caring for children.

Do you believe that marijuana should be legalised, and other drugs decriminalised?

Yes. I’m not an expert on the potential harms of marijuana but there are substances that are legal that are far more dangerous which makes no sense. In essence we have a situation where something is dangerous because it is illegal and not that something is illegal because it is dangerous.

The final question I have is in relation to immigration. The UK currently has an ageing population and this is more pronounced in Scotland. Do you believe that Scotland should welcome more immigrants in order to rebalance the age demographics of the country? And on a related point, do you believe that Scotland should be taking in more refugees?

There is a massive economic need for immigration in Scotland as this would create jobs and provide tax revenues to improve public services. There is also a massive cultural benefit that immigration brings, so there is both the economic realities of an improved economy and an important ideological principle. In regards to refugees, the UK government’s response has been shameful. In the past they have been quite happy to deport LGBT people back to countries in which they will likely be persecuted or killed for example. Our refugee policy kills people and destroys families. An independent Scotland, I hope – and believe – would have a much more humanitarian approach to refugees and migration more broadly.

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