Dear Mr Harper

Robin Harper, Green MSP for the Lothians, and one of the Scottish Parliament’s most colourful figures retired from the parliamentary scene at the May Scottish elections.  Along with award-winning journalist, Fred Bridgland, he produced his autobiography, Dear Mr Harper (Birlinn, £16.99).  He spoke of his book and his experiences in a recent conversation with Ian Anderson of the BBC at the National Library of Scotland.

As well as setting out the Green political stall, Robin Harper’s book is an insight into the mind of a most unusual politician.  Throughout his career Harper may have been controversial but he has never been confrontational, aggressive or posturing.  His philosophy has always been to engage directly, even with his most bitter opponents.  No-one could doubt his energy: he had a superb record of interventions in the Scottish Parliament and sought wherever possible to influence the course of events by winning his opponents to his position on environmental issues.  Perhaps that was an inevitable tactic of a leader of a party which, at its maximum had seven MSPs.  It was never going to win victories but it could seek to influence others.

Robin Harper was the son of a regular officer in the Royal Navy.  His childhood was spent in quite stunning locations.  Born in Caithness, he spent his early years on Orkney before moving with his family to London where his education was in a brutal Prep school before being withdrawn and sent to the local primary in St John’s Wood.  The family moved to Trincomalee in what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, a lush paradise for the young Harper and his brother, Euan.  They returned to London where, in his early years at St Marylebone Grammar School, he was a victim of the institutionalised bullying which was part of the culture of many selective schools in the 1950s.  The family then moved to Elgin where Harper renewed his Scottish connection, revelled in the wild-life and scenery of the Moray coast and completed his schooling at Elgin Academy.  His aim was to follow his father into the Royal Navy, an interesting thought for in later life there could hardly have been a less military-like character.  He failed an eyesight test however, proceeded to Aberdeen University, briefly pursued an acting career, and taught in Glasgow, Fife and Kenya before eventually settling in Edinburgh.  He confessed in the National Library that many of his acting skills served him well in teaching.

His enormous affection for his family shines through the book but, for all its privileges, it was notwithout its problems.  His grandparents had been in business in China but lost their possessions with the War and the subsequent Communist take-over.  Two of his uncles spent the bulk of the war years as prisoners of the Japanese.  His mother became intensely annoyed, while he was a pupil at Bedhampton Primary in St John’s Wood, at his development of a cockney accent.  His mother’s problems however far exceeded a petty snobbishness.  She was a victim of recurring depression and, as the book continues, Harper gently explains at least part of the origins of that depression.  She had been pregnant as a young woman in the late 1930s and her child had been, in the custom of the day, speedily adopted.  That son however, in middle age, retraced his biological mother and some consolation for a long grieved loss was achieved.

Before becoming an MSP, Robin Harper was, for many years a school teacher in Edinburgh.  He taught at Darroch, then a junior secondary, and after it had absorbed Darroch as Edinburgh went, somewhat reluctantly, comprehensive, in Boroughmuir.  Harper was admired by colleagues and former pupils alike.  He cultivated a gentle eccentricity which saw him through many difficulties. He was known to pull a brussel sprout or a piece of cabbage from his pocket to the amazement of pupils and colleagues. Pale linen suits were the sartorial order of the day, rather than the smart pin-stripes for which he is now well-known.  He was an accomplished, although self-taught, guitarist who used his deep musical skills to win many of the reluctant conscripts to a compulsory fourth year at school.  Those who recall his early days remember him above all else for the genuineness which has continued to mark his life and work.

He tells a wonderful story of his early days at Darroch.  He possessed a ‘Lochgelly’, the leather belt then the primary means of instilling order in Scottish classrooms, but he never belted a Darroch pupil.His pupils realised this, cut his belt into pieces and planted it in his desk with a note saying, ‘Sorry about this, Sir, but you never used it anyway.’  His engagement with learning and young people has continued to shine through his political career.  He also served as President of the Edinburgh local association of the Educational Institute of Scotland, Scotland’s largest teaching union, and has remained one of the few politicians willing to stand out against the consensus which accepts the present cuts in educational expenditure as inevitable.

At the National Library event, when questioned on the role the Greens might play in a referendum on Scottish independence, Harper confessed that, while he was entirely in favour of a referendum to test the views of the Scottish people, he was also “completely neutral personally” on the issue of independence.  There is something delightfully eccentric and naïve about a man who is so passionate about politics admitting in public that he is neutral on what will be the great dividing issue in Scottish politics in the immediate future.

Harper helped put environmental issues on the Scottish agenda.  He is a man almost out of his time: charming, serious, passionate,ethical but not the usual breed of worldly politician.  He is eccentric, quirky, almost naively stumbling in his manner but with a strong sense of duty.  He combines those very English liberal qualities of never underestimating the impact of small actions with a disregard for grandiose visions or theories.  His departure from Scotland’s parliament has left it a poorer place.  He brought both integrity and humanity to a Parliament which needs these characteristics badly.  We can be sure however, that for Robin Harper, retiral won’t be the end of public life.  Read his book and enjoy the wit and wisdom of one of Scotland’s few political gentlemen.

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Alex Wood

Alex Wood has had a varied career in education. He started as an English teacher at Edinburgh’s Craigroyston High School in 1973 and completed his school-based work as Head Teacher at Wester Hailes Education Centre in 2011. In between he worked in community education, was a Learning Support teacher, headed a behaviour support unit, was Head of a special school and worked in Edinburgh’s Education headquarters. He is a member of the Education Committee of St George’s School. Alex is now an Associate at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration (SCSSA) at Moray House and is Secretary of the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (SELMAS) as well as being a free-lance writer. His experience however ranges well beyond the worlds of schools and education. For seven years in the 1980s he was an elected member of Edinburgh District Council and he retains a keen interest in the political world. He has a long involvement in genealogy and family history, as a researcher, teacher and writer. He is a member of Edinburgh Common Purpose’s Advisory Group and of the committee of Linlithgow Book Festival. Although he has lived in Linlithgow for over 20 years, and in Edinburgh for the previous 18 years, he remains a loyal fan of his home town football club, Brechin City.

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