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As the Scottish election rumbles on, one outcome is already certain: Robin Harper will no longer grace Holyrood. That will be Scotland’s, and democracy’s, loss. 
Harper has added an ethical dimension, missing from much of Scottish politics and a style of engagement – courteous, concerned with issues rather than personalities or party advantage – well outwith the Scottish norm. With journalist, Fred Bridgland, Harper has produced ‘Dear Mr Harper’ (Birlinn, £16.99), part-biography, part-manifesto. The format, with chapters alternately addressing personal and political issues, illustrates what was a fundamental premise of feminist, and now of green, politics, that the personal is political.
Born in Caithness, the son of a serving officer in the Royal Navy, Harper’s childhood was almost idyllic. Whether on Orkney, what is now Sri Lanka or the Moray coast, the natural world was his character-forming playground. It was a character also however shaped by the culture of the navy, the empire, duty and separation and by a quite eclectic mixture of educational experiences, from a Dickensian prep school where his bed-wetting was punished barbarically, to a local primary in London where his development of a cockney accent appalled his snobbish mother.
Yet the first chapter proper recounts Harper’s first experience as a recently graduated but unqualified teacher in a 1960s Glasgow junior secondary. Harper, for far longer than he was an MSP, was a teacher and that experience influenced much of his politics. Harper’s boyhood dream had been to emulate his father and enter the Royal Navy but he failed an eyesight test. Having also briefly pursued an acting career, and subsequently gained a teaching qualification, Harper taught at Braehead in Fife under the charismatic radical, R F MacKenzie, before teaching in Kenya and Edinburgh. Mackenzie’s commitment to those deemed failures remained part of Harper’s philosophy and politics throughout his educational and political careers.
For many years Robin Harper has stood unsuccessfully in council, Westminster and European elections and never won more than 10% of the vote. The first-past-the-post electoral system reinforces the hegemony of the big parties, although of course, the Greens did win Brighton Pavilion in the recent UK election. The regional list system for the Scottish Parliament (imperfect though it may be) favoured the Greens who, in 1999 and subsequently, refused to waste limited resources on the constituency contests, instead campaigning on the slogan ‘Vote Green 2′. That focus, plus a growing sympathy for Greens politics, meant that Harper was elected in 1999, re-elected in 2003 along with six other Greens and re-elected in 2007 along with Patrick Harvie.
The extent of Green interventions and their subsequent influence on other parties is Harper’s justification for his role in Holyrood. Although various Green parliamentary initiatives, in particular his attempts to force a systematic home insulation programme on the SNP government, were unfruitful, Harper claims that such legislation as the 2010 Marine (Scotland) Act was a significant breakthrough which would not have occurred without a Green parliamentary presence arguing well-prepared cases on environmental issues.      He also however asserts that the job of radical parliamentary politicians is to maintain courteous and consensual links with opponents, to seek broad alliances and to refuse to play their falsely adversarial games. Such an approach will earn respect at a time when most politicians are earning the opposite. As Scottish electoral contests increasingly become bitter and unpredictable dog-fights between the two big Scottish parties (irreconcilably divided on the constitution and foreign affairs but with few significant differences on the issues which the Scottish Parliament controls) respect will not always translate into votes. Yet the very thing which Scotland needs least is a parliament where critical thinking is absent.
The gentlemanly manner can however disappear. The book quietly but intelligently projects a wide range of Green issues including fish-stocks, deforestation and climate change, but his passion and ire focus on one very local example of environmental destruction and political machinations. The purchase of the Menie Estate by Donald Trump and the unquestioning support for that development by both the SNP Scottish government and the Liberal-dominated Aberdeenshire Council gave Harper a worthy cause. In this microcosm of great global issues was illustrated the conflict between development and conservation and between local planning within a defined legal framework and the avarice of the unrestrained market place. It also illustrated the ease with which politicians will ally themselves with powerful institutions under the twin illusions that economic growth will both follow and inevitably be a good thing.
Harper and Bridgland have produced a refreshing view of Scottish and world politics. It does however leave big questions for the Greens unanswered. In the aftermath of the debacle of the Fianna Fail-Green coalition in Ireland, the Greens’ view of coalitions requires clarification. The greater dilemma will be how best to ensure the continuation of an effective voice in parliament. As the battle between Labour and the SNP heats up and its outcome becomes decreasingly predictable, and as the Liberals and Tories increasingly look electorally irrelevant, the danger (for Scotland and democracy as well for the parties themselves) is that independents and minor radical parties will be squeezed from their last seats. Even though Harper will not be there, a parliament without Greens would be a poorer place.
The above article was first published in Scottish Review on 22 April 2011:

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