Ross Greer is the Scottish Green Party MSP for the West of Scotland. Elected in 2016 at 21 years old, he is the youngest person to be elected to the Scottish parliament. Ross speaks for his party on Education and Skills, Culture and Media, and Europe and External Relations. CABLE caught up with him in a book-filled room in Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel to discuss international affairs, and quite a few other things.
Q: What’s the background to you getting involved in politics, Ross?
I’ve always been political. When I was elected in 2016, folk were looking for a cute story of a eureka moment when I realised that politics is what I wanted to do. To be honest though, there was not that moment for me. I joined the Greens when I was 15 out of a sense of urgency around climate change and climate justice. It was the holistic nature of Green politics that attracted me to the party; the idea that the social, economic, and environmental crisis were all linked and so the solutions had to be linked as well.
I left school in May 2012, the same month Yes Scotland was launched. So I ended up working for the campaign. I had also gone to university after leaving school, though I subsequently left to work full time for Yes Scotland. I spent most of the referendum campaign as the Communities Coordinator, a key role in building the grass roots support.
Following that, I became head of Campaigns and Communications for the Green party in the 18-month period between the referendum and the Holyrood election. That led me to May 2016 when I became the first Green MSP in the West of Scotland.
Q: At 21, you’re the youngest person to be an elected an MSP. Do you feel your youth has influenced how you’ve been treated as a parliamentarian?
Without a doubt, the fact that I’m the youngest current MSP and the youngest MSP to ever be elected has affected how I am perceived, both within the Parliament and in the media. The day after the election when the results were coming in, I was the novelty; the cover story. There was the overall political story of ‘Tory surge, Labour drop, SNP lose majority’. However, I was that bit of colour.
For me, this was both a fantastic opportunity and a bit of a risk. Being the youngest MSP, I’ve gained platforms that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and I’ve been able to use that to talk about the agenda that I really care about: social, economic and environmental justice. But I am not just the youngest MSP: I am the Green MSP for the West of Scotland.
For me, that is where the risk comes in, to a certain extent. Some people would rather see me pigeon-holed as the young MSP than as the Green MSP and there are mixed reasons for this. Particularly for those for whom my political agenda is challenging; they feel able to diffuse the politics through this label. They would rather remove the Green aspect, remove the socialism, and remove the actual meaty political agenda.
“But I am not just the youngest MSP: I am the Green MSP for the West of Scotland.”
There have been some silly instances like during a debate on Syrian refugees, a Conservative MSP shouted at me in the chamber that I was simply a child – something like that. Totally silly stuff, which actually delighted me at the time. We were celebrating the thousandth Syrian refugee to come to Scotland through the Resettlement Scheme. And I made it clear to those Tories who had come to the chamber to join an agreeable debate, trying to be part of a broad consensus, that I wouldn’t accept it. They’re all card-carrying members of a party whose policies in government result directly in the death of refugees. A party who create refugees in the first place through, for example, arms sales to Saudi Arabia but then also in their response to the crisis in the Mediterranean, and their stance on the Dubs Scheme.
Their party is responsible for the deaths of refugees; people that I meet very often through my work. In highlighting this hypocrisy to the chamber, it was satisfying that their reaction was to shout about me rather than engage in the debate. They didn’t have a legitimate response to what I was saying. They didn’t intervene. There was no substantive contribution from them.
But the instances I’ve just described are more than outweighed by the opportunities I have to meet young people who have told me they’ve become involved in politics because they’ve seen someone like me being involved. That is very satisfying. Though I am yet to meet young Tory who has said they got involved in politics because of me – all of the young, engaged people seem to be on the left!
“There’s a recognition that parliaments should reflect their societies but they won’t do that if they are overwhelmingly made up of white men over the age of fifty.”
It would be great to have more young parliamentarians. We put a huge amount of effort into improving the gender balance in parliament and making it more representative in terms of our BME communities. There’s a recognition that parliaments should reflect their societies but they won’t do that if they are overwhelmingly made up of white men over the age of fifty. Those are characteristics that we need to work on and having young people in parliament is essential.
We must consider the unique situation that my generation is in: of probably being the first generation in modern times to be worse off than their parents; the prospects of people my age getting a decent pension; of owning their own home. Across the world, there are parliaments that do have more young people in them and the quality of debate is higher; the quality of legislation and how it relates to young people is much higher as well.
Q: You speak for the Scottish Greens on international affairs. What are the party’s key areas of focus?
The challenge for everyone at the moment is that there’s a much broader agenda we should be engaging with – but it’s almost all being swept away by Brexit. The same ministers, the same committees, the same individual members who deal with all of these issues are, at the moment, absolutely overwhelmed by this one, all-consuming issue.
“If Brexit does come to pass, a huge part of UK politics is going to become the negotiation of new trade deals. This will have a direct effect on devolution – it can’t fail to have an impact.”
There are a number of challenges that spill out from that. For example, over the coming years, if Brexit does come to pass, a huge part of UK politics is going to become the negotiation of new trade deals. This will have a direct effect on devolution – it can’t fail to have an impact. We’ve seen the controversy of recent proposed deals like TTIP, or past deals like CTIP, where there was a lot of argument around the risk to public services, and in particular the health service. There is a direct impact on devolution there. We need a unique Scottish debate as well as some structure being put in place in Scotland for how we deal with this coming era of new trade deals.
Q: Could Scotland be doing more on international affairs?
Absolutely. If you look at how para-diplomacy is developing across the world, Scotland could have a uniquely strong role to play there. Whether through our involvement in the Arctic Council, our role in tackling climate change, and even the work that is being done on training and supporting women from Syria to be peace-builders. Though there are a lot of good examples going on, this is an area that needs to be developed in Scotland.
We also need to gain more confidence in our ability to speak about international issues. Devolution doesn’t mean that Scottish politics can only talk about domestic issues. The national parliament of Scotland should be at ease debating issues of international importance, and giving a Scottish perspective on them. If, ultimately, the levers of power still reside at Westminster, Scotland should still work to develop a voice on international affairs.
It’s clear that Scotland has the capacity to be a major industrial power in emerging economies – most obviously in green energy. There’s no need for us to have a base in arms manufacturing. That base can be transitioned to industries that are long-lasting and secure, so that we’re able to provide people with good quality jobs that will last. Good jobs that won’t contribute towards global insecurity, as well as the immediate and direct suffering of the people who are having their homes, hospitals, and schools destroyed by missile systems built in Fife.
“Devolution doesn’t mean that Scottish politics can only talk about domestic issues. The national parliament of Scotland should be at ease debating issues of international importance, and giving a Scottish perspective on them.”
If you look at it from an economic perspective, we have a huge amount of devolved powers in this area. Scottish industry in particular. We have a situation in which our ship-building industry is entirely reliant on Ministry of Defence contracts. We also have a situation where there are arms manufacturers in Scotland whose equipment is being sold to the Saudi airforce. We must move away from reliance on Ministry of Defence contracts, and we need to move our broader industrial base away from arms manufacturers like Raytheon.
The opportunity for me, as my party’s spokesperson for external affairs, has been really unique. I spoke at the congress of the PYD (The Democratic Union Party, Syria) in Brussels in September of last year and we had Salih Muslim in Scotland last year too. Opportunities like that allow us to build links and look seriously at how we can contribute towards the reconstruction of cities like Kobani.
“We must move away from reliance on Ministry of Defence contracts, and we need to move our broader industrial base away from arms manufacturers like Raytheon.”
When people from Scotland who are involved in the Solidarity with Kurdistan campaign spoke to people from Kobani and asked what they needed, their immediate reaction was that they wanted a school to educate their children. To build a school is something that’s entirely achievable but what it spoke to was a really inspiring agenda that the Kurds in Syria have. They use their platform with us to talk about how they’re educating their children, rebuilding their health infrastructure, and creating a more democratic and feminist society. They’re so focused on transforming their society and the war is just a brutal and unfortunate necessity for them. Too often, people in the West take a paternalistic view of that region; I actually think the West can learn a lot from the Kurds in Rojava.
The cross-party group on Kurdish affairs at Holyrood is in its early stages. What we are looking at are the practical ways in which we can help immediately. What we’ve been looking at recently is what we can do to get more Scottish MSPs, MPs, and MEPs paired up with HDP (Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party) MPs from Turkey through their Deputies for Deputies Scheme.
In joining with HDP MPs, we hope that for every one of them that is under threat from the Erdoğan regime, there will be a dozen politicians across Europe who will be able to raise any concerns with Turkish Ambassadors and table motions and questions before their parliament. The aim is that we will raise visibility on this issue as quickly as possible. We want to do everything we can to provide a direct link of solidarity.
“Turkey is oppressing Kurdish society within its own borders and we have a responsibility to hold allies to a higher standard than we would anyone else.”
This is something I think fits in very well with the agenda we like to believe we have in Scotland of internationalism, and of being a progressive and outward-looking nation. The links we can build with the Kurds will be meaningful for years and decades to come. Hopefully, in some small way, we’ll be able to contribute towards the transformation of their society while learning what we can do here to take democracy and feminism more seriously ourselves.
As a NATO nation and as an ally, we have a very direct responsibility to Turkey. Our ally is bombing people in Syria who are actually defeating Daesh and trying to build a better society. Turkey is oppressing Kurdish society within its own borders and we have a responsibility to hold allies to a higher standard than we would anyone else.
Q: Are Scotland’s Trident opponents doing enough to oppose Trident?
From a pragmatic and strategic point of view, I feel quite clear in my own head that the only realistic route towards disarmament and scrapping Trident is Scottish independence. There is the potential for UK politics to be transformed and to be taken in a different direction through Corbyn. At this point, we’re seeing hints of the possibility of a transformative agenda. But we should never underestimate the power of the British state, the power of what you might call the ‘ruling class’ and established powers.
With something like Trident, I find it inconceivable that any UK government would contemplate UK nuclear disarmament without being shocked into it by a vote in Scotland for independence. The nature of Faslane as the only port in these waters deep enough to hold the submarines, and act as an appropriate base for the nuclear arsenal, means that a fundamental rethink would be required.
I find it inconceivable that any UK government would contemplate UK nuclear disarmament without being shocked into it by a vote in Scotland for independence.
Obstacles can be put in the way in the meantime and a lot can be done to challenge Trident. The Green MSPs recently released a report where we’d asked every council in Scotland which is located along the path of the transportation of nuclear weapons if they had any risk assessments in place for a nuclear convoy accident. What we found was that an overwhelming number of councils had no plans in place for such an event. Though not the sole responsibility of a local council, they are legally the first responders should such an incident occur. They should have plans in place to protect their communities. Following the report, we have aimed to raise the profile on this issue and make it more real to people.
The debate on nuclear weapons always seems quite abstract to a lot of people, particularly those in my generation for whom the Cold War is not a memory. The idea of nuclear war seems exceptionally abstract. We want people to realise that in fact nuclear weapons travel through their communities and past their homes, something which poses a clear risk of accident or attack. And that those who are charged with keeping them safe are not prepared for either kind of incident. I’d rather find a way of banning these convoys from travelling on our roads, and on our railways, altogether.
On an immediate level, independence would create what is essentially a nuclear-free state here. That’s not to say that if we never become independent that we can’t scrap Trident. But from a realistic point of view, if the sole focus is to end the Trident nuclear weapon programme, the sole focus must be to win Scottish independence. That is the gateway to doing it.
We’ll have to wait but I think there will certainly be another referendum on independence after Brexit. There is no ‘good Brexit’. It’ll result in economic damage. And not on an abstract macro-level but directly on peoples’ lives: on things like food and fuel bills. I think there might be a recession which will erode wages and cause job losses. Our public services will be severely impacted by the loss of freedom of movement. We’ll be a poorer nation. This is something that the people of Scotland not only voted emphatically against in 2016, but they also didn’t vote for the government – in either 2015 or 2017 – that is carrying Brexit through.
Corbyn is shaking things up on a domestic level and bringing new ideas to the debate at Westminster – ideas that we’ve been championing for a long time, incidentally. But Labour’s stance on Brexit is not fundamentally different from the Tories. Brexit and its devastating aftermath will see a crisis of Westminster’s making. The case for Scottish independence is now put in an entirely new light.
“Brexit and its devastating aftermath will see a crisis by Westminster’s making. The case for Scottish independence is now put in an entirely new light.”
There is a question of timing. Of how to build support for independence once more. But we can’t wait for this looming crisis to happen. It’s our responsibility to build the case for independence between now and whenever that vote may be.
We need to build the economic case. We need to build our international profile in para-diplomacy, and set an example of what an independent Scottish state would be like. I think in 2014 we won the argument that Scotland could be independent. We now need to build the case that we absolutely must be independent.
Q: The Scottish government is proud of its climate change policy. Are you similarly impressed?
I think the Scottish government has, for a remarkably long time, been able to pass off rhetoric as action when it comes to climate change and climate justice. I’d prefer we talk about the climate crisis and the climate justice agenda. It is a crisis. Again, I appreciate that this is a relatively abstract issue. But as someone who met climate refugees in Lampedusa in April, I know that it’s something that’s very real.
The problem is the inherent contradiction in the political agenda – not just of this Scottish government, but of all four other parties in the Scottish parliament. I don’t mean this as a partisan point; I really wish we could have consensus on this. There are parties that are rhetorically committed to tackling the climate crisis, entirely signed up to the Paris Agreement but at the same time, are all committed to extracting every last drop of oil and gas out of the North Sea. Those are entirely incompatible agendas.
“The Scottish government can release its climate change agenda and talk in very ambitious terms…but at the same time, they never stop arguing for tax breaks for the oil and gas industry.”
The Scottish government can release its climate change agenda and talk in very ambitious terms – most recently the transition to electric vehicles and the growth of our renewable generation capacity – but at the same time, they never stop arguing for tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. They argue for the continuation for that industry until it literally runs out. They must, deep down, see that these are entirely incompatible agendas. It’s a logical fallacy and that’s what frustrates me about it.
When you look at the Scottish government’s new climate change legislation which will be coming through, you see that what they’re committing to is actually weaker than the Paris Agreement. Now, Paris in itself will not save a whole range of Pacific nations – and it won’t stop huge amounts of damage being done by the climate crisis. Increasingly, climate scientists are highlighting that Paris might just about be enough to stop us creating the feedback loops that make this irreversible.
Paris should be the floor rather than the ceiling and the Scottish government seems to be treating it as a ceiling at the moment; but as long as they talk strongly about their commitment to tackling the climate crisis, they think they can get away with it. The burden that this approach is going to place upon my generation, and future generations, is tragic.
Q: You’re open about your religious faith. Does your faith influence your politics?
It’s funny because I’m sometimes asked, if I had to choose, would I choose my faith or my politics. I find this a funny question because I don’t view them as two separate silos of my life; they’re not two separate sets of ideas that are in some way competing. I am a Green because I’m a Christian.
My understanding of the gospels, of Jesus, how I’m supposed to live my life, and the kind of world I want to build, is entirely in fitting with Green politics. The four founding principles of Green politics are: peace and non-violence; radical grassroots democracy; ecology – account for the planet; and equality. For me, this reflects gospel teachings and is exactly the kind of world we’re supposed to build.
“My understanding of the gospels, of Jesus, how I’m supposed to live my life, and the kind of world I want to build, is entirely in fitting with Green politics.”
There will be times that my church as an organisation and my party disagree – and more often than not, I’m with my party on that. My church as an organisation is not my faith; it’s a vehicle for it, and a community that I am part of. My faith is absolutely what motivates me in politics and the thing I do outside of politics. The church community is my escape from a political career that can be all-consuming. But at the same, I am here as a Green MSP because of my faith. They are two parts of the same agenda.
Words: Lindsay Hastings. Pictures: David Pratt. Editorial: John MacDonald.
CABLE would like to thank Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel for their assistance.