I was asked to write a short article on the Scottish Young Greens. Well…it’s an article at least!
In many ways, Scotland is two countries rather than one. The great majority of Scotland’s 5 million inhabitants live in the Central Belt – the low-lying, mainly urban area bordered to the West by the Irish Sea and to the East by the North Sea. To the South of the Central Belt lies the Southern Uplands, a range of hills straddling the border with England. To the North lie the Scottish Highlands. Though these mountains account for more than two-thirds of Scotland, they are almost completely uninhabited.
The physical difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands (the Central Belt and Southern Uplands) of Scotland is also indicative of cultural and social difference between the “two Scotlands”. Traditionally, the Highlanders have been speakers of Gaelic a Celtic language and have a strong cultural identity. It is from the Highlands that tartan, whisky and most Scottish dances come from. In contrast, the lowlanders have always spoken Scots, a cousin language to English. While the Highlands are mountainous and difficult to farm, the Lowlands are fertile and have been cultivated for most of their history. In the past two hundred years industrial development has sprung up in the Lowlands of Scotland. The Protestant Reformation brought further division between the Highlands and Lowlands with the Scots speakers embracing Calvinist Presbyterianism while the Gaelic speakers kept with Catholicism.
Even today, it is possible to see these differences as the Scottish Parliament divides its time between issues affecting each area. Since it was re-convened, after 3 centuries in 1999, the Scottish Parliament has the power to make decisions on a range of issues. Many important powers are still in the hands of the Westminster Parliament in London. These include defence, social security, tax rates and changes to the constitutional arrangements. Scotland’s political system has always been different from England’s, echoing the different legal and educational systems between the two countries. Generally, Scotland has been more left wing than its neighbour to the South, and the West of Scotland has a very strong socialist tradition, especially the city of Glasgow. English tanks and troops were sent onto the streets in 1919 as the British Go vernment feared that the striking workers were going to start a revolution.
This socialist tradition has found support again and again due to Scotland’s poverty. Like the rest of the UK around one in three children in Scotland live in comparative poverty and Scotland’s figures for poverty related health problems are among the worst in Europe. There is a life expectancy gap of around ten years between many poor and affluent areas. Just under half of the ten poorest electoral areas in the UK are in Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow. In the 1960s large scale housing projects broke up communities and moved families to high rise flats and enormous housing schemes on the edge of the city. Today the high rises are crumbling and many of the housing schemes have become infamous for crime and violence.
So who do the Scots have to solve their problems? Another difference between the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament is the number of active Parties. At Westminster the first past the post electoral system ensures that Labour and the Conservatives have a near monopoly on power, with the Liberal Democrats as a third party. In Scotland, with a proportional representation system in place, there are six parties; two larger, two smaller.
Currently a coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats has a majority in the Scottish Parliament. In Scotland, Labour are slightly more left wing than their colleagues in Westminster, though they still keep on Tony Blair’s good side. The Liberal Democrats in Scotland have recently taken a very principled stance pressing for the introduction of voting reforms in local Government. Unfortunately, this seems to have stopped them from making a principled stance on the war in Iraq, draconian new “law and order” proposals and the introduction of GMOs to Scotland.
And the opposition? Currently the Scottish National Party (SNP) is the largest opposition party. Throughout most of their history the SNP have been a centre left party but recently they have been in crisis, lurching from left to right. At the moment their stance seems to be one of out and out political opportunism, as witnessed in their recent hijacking of the North Sea Fisheries issue for votes (the SNP claim that there’s no shortage of fish stocks and the EU quotas are an attack on Scottish fishermen…Ho hum). Scottish Conservatives (or Tories) have still never recovered from Margaret Thatcher’s unpopularity in Scotland and at the last Westminster election they only won one seat out of seventy in Scotland.
The two small parties are what make the Scottish Parliament really different. In 1999 they each elected one Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP). In the 2003 election they both increased their number of MSPs. Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) now has six MSPs. Formed in 1998 from an alliance of various socialist and communist groups, they draw on Scotland’s strong socialist traditions. Their goal is “an independent socialist Scotland”.
And the other small party? It’s the “small but perfectly formed” (our description) Scottish Green Party. Now with seven MSPs the Greens have impressed a lot of people by showing that it is possible to combine principles with a constructive approach (e.g. saying what you want rather than shouting it through a megaphone).
…And now finally we get to the Scottish Young Greens (SYG)! The coming together of the SYG was the result of co-ordination between a number of regional groups which had arisen independently. We have always favoured a bottom up approach to developing our organisation and while the groups are currently mostly university based, there are others including a group of school students, Edinburgh Youth Against The War, who organised anti-war protests. While we do have a co-ordinating committee, our strength is still in our local groups and this can make keeping an accurate record of members difficult. I’d go for a figure of about sixty, though this is probably now out of date. Many of out members restrict thems elves to local activism and this has meant national issues have sometimes been set aside.
In terms of the issues we’ve focused on, basic environmental issues have often had to take priority over bigger issues. We’ve been very active in opposing road-building projects, encouraging fair trade, checking up on ethical standards in education and teaching local councils what recycling means (I think most of you would be shocked to see how poor recycling is in Scotland). We do have three big campaigns.
“Ban the Brands ” is a campaign to end corporate sponsorship of food and drink machines in Scottish schools. It is also concerned with introducing healthier foods into school. We have the ear of Green MSP Mark Ballard on this so we’re optimistic. We’ll soon be launching a campaign to “Save our Cities” defending urban green spaces, green belts round cities and opposing new motorways. We have some cracking actions planned for this already though more ideas are always welcome! Finally we hope to participate in the “Power to the People!” campaign FYEG has begun.
At our first meeting as the Scottish Young Greens, we sat in a circle and each said the issues about which we were most passionate about. No two people came up with the same issues – we could all see that they were important. There are a lot of problems in the world: the key to solving them is working together and celebrating diversity. The Green Evolution starts here!
A h-uile là sona dhuibh ‘s gun là idir dona dhuib! and May the moose ne’er lea’ yer girnal wi a tear-drap in its ee!