#SGPConf Interview: John Finnie talks NATO, Justice and his 'frustration' with Holyrood politics

The Scottish Greens’ justice spokesperson sat down with CommonSpace to discuss the necessity of opposing a nuclear alliance, his hopes for the Transport Bill, and the need to reform the Scottish justice system.

THE 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the largest military alliance in the world, was marked by protests from leftist groups and peace activists worldwide – many of them articulating arguments familiar to Scottish Green MSP and justice spokesperson John Finnie, who parted ways with the SNP after four decades over the party’s decision to end its long-standing opposition to NATO membership.

Speaking with CommonSpace at the Scottish Green conference in Edinburgh today [6 April], Finnie argued that the a strong anti-NATO sentiment still exists within Scotland, which saw protests against the international nuclear alliance earlier this week.

While the SNP may have declared its openness to NATO membership in 2012, Finnie says: “There seems to be a general consensus within the independence movement that’s totally against nuclear weapons. By logic, that would determine that people have at least some reticence towards involvement in NATO, never mind total opposition. Because NATO is a first-strike nuclear alliance – they’ve made that entirely clear.

“So, I think there remains a strong anti-nuclear voice within the independence movement. People need to know what the obligation of membership involves, and that is a support for a first strike - for the use of nuclear weapons. An attack on one is an attack on all.”

“Quite a number of people will recognise an inconsistency between the approach taken [by the SNP] to the military generally, to nuclear weapons specifically, and to soliciting membership of NATO.” Green MSP John Finnie

Issues surrounding NATO and the potential threat to peace it poses have gained increasing urgency over the past year, with the alliance’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg warning earlier this week that we must prepare for a world without the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed in 1987 by then-US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, which both the United States and Russia have retreated from over the past year, signalling a new era of nuclear tension.

“Who would have thought that we would reflect so positively upon the Reagan era?” Finnie wonders. “I’ve given up on trying to second-guess the US position on anything, because of the mindset of their leader. But the need is as pressing as ever, because you only need to look to the conflict in Kashmir to see the potential for an escalation from something fairly minor.”

Reflecting on his decision to part ways with the SNP, which paved the way for his pivotal role within the Scottish Greens, Finnie says: “When I took the decision to leave the party I had been a member of for over 40 years, it wasn’t an easy decision. I think it’s for others to explain their position. It seems that quite a number of people will recognise an inconsistency between the approach taken [by the SNP] to the military generally, to nuclear weapons specifically, and to soliciting membership of NATO.”

READ MORE: Pete Cannell: On its 70th anniversary, it's time to lay NATO to rest

In light of other recent controversies which have put elements of the SNP leadership at odds with the Scottish left over matters such as engagement with a resurgent Russia and reaction to the attempted coup in Venezuela, does Finnie think that there is a larger incoherence within the contemporary SNP on matters of defence?

“Well, I’d sooner talk about the Scottish Greens’ position than other parties,” Finnie replies. “But on Venezuela, why did some of the countries take the position they took? Whose interests are being served? I fear that sometimes people take positions they think they should take, rather than the positions that meet their overall objective. ‘If my opponents think this, I must think the opposite.’

Finnie’s outspokenness on international affairs speaks to the Scottish Greens’ ideological breadth, which can sometimes be overlooked when so much of the discourse has been consumed by Brexit. Beyond attempting to halt Scotland’s forced exit from the European Union, Finnie considers what he hopes the party can achieve over the next few years.

“People, planet and peace. We want to play our part in ending austerity and bringing focus to radical democracy. That’s not going to take place within the existing constitutional arrangement, and so long-term, we want to play a significant part in bringing about a just and welcoming country.”

“There’s no doubt that people like radical policies, and it seems to be that mainstream parties have an aversion to that.” Green MSP John Finnie

However, until independence is achieved, work must be done within Holyrood as it stands – but which Finnie feels does not properly represent the devolutionary legislature as it was intended to be.

“There’s a general frustration that an institution that was designed to have a collective approach to policy development – the Scottish Parliament [was] designed not to have majority government – but we’ve had the three other opposition parties not engaging in the process. That’s unhelpful. Now, of course people are diametrically opposed on lots of issues, but we have a frustration. An awful lot of it is theatre. Being a unicameral setup, a lot of the work is undertaken by committees – good, collective work. It would be good to see that transferred to the chamber.”

In the early days of Holyrood, the Scottish Greens – along with a number of independents and small parties – helped compose what some described as a ‘rainbow parliament’. While Finnie acknowledges that there are some who believe greater representation of minority or fringe parties in general might be to the benefit of Scottish democracy, his specific focus is trying to increase the amount of Green representation.

For now, the goal of that representation in parliament is “trying to embolden the government”, says Finnie: “We believe a lot of their measures are timid – in relation to the Transport Bill, for example. Unfortunately, so much seems to be considered through the constitutional prism of being for or against Scottish independence, so that has led to a situation where the once very active Scottish Labour Party just seems to be an obstructive observer of proceedings. I would like to see more engagement in proceedings. There’s no doubt that people like radical policies, and it seems to be that mainstream parties have an aversion to that.

READ MORE: 'Council Tax has to go': Patrick Harvie on tax reform and a new philosophy for local government

“What’s more radical than having a situation where millions of people are reliant on foodbanks? What’s more radical than a situation where no one bats an eyelid yesterday at a multinational corporation being given £400 million to offset costs of decommissioning in the North Sea? There seems to be a very ready acceptance of the status quo, as regards the insider groups and the outsider groups – and the insider groups are very clearly the multinational corporations, the elites that dominate in the UK. They’re not the folk that I represent.”

As the Scottish Greens’ justice spokesperson, Finnie spoke out last month about the need for reform of prisoner voting rights. Can the Scottish Justice system be improved on an issue-by-issue basis, or does it require a total, institutional reconsideration?

“Some reforms can take place piecemeal, but the substantive change we all want to see is ending the ridiculous proportion of our population who are incarcerated, and having credible, non-custodial alternatives. But that is very complicated – that’s going to take a long, long time. But I think you’d be surprised at the consensus across the parties on the issue that we have far too many people in jail, and absolutely the wrong people in jail.

“We have people with inadequacies, addictions, communication difficulties; a disproportionate number of people in jail have head and brain injuries, which can impact on how they conduct themselves. We need to take a different approach. There’s legislation going through on the management of offenders, which would see greater use of home detention, curfews [and] electronic ‘tagging’ as it’s often referred to. The position at the moment is unsustainable. We spoke at FMQs on Thursday about the percentage of people with drug problems that are in active opiate-replacement therapy – 60 per cent south of the border, 35 per cent in Scotland. That’s unacceptable. That means 65 per cent of people who are identified as needing assistance are not getting the appropriate assistance.”

While the Transport Bill this week passed at Stage 1 with Green support, it did so after withering criticism from Finnie, who condemned the conservatism of its approach. Given that the controversial Workplace Parking Levy that it contains was the result of budget negotiations with the Scottish Greens, is Finnie hopeful that further progress can be made?

READ MORE: Opposition parties criticise ‘piecemeal’ Transport Bill for lack of radicalism in parliament debate

“What we need is an informed debate. Sadly, on the Workplace Parking Levy, my colleagues across the parties will acknowledge that part of reason there’s been reduced use of public transport has been congestion. They’ll acknowledge, some of them reluctantly, that there’s 40,000 deaths each year attributable to poor air quality. But they’ll see no link with the potential use of the Workplace Parking Levy.

“There is also a challenge, because everyone thinks they’re a special case [for exemptions]. We have to think of the public collectively. It was last year I had an amendment drawn up on this; I had an expectation I would take it to committee and it would be roundly defeated. [But] it comes into the equation as part of the budget negotiations.”    

Regarding the opposition that the levy has faced thus far, Finnie says: “What I’m frustrated by is that I’ve acted in good faith throughout this. It’s part of a sweep of measures. Other major cities are taking away thousands of car parking spaces. We have to change people’s minds – and I accept that it’s difficult – that not everything revolves around the motor car. I’m a motorist, but in the city of Edinburgh, why would I drive to this venue today when there’s a perfectly adequate bus service?

“The most frustrating aspect is every one of the other parties has, directly or indirectly, given an endorsement to this proposal at some point.”

However, securing the levy is not the only part of the Transport Bill on which Finnie hopes improvements can be secured: “The real challenge is the very, very modest changes to the bus arrangements. It’s a challenge because it’s very easy to say ‘I’ll nationalise the buses’, or ‘I’ll put the buses under local democratic control’, but I will be coming forward with an amendment to do just that. And I hope there will be a considered and informed debate around that.”

Picture courtesy of Edinburgh Greens

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