The news that Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie, Green Party co-leaders and Biodiversity and Active Travel Ministers respectively, are planning to join protests during the COP 26 appear simultaneously in and out of character, apt for one of the most politically radical parties, but out of character for government ministers. It perhaps reflects the strange position the Greens find themselves in – within Bute House, but outside Cabinet.
The line between politics and activism can be described as blurry at best, and consigned to sociological history at worst. But with the Scottish Greens in government for the first time in their history, the often-dreary plot lines (and their cast) at Holyrood seem set to imminently liven up on the streets of Glasgow.
Activists don’t need to concern themselves with constituency matters, or the mundanities of actually legislating on behalf of a nation. This lack of responsibility enables activists to be far bolder in their demands, sometimes out of a radicalism within their core mission which might not appeal to a broader electorate. But sometimes activist demands carry a bargaining position in tow – and the acknowledgment that the pursuit of perfect may be worse than good. By promoting a policy beyond what was previously deemed possible, activists have the power to move the goalposts of political discourse: aware that discussing certain targets or ambitions can encourage conciliatory support for less radical, but nevertheless progressive legislation. It’s a metaphor as old as Voltaire reflected in the very recent impact of Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful but policy-defining US Presidential campaigns.
It’s also a strategy evidenced by the wave of environmental protests throughout 2018 and 2019. Extinction Rebellion’s civilly disobedient tactics were subject to immense criticism across and beyond the political spectrum, disrupting ordinary people’s lives and costing the government millions of pounds in policing costs. Yet its political power was immensely potent, with the UK Government formally declaring a climate emergency, creating a citizen’s assembly on the issue, and updating their net-zero plans, fulfilling two out of Extinction Rebellion’s three core ambitions, even if the Government are unlikely to ever mark this correlation.
Slater and Harvie’s dilemma, however, is that – as government ministers – they will be taking part in protests which will almost inevitably be critical of government (in)action. As if Priti Patel were to protest in defence of the rights of refugees, or Jeremy Corbyn was to protest against the rise in anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. It’s a facetious comparison, underestimating the scope of multilateralism required in combatting climate change, but one which highlights the contrasting nuances of governing and activism, nuances which have likely only been realised by many Greens over the last seven weeks.
They could perhaps take comfort from their green colleagues across the North Sea in Germany. For decades, ‘Die Grünen’ has been divided between a ‘fundamentalist’ wing rooted in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s, and a ‘realist’ wing concerned with the pursuit of power. Despite a poor election campaign last month, the Greens achieved their best ever result and will likely be running important ministries as Germany seeks to become a clean industrial powerhouse of Europe.
From this perspective, the environmental movement will be encouraged by the Scottish Greens move into government, but disappointed that their voice during COP 26 will be restrained to protests outside, rather than policy discussions within. For however critical and demanding Slater and Harvie are willing to be from the roadside, there remains a gulf between power and policy that they are yet to bridge, a character template waiting to be defined by the public at large.