Author: Christine Richard OBE FRSA

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Wednesday, March 26th, 2008 at 5:25 pm
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Robin Harper MSP – Still Young at Heart

Beneath Robin Harper’s charmingly eccentric and boyish manner is a man driven by his vision of a world in which concern for the environment is paramount. As the UK’s first elected Green Member of Parliament he has been a man on a mission for some 35 years.

It was in the 1970’s that he became part of what he describes as a fairly small group of people world-wide raising issues about the way we treat and use this world. Then, it was a small number, now, he says the majority of politicians world-wide recognise the problem and there is a will to do something about it.

Robin was born in Thurso and educated at Elgin Academy and St Marylebone Grammar School, London. He went on to Aberdeen University where he achieved an MA in History and Natural Sciences in 1962 and later to Edinburgh University where he was awarded Dip Guidance and Curriculum, in 1992. During his teaching career he taught English in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Fife, Kenya, Midlothian and Edinburgh. In 2001 Robin was elected Rector of Edinburgh University, a post he held until March 2003. In the same year he accepted Election Performance of the Year Award on behalf of the Scottish Green Party at the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards.

I ask what drives him. He doesn’t even have to think for a moment.

“What drives me is the fact that we are still only part of the way there. This is also what keeps me going, keeps me striving and fighting.”

Robin believes that only a realignment of world economics that recognises the current economic system, relying as it does heavily on ever-increasing consumption of goods and resources is “bound to fail”. He wants a recycling economy. One which translates theory into practice and where one ton of average household waste, when recycled can provide up to £750 worth of remade products.

Robin Harper portraitWhen we met at the Scottish Parliament I asked him if he believed politicians can make a difference. His reply was prompt.

“No-one else will, so we’ve got to do. The big challenge is to get the Chinese economy to buy into the vision. They can do things we can’t, cooperation can get things done. We should be exporting the best of Western technology.”

Fighting Fit
Since 1986 he has fought no fewer than 11 elections at all levels. In 1999, he finally became the first member of the Green Party in Britain to be elected to a Parliamentary seat, as a Lothian regional list member in the first Scottish Parliamentary elections. Currently he is Co-Convenor of the Scottish Green Party and Green speaker on Education at Holyrood.

Asked about the best of times so far in his life he answers without hesitation, “I have never experienced anything like the 7th of May 1999 when I became the first Green candidate elected to a Parliament. I was overcome and emotional.” It is, however, interesting to note that his third election victory left him “not even elated”.

The first Parliament, one suspects, was the best one for Robin. It was, he said “fun to win a vote occasionally”, particularly stopping the dawn raids on so-called “illegal immigrants” who were being held with their families at Gartnavel, pending appeals. The worst of times, politically, happened to him two months ago.

“I was physically at low ebb, which perhaps affected my thinking. A Press campaign started, suggesting I would stand down. I decided not to give in and pushed myself to keep going. I am glad that I did.”

His highest point, he says was at the official opening of the Scottish Parliament building. He had two and a half minutes in which to make his speech and says, “I wanted to make every word count. The other Leaders’ speeches were rather lacklustre but I wanted to express what this new beginning was all about.”

Robin’s theme was the inspiration of the building itself and what it symbolically said to the Scottish nation – “Confident, looking forward not back, to justify where we are and where we are going. There are words from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians with the memorable lines. Now abide faith, hope and charity and the greatest of these is charity. I included this in my speech quoting from the Lorimer version of the New Testament.”

Irritate and Prod
He sees his function to irritate and prod and poke into areas others would rather not tackle. As Robin says, one his favourite analogies is “even a flea landing on an elephant’s posterior can make the elephant change direction.”

Robin married later in life than most and his wife, Jenny and stepson, Roy, are clearly important to him and central to his life and well-being, though he doesn’t discuss politics with his family and tries to keep a life/work balance. Nor does his social life depend on his political life.

When asked if he would change anything he has done or said, Robin thinks for a few moments. Then he tells of his frustration with the way he handled a Party decision on the funding by the State of Faith schools.

“On reflection this remains still something on which I would like to have had greater clarity before statements were made. I don’t think I handled it very well.”

But this is a man who is essentially sure of his beliefs and not afraid to speak about them.

His heroes are all towering figures – Churchill for his speeches ‘more inspiring than his politics’ Leonardo da Vinci, Ghandi for his vision and Shakespeare not only for his writing but also for his understanding of humankind.

The next big challenge for this dedicated politician is to stand for the European Parliament.

Retirement is not an option. He says “young people keep me young”. He admires their interest in the environment and frequently hosts events for schoolchildren. For a moment slipping out of his modest demeanour, he told me of a group of French children visiting the Parliament, who said, on hearing Robin’s age, “Mais il a le Coeur jeun”.

Robin Harper, MSP has, indeed, the heart of a young man and one whose work is far from done.

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