It is an irony not lost on Patrick Harvie and others in the Scottish Green Party that the independence referendum has given Green politics and its sympathisers a place in the Scottish media few had been willing to provide until now.
The hustings, news reports and general media scrum around the referendum has meant that green ideas have reached new audiences. Sitting somewhere between the newspaper-quoting dogma of the SNP and the Lenin-quoting independence far left, the opportunity to articulate a particular Green vision for Scotland has been priceless to both the Greens themselves and people who share their vision an ecologically and socially sound Scotland.
An epiphany for many people, including the press, has been the realisation that the general green agenda is not just about the environment as traditionally understood, and that the vision for Scotland expressed by both the Greens in Holyrood and the likeminded groups of people around Scotland in the environmental, technology and maker movements would not have everyone reverting to the dark ages. For all its embracing of renewables and talk of community empowerment, mainstream Scottish politics still occupies a very narrow and unenterprising zone that can be both deeply conservative and unwilling to tackle the root causes of the country’s problems. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tug of war between the UK and Scottish governments over oil.
Given the SNP and UK parties’ fondness for oil, the green economy would focus instead almost entirely on renewables. There would be a transition plan to make sure that the jobs provided by the oil industry did not suddenly vanish and an emphasis on putting the profits from renewable energy into the hands of communities instead of multinational energy companies. Together with plans for land and tax reform, this would mean lots of small local energy companies paying back into the communities that built them. This is already the case on places such as North Harris in the Hebrides.
There would also be huge decentralisation, with power handed to regions and individual cities in a more conventional European model of democracy. Whereas the SNP have centralised public services, green Scotland would seek to open up more rural areas of the country, increase economic diversity and stop depopulation. This could mean growth for places such as Fort William, Stornoway, Wick and Dumfries that are currently largely forgotten about by politicians and not considered important enough to break the dominance of the Central Belt.
In economic terms, this might lead to lower levels of overall growth than an oil-intensive economy concentrated in the North-East would, but it would also more evenly spread economic benefits across the country. Likewise, the Scottish banking sector could be broken up into a series of regional banks and become less reliant on the volatility of international markets. A line often trotted out by Better Together is that Scotland is too small to support its own banks, but both Denmark and Sweden weathered the banking crisis by separating their assets into domestic and overseas investments on a fundamentally different model.
Similarly, the debates around currency are given more prominence than is reasonable given its impact on the economy. As Kirsteen Shields, a law lecturer at Dundee University, has said, the idea that economics is used to define sovereignty shows a very narrow frame of reference. The Greens favour an independent Scottish currency, and organisations such as the New Economics Foundation suggest that local currencies could have serious economic benefits. The state of the world economy only becomes a serious issue when your material interests are interwoven with the fate of investment markets.
Instead, investment in Scotland’s internal assets could well be as productive in green terms. Time would be called on the landowners who still dominate Scotland, with agreement about replacing council tax with a land value tax, or LVT. LVT is similar to asset taxes in Denmark that prevent people banking their wealth in property and sporting estates without developing either. This would guarantee a huge increase in the amount of money flowing to local councils to pay for schools, transport and community facilities as well as allowing communities to more effectively manage land.
Socially things would change substantially, with more of a Nordic-style welfare system that facilitates childcare and shared parenting beyond subsidising private nursery costs for working mothers. Instead of having to nervously wait for unemployment and housing benefit to be paid into your bank account when looking for work, the government would attempt to introduce a guaranteed basic income and provide services to help people find work instead of hitting them with financial penalties. Lessons from across the North Sea show that facilitation of jobseekers and people staying at home makes both economic and social sense.
With green economics Scotland would probably start to look very different too. At the moment many of the homes and buildings that pop up are constructed quickly and cheaply by private developers, with people often being an afterthought. Housing is often used instrumentally in the Scottish economy as a means of fuelling construction booms – a key platform of SNP policy at present. There is famously one new development on Glasgow’s South Side supposedly built with the proceeds of drug money and signed off by the council as part of their hands-off regeneration strategy which will, in the words of one planner, ‘become the slums of tomorrow’. Changing some aspects of how and why Scotland builds would not even require independence, just a change of direction in Scotland’s two big political parties.
Taking a long-term view of the built as well as the natural environment can produce better outcomes for all. Good quality housing is an effective way of improving the quality of people’s lives whilst helping the environment. Instead of yuppie flats and suburban estates Scotland could look forward to high-quality modern tenements and an end to the tyranny of private landlords and insecure tenancies. Walk down Leith Walk in Edinburgh and the sportscars parked in the bus lanes across the street from credit-brokers and short-lease flats remind you that Scotland is not a poor country, just a dysfunctional and unequal one. In a country that has managed to combine the worst aspects of council housing and private renting, it is a tempting prospect for anyone under forty for whom a secure home is often a worry. Small increases in private wealth are a blunt instrument compared to the high prices and poor quality of huge swathes of Scotland’s housing stock, whilst public buildings need to be designed for the people who use and work in them.
The vision of a decentralised but interconnected and just society where quality of life trumps the endless pursuit of growth and people gain more control over their own lives is one that everyone can buy into. The real question is whether Scotland’s political class will relinquish the power to let it happen.