A short history of the Scottish Green Party

The Scottish Green Party can trace its origins to the mid-1970s when the People Party was started in Coventry. It changed its name to the Ecology Party in 1975, and an Edinburgh branch was formed in time to stand one candidate in the 1979 general election, led by former Labour activist and retired teacher Leslie Spoor (who continued as a member until his death, aged 100 in 2011).

However, activity levels remained modest for the Scottish branch. Robin Harper describes in his autobiography, Dear Mr Harper, joining the 10-year-old branch in 1985, which at that point had 35 members, and being asked if they could hold the AGM at his flat. “There were five of us there. The first item on the agenda was the election of a convenor and secretary: I was proposed and elected unopposed as both”.

In 1986 the name was changed to the Green Party, and three years later there was a massive vote across Europe for Green politics. However, with a first-past-the-post electoral system this didn’t transfer to getting any MEPs elected in the UK, though for the first time there was considerable positive press coverage of the Greens who were picking up council seats in England and Wales.

Nevertheless, the result galvanised the party and membership tripled in Scotland. In 1990, the Scottish Green Party was formed and amicably split from the Green Party of England and Wales. The Greens’ first councillor was elected in 1990 for Highland Regional Council but proved to be ephemeral. By 1992 a poor general election resulted in years of low morale and only modest activity.

The Scottish Greens campaigned for a Yes vote in the devolution referendum in 1997, and in 1999 Robin Harper became the UK’s first Green parliamentarian when he was elected as an MSP for the Lothian region and the Party secured over 80,000 votes across Scotland. Just a month later our English colleagues had two MEPs elected in the European election.

During that first parliamentary term, Robin focused on a small number of distinctive issues, pioneering an organic food and farming targets bill. By the 2003 election, said Robin, “we had made sufficient impact…to have three times as many supporters campaigning for us nationally than in 1999. We had jammed ajar the door of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Now we sought to push it wide open.” The campaign was a success, with over 130,000 votes and seven MSPs being elected on 1 May 2003. Robin was joined by Mark Ballard in the Lothians, along with Shiona Baird in the North East, Chris Ballance in the South, Patrick Harvie in Glasgow, Mark Ruskell in Mid-Scotland and Fife, and Eleanor Scott in Highlands and Islands.

Membership of the Party was now double what it had been in 1999, and the seven MSPs set about getting a Green agenda heard in Holyrood and in the Scottish media. The Party also set out to demonstrate the breadth of the agenda, seeking to intervene in a range of debates and leading on equality, economics, transport and energy.

Despite the Green MSPs performance being praised by commentators, it was all to change at the 2007 election. In a move later condemned by an international expert commissioned to report on the election, the regional and constituency ballot papers were combined. “It was a shameful and cynical piece of manipulation”, said Robin Harper, “and had a shameful outcome, depriving my party of seats in Parliament it would otherwise have won”.

The election saw 142,000 votes across the country discounted, and with that and the swing to the SNP the Scottish Greens returned just two of their seven MSPs, Robin Harper in Lothian and Patrick Harvie in Glasgow. It also saw the SNP take power with a minority government. Reduced in number but not reduced in influence, the two Green MSPs discovered that they held the balance of power in the Parliament and that the minority SNP administration required Green support for election of the First Minister and for its annual budget.

The Scottish Greens negotiated an agreement with the SNP – they would back Alex Salmond as First Minister and his initial Ministerial appointments, and in return Patrick Harvie would chair the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee and the SNP would back a Climate Change Bill.

On 4 August 2009, Holyrood passed the Climate Change (Scotland) Act which introduced world-leading legally-binding targets for reductions in emissions of 42% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. It also established a Climate Challenge Fund, to help communities to transform their local environments and reduce carbon emissions.

However, all was not rosy between the Government and the Greens, who ended up blocking the national budget in January 2009. The Green Party said the Government should roll out free insulation schemes across the land. Domestic heating consumption would be decreased by 50-60% and the struggling construction industry would be given a new lease of life. Scotland’s annual carbon emissions would be cut by 6%

In response to the Scottish Greens request for £100 million to get the scheme started, the SNP offered just £2 million which Patrick Harvie rejected. Just a few hours before the budget vote, Alex Salmond and John Swinney came up with £33 million but there were concerns that the money may have been taken from the allocation of ‘fuel poverty’ money which goes to the poor and elderly as subsidies for their fuel bills.

Robin Harper said, “Because we had supported the 2008 budget as part of the SNP/Green Party “arrangement”, the SNP had taken for granted our likely support for the new budget. Now they were unable to give us an assurance that the poor would not be robbed and…had allowed us no time to consult our party members. So we voted against the budget and it fell”.

The Party were now devoting more effort to Local Government elections.There was an increase in the number of Scottish Green councillors in 2007, rising to eight – five in Glasgow and three in Edinburgh. They were joined in 2009 by Martin Ford, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Aberdeenshire who resigned from the LibDems in protest at the plans by Donald Trump to build a golf course on an important environmental site at Menie. Martin was soon joined in the Scottish Green Party by his fellow LibDem councillor Debra Storr.

At the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, Party stalwart Robin Harper decided to step down. A further SNP surge saw the Greens again return just two MSPs, with Patrick Harvie again being elected in Glasgow and Alison Johnstone taking Robin’s old seat in Lothian. They were joined in 2012 by a record number of Green Councillors. In Edinburgh, the councillor team was expanded to six – Nigel Bagshaw, Chas Booth, Steve Burgess, Maggie Chapman, Gavin Corbett and Melanie Main.

The gradual progress made by the Greens was confirmed by the European elections in 2014, with the Party securing over 8% of the vote. It was the Party’s highest-ever in a national election, but sadly just short of the level needed to secure one of the six MEP seats.

Since its formation in 1990 the Scottish Green Party had always backed Scotland as an independent country. At the Party Conference in 2012, the membership voted to campaign for Scottish independence both as part of Yes Scotland and also with their own Green Yes campaign which aimed to put across a Green vision of an independent Scotland which is different from the SNP vision. Uniquely amongst the parties in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Green Party is open about and comfortable with the differences of opinion in the party on the constitutional issue, with co-convenor Patrick Harvie pointing out that “even the very firm supporters of independence within the Greens tend to be more strongly motivated by other aspects of our political agenda…”

The referendum in September 2014 failed to deliver independence for Scotland, however the electorate had clearly been energised and the following weeks after the verdict saw an extraordinary surge in membership of the Scottish Green Party, rising from 1,700 members to over 7,000. Independent MSP John Finnie also joined, announced at the party conference a few weeks after the referendum. He was followed a few months later by MSP John Wilson and North Lanarkshire Councillor Frances McGlinchey.

There was also a desire for change amongst the people, and the cross-party Smith Commission was set up to look at proposals for further devolution for Scotland. As one of the five political parties at Holyrood, the Scottish Greens were invited to take part and Co-Conveners Maggie Chapman and Patrick Harvie sat on the Commission, however they were vocal in their disappointment on what the Smith Commission finally delivered.

In February 2015, the party announced that they would be standing their highest ever number of candidates in that year’s Westminster elections, with over 40% of those candidates being women. They achieved the highest ever vote share for the Scottish Greens in a Westminster election, setting them up for the following year’s Holyrood election.

In the summer of 2015, the party also announced that they would be putting candidates forward for the Constituency vote in the following year’s Holyrood elections for the first time. Co-Convenor Patrick Harvie would stand in Glasgow Kelvin, and current Lothian MSP Alison Johnstone would stand in Edinburgh Central.

With over 9,000 members as they approached the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, there were some growing pains in the party including the expulsion from the Party of some high-profile members. Despite these obstacles, the Party entered the 2016 Holyrood elections with its most professional campaign yet. The number of paid staff working in the head office in Edinburgh had increased, and thanks to the large number of members the Party was able to employ regional campaign co-ordinators for the first time.

The 2016 Holyrood election was a huge success for the Party, with six MSPs elected and the Scottish Greens overtaking the LibDems to become the fourth largest Party in Holyrood. Joining Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) and Alison Johnstone (Lothian) in the parliament were John Finnie (Highlands & Islands), Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland & Fife), Andy Wightman (Lothian), and Scotland’s youngest-ever MSP Ross Greer (West of Scotland).

Hot on the heels of the Holyrood election, the UK government announced a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The Scottish Greens once again produced a uniquely Green campaign, detailing our distinctive vision of what a greener Europe could look like. Unfortunately it was not to be, with the UK public voting by 52% to leave the European Union.

Nevertheless, the Party was in good spirits going into the May 2017 Local Authority elections, standing their largest ever number of candidates. Campaigning was somewhat derailed when the UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced half-way through the campaign that there would be a Westminster election in June 2017, and the focus shifted from local issues to UK-wide issues.

Despite the change in emphasis, the Party managed to elect its largest councillor group ever, with 19 councillors across the country. Edinburgh saw eight Green Councillors: Claire Miller (City Centre), Alex Staniforth (Craigentinny/Duddingston), Gavin Corbett (Fountainbridge/Craiglockhart), Chas Booth (Leith), Susan Rae (Leith Walk), Melanie Main (Morningside), Mary Campbell (Portobello/Craigmillar), and Steve Burgess (Southside/Newington). Celebrations were tempered in the Lothians though as sitting councillors Nigel Bagshaw (Inverleith) and Ian Baxter (Bonnyrigg) lost their seats.

With no elections on the horizon, 2018 brought an emphasis on a much-needed reform of the Party structure. It was widely recognised that the committees and roles which had served the Party well when it only had 1,700 members was no longer working with 7,000 members. Through a process that saw special branch meetings, Council meetings and sessions at conferences, the Party finally came up with a structure which was approved by the membership during an all-day session at Spring Conference in 2019. The Operations Committee would be replaced with a new Executive, led by two Co-Leaders.

Council would also be reformed, and there would also be a couple of new committees to support membership. With the Party entering a new era, internal elections took place during the Summer of 2019 and Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater were elected as the Party’s new Co-Leaders.

With the growing awareness of environmental matters in the media, groups such as the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion were keeping green politics in the news and the Scottish Greens were gearing up for 2020’s COP26 in Glasgow. Talking of the forthcoming summit, but perhaps prophetically for the year ahead, Lorna Slater said in her New Year’s message in December 2019 “An emergency requires immediate radical action”. With Covid-19 ravaging the world, that summit would be postponed and the Scottish Green Party would find itself holding the government to account over exam results, virus testing and the safety of teachers.