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5 August 2021

Nicola Sturgeon’s Green embrace only proves the weakness of the independence project

The SNP courting a pact with the Scottish Greens – a party of radicals with no sensible programme for government – smacks of desperation.

By Chris Deerin

In Stirling, where I live, we have had a month of practically unbroken sunshine. It has been a delight, waking each morning in the knowledge that a healthy bath of vitamin D lies ahead. There is a distinct psychological impact: one’s mood improves, one’s options increase, one’s garden becomes an extra room of the house. The skin tone of many Scots has gradually shifted from eggshell blue to merely arctic white.

But there is, of course, a niggle. For Scotland, normally a chill and beparka-ed nation where even July brings no guarantee of sun, to be so blessed is an indication that hotter places are getting hotter too. The price for a Mediterranean climate in northern Europe appears to be drought, wildfires and other ecological disasters in the toastier zones.

The timing of this heatwave is useful, though. In November, world leaders will arrive in Glasgow for COP26, the United Nations climate change conference. Even with global warming, the temperature in Scotland’s greatest city will by then dictate long johns among the sensible and send the underprepared scuttling to the tourist shops for a remaindered “Yes sir, I can boogie” scarf. It’s even possible that with Joe Biden, and potentially Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, in town, we will be a grown-up enough society that planetary climate change will dominate our politics for the latter part of this year rather than the relentless and for now exhausted debate about local independence. It will say much about us if it doesn’t.

Nicola Sturgeon understandably wants to look her best in this shop window. And so another consequence of COP26 and the rising profile of environmental meltdown is that she is preparing to take the Scottish Greens into government. Visiting dignitaries will, the First Minister hopes, see a nation run by a modern, progressive and environmentally ambitious administration, focused intently enough on climate change to have Greens in ministerial roles. The SNP’s targets on reducing carbon emissions are already some way ahead of Westminster’s, whether through genuine belief or for reasons of political differentiation or a mixture of both, and this would be a further statement of, they believe, moral seriousness.

In politics, however, no idealistic act is unsupported by narrow calculation and self-interest. It has become increasingly clear that Sturgeon’s failure to win an overall majority in May’s Holyrood election was a catastrophe. The independence movement is becalmed, with no obvious path to a second referendum. The British government can justifiably say – and is saying – no, and there seems little appetite among the general population for another torrid and divisive battle.

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[see also: Will the SNP ever break its addiction to North Sea oil?]

Having (to her credit) ruled out the more esoteric suggestions from backbenchers and activists about how to secure a new vote, the First Minister is limited to yet another indy-focused party conference and yet another campaign launch aimed at rallying the troops. The smarter among them know that this is largely bread and circuses and that their moment has probably gone for now. Scotland’s nationalists have been mugged by reality and an unprecedented cynicism is entering the soul of the movement.

For the first time, the First Minister’s dominance and even medium-term survival are being questioned by her supporters as well as her enemies. Her government has not been successful enough in other policy areas – and in some, such as drugs and education, it has been a downright failure – to subsist as a common or garden devolved administration. It needs the higher air of the independence debate to justify its purpose, and that air is growing thin. This feels like the end of something rather than a beginning, and so, as Peter Cook put it, it must be time for a “futile gesture”.

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Enter Patrick Harvie and his fellow Scottish Greens. The combative co-leader of the party – a title he has held for 13 years, making him Holyrood’s longest-serving party leader – is by far its most high-profile figure and is now on the cusp of ministerial office. Negotiations between the two parties over a pact have been ongoing since the May election and it is finally thought a deal is imminent and may be put to the SNP cabinet next week. Even if it falls short of full coalition, it is understood the arrangement will include the first ever government jobs for the Greens. This will also bake in a solid pro-independence majority at Holyrood – without the Greens, Sturgeon has 64 of the Scottish parliament’s 129 seats, one shy of a majority; with them, she will have 72.

All to the good, the First Minister might think. But it is important to understand what the Scottish Greens are and what they are not, and what this official validation will tell us about Sturgeon’s position.

This is not, for example, the kind of Green party we are used to seeing on the Continent – mature, thoughtful politicians who understand that compromise and an appeal to the broader electorate is more likely to deliver results. Scotland’s Greens remain the student variety – radical, aggressive, socialist agitators.

Their manifesto for the recent Holyrood election was a hyperactive demand for big government and intervention, all-but proposed a war on the private sector, and read more like a fringe wish-list than a credible programme for government. Sadly the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which casts a withering eye over the spending pledges of the three main parties, didn’t get round to the Greens. If it had, those gentle economist brains might have exploded.

The more eye-catching proposals included a “millionaire’s tax” in the form of an annual 1 per cent levy on all wealth and assets above the £1m mark; a “frequent flyer” tax, as most flights are taken by the wealthiest 15 per cent of people; opposition to public investment in carbon capture and storage, an end to new licenses for oil and gas exploration and development, and the early phasing out of current permits; a publicly owned rail network and the exclusion of private companies from ferry routes; the creation of publicly owned services for freight and passengers to continental Europe; an end to road-building projects that add capacity to the network and support for workplace parking levies; the removal of the private sector from the care system; the reintroduction of rent controls; changes to land inheritance law; a ban on the movement of nuclear weapons through Scottish waters (which might prove tricky for Faslane); support for the BDS campaign against Israel; and even a ban on homework in primary schools.

There is much, much more of this stuff (and also some good ideas, such as greater devolution of financial power to local authorities), and you might guess where the party stands in the debate around transgender rights. Some of it may even appeal to some of you, but it is not a sensible programme for government or likely to appeal to a broad swathe of the electorate, including the majority of those in Middle Scotland who voted SNP. It is radically socialist, Big Brother-ish, morally smug, yappy and unserious. One senior SNP figure drew my attention approvingly to Annalena Baerbock, the German Green Party’s candidate for chancellor: “Honestly, if she was in Scotland, Patrick Harvie would denounce her as a hawk. Streets ahead politically and philosophically.”

Sturgeon’s deal with the Greens is as yet unsighted, but the smaller party (it received fewer than 35,000 votes in the constituency section in May, while the fifth-placed Lib Dems won almost 190,000) is known to drive a hard bargain for its support. Lord knows what concessions she is making, but it all points to first-ministerial desperation. To the business community, which has long felt unappreciated and largely ignored, and which is limping from the Covid experience, and which is central both to the recovery and to meeting climate targets, it is a cocky two-fingered salute.

This window dressing ahead of COP26, this attempt to breathe new life into an ailing independence project and government, might be about to take Scotland in some very strange directions. It is certainly not the climate change many of us were expecting, and feels less like a show of strength and more like a very peculiar last throw of the dice.

[see also: How Scottish nationalism became the ideal form of political attention-seeking]