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Idealists or SNP stooges? How a constitutional debate is engulfing the Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens have been accused of "capitulating" to their "SNP masters". But their interest in independence is far more radical. 

If you stop a Green voter in Brighton or Bristol on the way to the polls on 8 June 2017, they are unlikely to tell you they’re voting for Scottish independence. But on one level, they are. The Green Party of England and Wales is a separate entity from its sister party in Scotland. Nevertheless, in 2014 it became the only England and Wales-wide party to back Scottish independence. After the referendum, then-leader Natalie Bennett called for a “radical” new constitutional settlement.

Greens in England and Wales may be more interested in climate change than the constitutional kind, but in Scotland, the Greens have become unlikely villains - at least as far as pro-union critics are concerned. 

In March, when a second independence referendum loomed, the Scottish Greens confirmed they would back a Section 30 order in Holyrood, in effect allowing the minority SNP government to triumph over deepseated opposition. 

Then, after the early election was called, and it became clear that the Scottish Greens would field only a handful of candidates, rival politicians accused them again of being SNP stooges (the Greens say it is a lack of resources). Scottish Labour's election campaign manager James Kelly declared that the Scottish Greens "capitulated in this election in a desperate attempt to help their SNP masters". 

Given the controversy, the occasional Holyrood-watcher might be forgiven for thinking the Scottish Greens were recent converts to independence.

Not so, says Andy Wightman, the Green MSP for Lothian and a diligent collector of old manifestos. The Scottish Greens split amicably from the party south of the border in 1990 – because they believed so strongly in radical devolution. Indeed, a founding document published that year, and quoted by Wightman in the Holyrood debate on a second independence referendum, stated:

“The Scottish Green Party supports demands for an independent, self-governing Scotland, as throughout Europe Green Parties support other local demands for regional autonomy.”

“We have always had a commitment to autonomy,” Wightman tells me. “Sometimes we call it autonomy, sometimes we call it independence.”

Indeed, the idea that the Scottish Greens only recently converted to independence – trotted out by SNP supporters as well as indignant pro-union types - is a source of frustration for many. “We’re not a nationalist party,” Wightman says. The Green version of Scottish independence is instead a step towards a post-national world. “We have a deep commitment to no borders.”

If the Scottish Greens’ version of independence has been slow to emerge, it may be because it was obscured by the man who was for many years the face of the party – Robin Harper. Known for his rainbow scarf, Harper was elected the first ever Green MSP in 1999, but his priority was the environment rather than the constitution (he voted No in 2014).

However, Harper stood down in 2011. Today, the figurehead of the Scottish Greens is instead Patrick Harvie, a longstanding MSP who is strongly in favour of independence, and is standing in the 2017 general election for Glasgow North. According to the Green activists I speak to, Harvie, rather than Harper, is more typical of the party view.

This is not surprising, given the 2014 referendum transformed the Scottish Greens. Outside Scotland, the independence movement is often associated exclusively with the SNP. But for those who suspected Alex Salmond’s party was a front for the tartan trews and oil brigade, the Greens were a more comfortable fit. In the fortnight after the referendum, membership of the Scottish Greens tripled, from less than 2,000 in the summer of 2014 to more than 6,000 by the start of October.

Kim Long was part of this wave. She stood for the Greens in the Glasgow city council elections earlier in May, and won.

“The independence movement was very broad,” she tells me. “Yes, the SNP was a part of that but there was a lot more. 

“One of the key differences is that in the Scottish Greens, we don’t want independence as an end in itself – it is a process of being part of a nation where power is devolved to the lowest level possible. I believe in power to communities.”

Long argues that the Scottish Greens can force the SNP to be bolder, including in councils such as Glasgow: “The SNP were expecting to get overall control of the council – they haven’t. The role of the Greens is to keep pushing.” One contentious issue is the SNP’s cuts to council budgets. “All of the arguments they make for independence could be used against them in terms of how they treat local authorities.”

In February, the Greens managed to win concessions in the Scottish government budget – specifically releasing £160m extra funding for local authorities, and the scrapping of plans to raise the threshold for higher rate taxpayers. 

To members of pro-union opposition parties, though, it seemed the Greens were the enablers of the SNP. “Greens have secured just £29m of new money from tax… Budget will pass + cuts will come cos of Greens,” tweeted Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. 

So how do the Scottish Greens fit into the Green movement as a whole? The Green Party of England and Wales is fairly comfortable with its northern ally’s independence cravings. Like Bennett, Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP and co-leader, used the 2014 referendum as an opportunity to demand a new constitutional set up for the whole of the UK. A leading Green MEP, Molly Scott Cato, went one step further when she publicly backed Scottish independence in March 2017. On the eve of the Scottish independence referendum, Green activists from not just England and Wales, but also France, Poland, Slovakia and Catalonia arrived in Edinburgh to campaign for a yes vote.  

With its repudiation of nationalism and the existing constitution, the Green model of independence is far more radical than that of the SNP. It is also far less likely to come to fruition. Unless a hung Parliament occurs again, the Greens in Westminster cannot hope to play the pivotal role in government enjoyed by their Scottish counterparts in Holyrood. These MSPs, in turn, number just six (the SNP has 63). If the Green movement is relaxed about the prospect of Scottish independence, it has little to lose.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.