Radical, that dirty word

Last night’s election debate in Scotland saw Patrick Harvie snubbed for being “too radical”. It is this kind of hubris that sustains our dystopian status quo. 

Fraser Stewart
9 April 2015

Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens. Image: Ken Jack

The Scottish #GE2015 debates were telling in many ways. Firstly, as Adam Ramsay so aptly pointed out, Ruth Davidson is a much better Tory than David Cameron. Jim Murphy is a bit shouty; Willie Rennie is, well, Willie Rennie; and Nicola Sturgeon is human after all. 

The star performer in Aberdeen, I thought, was Patrick Harvie. Ardently and succinctly, Harvie argued for a high tax/high wage system with a reworked approach to sustainability of both the economy and the environment: a ‘Scandinavian model’ of politics – that old socio-democratic romanticist.

Cheers rang out as Harvie dared to sing of a thriving renewables industry and a country free of "immoral" nuclear weapons – and rightly so – as he strummed away at the progressive chord that may or may not dominate the Scottish political consciousness. Eyebrows were raised, then, when James Cook collared Harvie for asserting that propping up any government espousing a "tired economic system that has already failed us" was not in his coalition plans. 

Cook’s observational awareness here is not in question – Harvie was indeed hinting at an alternative to capitalism, and no, he did not rule it out as a red line for the Green party. The troubling aspect was in the reaction, and how Harvie was subsequently guffawed at like a man who had just confused David Coburn with Lionel Messi. 

“Thing is Patrick, we don’t really do alternatives to capitalism.”

“You obviously don’t get economics, Patrick.” 

“You’re too radical, Patrick.”

Radical – that dirty word. 

Condescension towards ‘radical’ thinkers has become a lot more fervent in recent times. While realists reheat the same old insipid archaisms and push them at us like prison meals, radical policies are sneered at as socialist daydreams, their architects as socialist daydreamers.

It is the most obvious and tired critique levelled at the progressive left: the idea that radical thinkers are nothing more than a gaggle of Bohemian liberals with no concept of how the world works (despite any amount of research or evidence provided to the contrary). 

Policies typically described as radical, however, tend to already work in other places – a rather fortunate oversight that many ‘realists’ are all-too-happy to make. Decentralised banking policies already function in both Germany and Japan, for example; the ‘green roofs’ project recently launched in France has been mandatory in Canada since 2009; the Nordic countries have flourished for decades in their high tax and wage approach. If a policy is described as ‘radical’ we can safely assume two things: it probably works somewhere else, and it directly threatens the status quo. 

That’s not to say that progressive or radical policy has to completely mutilate the current system, but rather evolve from it. There is a common mistaking of ‘radical’ to meaning policy so far from the existing paradigm that to make it relevant would be to render modern society unrecognisable to the point of disrepair. That simply isn’t true.

Progressiveness, then, is entirely relative to the state in question: where a policy may seem ‘radical’ or progressive in some countries, it is humdrum in others. One only has to look across the Atlantic for evidence: Obamacare sent America into ideological disarray, but a National Health Service is pretty standard stuff this side of the pond. 

It is thus important to adopt a similar standpoint when exploring our own attitudes. A high tax, high wage economy is commonplace in Norway, for example, but taboo in the UK and we should be demanding why. Is such a model really that farfetched, or as ‘radical’ an upheaval as an America adopting a national health service? Can it even be described as flying anywhere close to radical, given that it a) barely deviates from what we have and b) is demonstrably successful in exemplar states? 

No, probably not. That most basic of proposals can be described as ‘radical’ only in the context of how unerringly unambitious the current dialogue is.

We have an issue in this country, in that our political alternatives are too often given cult status regardless of how derelict mainstream realism becomes. We need more people like Patrick Harvie: coherent and convincing deviants who can push the true thread of progression that is so deficient and frowned upon in our current system. People to tell the world that it’s not about socialist utopianism – it’s about real, evidence-based evolution from dysfunctional and dystopian politics.

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