Sketch – Goodbye, farewell

Belatedly it is time to acknowledge some of the political characters who are exiting stage left from Holyrood this year. A record number of  MSP’s are standing down at this election, evidence of the growing age and maturity of the parliament. High profile former ministers such as Cathy Jamieson and Nicol Stephen are amongst those withdrawing from the chamber but space dictates that we must concentrate on three of our departees.

Firstly former Labour leader and First Minister Baron McConnell of Glensorrdale, or plain old Jack, is leaving the building.  It would be easy to write Jack the Lad off as a failure. He was after all the first Labour leader to lose power in Holyrood. He was also often seen as a somewhat lightweight ‘jumped up councillor’ in comparison to his esteemed predecessors, Donald Dewar and Henry McLeish- and the less said about Kirsty Wark’s villa in Spain the better. However, it could be argued he was merely a victim or circumstance, in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Labour party had been in power in Westminster and Holyrood for a decade by the time the 2007 election rolled around and many people just wanted something fresh – which presented itself with the return to Holyrood as SNP leader of the undeniably charismatic Alex Salmond. Certainly his administrations have some lasting legacy, not least the introduction of the smoking ban. Even more certainly most in the Labour party would prefer to have Jack the Lad in charge now as opposed to the Gray man.

Jack the Lads successor as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Wendy Alexander and her famous pout, is also leaving us. Again, judged purely on her short tenure as leader, Wendy could be written off as a failure. In her previous life as minister for everything but the kitchen sink, she juggled a seemingly ever-expanding portfolio admirably. She was and is clearly highly intelligent and hard-working and was seen as a demanding but usually fair task master by her civil servants. She was clearly not cut out for leadership however. In this she is not unique, Gordon Brown, William Hague and John Swinney are others who spring to mind as clearly talented individuals who’s talents, unfortunately, did not include political leadership. Being slapped down by Gordon Brown early in her leadership over her infamous ‘bring it on’ comments regarding an independence referendum did not help her cause. An incident that sticks in my mind encapsulates her problems as leader though. When she became mired in the donations controversy I was getting off a train at Glasgow Queen Street when Wendy came along the platform. A local wag cried ‘”Haw Wendy what aboot these donations?” She turned and fixed the wag with a stare that could have halted a rampaging Mongol horde. And that was a problem, during First Ministers questions Wendy would lay into Eck over a subject. So far so good. Then Eck would respond with a jibe over Labours  policy or record on the matter. Wendy’s pout would downturn accompanied by the furious shaking of her head and the same stare the Glasgow wag received. It gave the air of someone mortally wounded, not an opposition leader in the ascendency.

Our final farewell is to a man who was never a minister but nonetheless leaves a lasting legacy. In 1999 Robin Harper became the UK’s first ever parliamentarian and he has remained in Holyrood, along with his Tom Bakeresque scarf ever since. Seen either as a breath of fresh air or somewhat eccentric but marginal figure, sometimes both at the same time, he was undoubtedly a trailblazer both for the Greens and minor parties in general. One thing that is often said, usually erroneously, is that it is difficult to find anyone in politics with a bad word to say about a retiring or dead politician. In Harper s’ case it is true and he, unlike his fellow maverick MSP from 1999 – Tommy Sheridan, is leaving with his reputation and integrity intact.

Robin Harper interview

May 6th 1999 was a historic day in Scottish politics. Not only did this date mark the first Scottish parliamentary election for more than 250 years, but it also saw the election of the UK’s first Green parliamentarian. Twelve years on, Robin Harper MSP sits resplendent sporting his trademark multi-coloured tie, looking back over a frontline political career which will come to an end when he stands down as an MSP on March 22nd.

The road to electoral success was a long one for the politician and for the Green party. Harper can pinpoint the exact date that his personal journey began. He says: “The 11th of July 1985 when Rainbow Warrior was sunk was the very specific trigger for my interest in environmental politics.”

Outraged by the sinking of Greenpeace’s flagship vessel, Harper, then a Modern Studies teacher at Boroughmuir High School, joined the fledging Scottish Ecology Party, which would shortly evolve into the Scottish Green Party. Harper was identified as a leader within the movement from the outset. He says of his early days: “I got involved (with the organisation of the party) in the first party meeting I attended, which they asked to hold in my house which should have aroused my suspicions.  Then at the AGM of the Edinburgh branch I was asked to become the convener for the Edinburgh area, so I became an activist on my very first day.”

By 1986, Harper stood for election as a councillor in the  Tollcross ward garnering around 3% of the vote. Over the next thirteen years, Harper was the Green Party candidate at eleven Local Authority, European and Westminster elections all over Scotland. As Harper says: “Wherever in Scotland there was an election, I was there saying ‘Let me stand as a Green candidate.’ I’m glad to say I was never turned down.”

The advent of the Scottish Parliament offered Harper and the Greens a real opportunity for electoral success. The Green party polled 6.9% in the Lothians list vote, enough to secure a seat for the party’s top candidate – Robin Harper.  Of his landmark election he says: “In terms of elation there was nothing to beat making history in 1999. That was just extraordinary.”

The party used their success in 1999 as a stepping stone to further electoral gains. Indeed  the election in 2003 saw six more Green MSPs elected to Holyrood alongside Harper. Of that night he says: “It was a different sort of elation in 2003, to come back with six more MSPs it was a ‘Could you believe it’ moment to do so well.” Though the 2007 election saw the party’s representation at Holyrood cut back to two, Harper and Patrick Harvie, the party did perform well at Local Authority elections in Scotland on the same night.

As an MSP throughout the parliament’s twelve years, Harper admits that he will miss the day-to-day cut and thrust and the “wonderful staff and friends from all sides of the parliament.”. He is also a staunch defender of the parliament’s record saying: “The smoking ban, which other countries have adopted, mental health legislation and the abolition of tuition fees and prescription charges – all these things mount up. We have now passed an amount of specific Scottish legislation that would have taken Westminster 100 years to pass.”

Of his own contribution, Harper feels great satisfaction from what he describes as “little victories” such as widening discussion subjects and having amendments on individual bills passed. Indeed he says: “Every single time an amendment is accepted, is cause for a small celebration.”

Harper certainly feels he is leaving Holyrood with the Green party in a strong position. He says of the forthcoming election: “Of course every election is an opportunity, but this one in particular is a fantastic chance to get back to or better our previous numbers.”

As for his own future, Harper will not be slowing down too much just yet. While he does intend to spend some time pursuing his hobby of collecting acorns he will remain a busy man. On March 12th he launches his autobiography, Dear Mr Harper, while on March 24th he attends his first meeting as a board member of the National Trust for Scotland.

One way or another, the Scottish public has not seen the last of Robin Harper and his multi-couloured scarves and ties!

Original article here

Greens can be kingmakers says Harper

By Andy Mackie

The Scottish Green party can emulate its Australian counterpart and be kingmakers in next Mays Scottish elections according to Robin Harper MSP.

Harper, speaking at the party conference for the last time before standing down after twelve years as a MSP said: “We should be prepared to enter an agreement with another party who would be willing to offer us one or two seats in cabinet”, continuing, “It will only take a swing of two to three percent to return up to nine Green MSPs. Let us aim as high as possible and achieve this.”

Harper had looked back over his 25 year involvement with green politics thanking all those involved in the Greens  over that period and reflected on the parties political achievements. These included concessions in areas such as GM crops, national parks, fishing stocks and climate change. He also spoke of his satisfaction at the recent hate crime law which was the first piece of Green party legislation to be passed.  On these achievements he stated: “The Green party has laid down roots in Scottish politics it is now time for it to flower.”

Earlier party co-convenor Patrick Harvie MSP had paid tribute to Harper by saying: “Robin can look back with satisfaction on the last decade or so of electoral success. His commitment and dedication in the tough years before electoral success helped make the subsequent success possible”. Harvie went on to cite the electoral gains of the Green parties in Australia, Germany and Brazil as inspiration for the Scottish party.

The conference at Edinburgh Napier’s Craiglockhart campus concludes tomorrow when Caroline Lucas MP will deliver a keynote speech.