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23 August 2021

Can the Scottish Greens avoid being “Lib-Demmed” by the SNP?

A small, hungry party has been invited to pluck morsels from an alligator’s teeth.

By Rory Scothorne

In 2007 the Scottish National Party needed the support of the Scottish Greens’ two MSPs to form a minority government. The deal the two parties signed was ultimately limited to making Alex Salmond first minister and backing his first budget, but at one point ministerial roles were being considered. In his autobiography, the party’s then co-convener Robin Harper recalled that “at one point [Salmond] leant close to me, touched my arm, looked me straight in the eye and, stealing a trick from Tony Blair, said: ‘Robin, let’s forget all these bits of paper. Just trust me.’ It was not something I was inclined to do… in no circumstances would the Green Party accept a ministry post under Salmond.”

There seems to be more trust now between the two parties. Last week they set out the details of a proposed power-sharing agreement, which is intended to last a full parliamentary term. Under the plans, the Greens would take up two ministerial posts and have continuous input to the Scottish government’s agenda, alongside a shared programme that has been battered into shape over months of negotiations. Green members and their National Council will decide whether to agree to the deal by the end of the month, after a week of internal Q&A sessions. 

In these sessions, Green members – from school-striking Glaswegian teenagers to garden-bothering Highland grannies – will be able to interrogate their party leaders on the details of the arrangement, as civil servants, the cabinet and the First Minister wait anxiously for a decision. Rarely has the rank-and-file of any one party had such a sustained opportunity to directly scrutinise and decide on the structures of political power in Scotland. To some, that will sound like a partisan distortion of democracy. But it’s more like a powerful advertisement for the democratic potential of party politics, provided your party has a proper degree of internal democracy and plays its cards right. 

But are they playing their cards right? Almost every Green member I’ve spoken to is agonising over that question. There is widespread openness to the deal and plenty of enthusiasm for parts of it. But there is also plenty of room for doubt about the various prospective “reviews”, “strategies” and promises to “work towards” things that make up so much of the proposed programme. The Scottish government has a knack for smothering radical ideas to death beneath the fluffy cushions of procedure and consultation, and the proposed deal is furnished with enough of these to open an Ikea in St Andrew’s House.

The Greens hope they will be made comfortable rather than muffled by these features, which are not, after all, a wholly unnecessary component of proper democratic governance. In the first Q&A after the proposed agreement was published, the party’s co-leader Lorna Slater told members that both sides had learned lessons from New Zealand, where Labour’s Jacinda Ardern struck a similar deal with the New Zealand Greens in 2020. The key takeaway, she suggested, was the importance of building trust at every step of the process. The SNP-Green proposals contain several assurances along these lines, including a “no surprises” rule to ensure adequate forewarning of even minor legislative manoeuvres from both sides. 

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Green leaders clearly trust Sturgeon enough to do a deal. So do Green voters, who – according to the Scottish Election Study – actually rate Sturgeon more highly than the party’s own co-leaders. But do Green members? Many fear being “Lib-Demmed”, remembering how Nick Clegg’s briefly insurgent party was drained of its energy and principles by the Conservatives after 2010. The Green co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Slater insist that their situation is different. The Lib Dems’ coalition of voters was reliant on both anti-Tory and anti-Labour voters who each found – and were given – reasons to abandon the party once David Cameron was in 10 Downing Street. 

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

Few Green voters see the SNP as the enemy, and the deal reflects the ticket-splitting logic that leads many to vote for both parties in Scotland’s two-vote system. There are several “excluded” areas where the Greens remain free to oppose the SNP, including the desirability of GDP growth, aviation subsidies, private schools and an independent Scotland’s membership of Nato. There is little to seriously complain about here, since the Greens would have even less influence in these areas without a deal than they would with one. What matters is what they have agreed to.

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There is little policy in the deal itself that risks alienating Green voters, and much to reward them with and even increase their numbers. Proposals for an “effective national system of rent controls” are a stunning victory for the Living Rent Campaign, a militant tenants’ union founded in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum that has forced the issue on to the agenda and closely influenced Green policy. As part of a wider “new deal” for private renters that includes expanded rights to keep pets and decorate, this is the clearest example of the Greens extracting concessions to consolidate a vital component of their core voter base: young, precarious, fond of cats. There are wins, too, for more traditional environmentalists, from (weirdly) detailed marine protection proposals to a shift in transport policy away from road-building and towards rail, buses and active travel.

If anyone is electorally endangered by the deal, in fact, it could be the SNP. The two parties agree to disagree over the future of North Sea oil and gas, but pressure to conclude negotiations probably contributed to Sturgeon’s recent half-pivot over the fate of the Cambo oil field, in which she called for a reassessment of climate criteria for licensing, which is reserved. This and the shift away from road-building have been grabbed by the Scottish Tories as evidence of SNP hostility to the north-east of Scotland; a strange, cold world of SNP-Tory marginals that is especially reliant on both oil and the vehicles that burn it. 

Green leaders believe they do not need to worry so much about those voters, as representatives of an old, fading, fossil-powered existence who would never vote Green anyway; they’ve got their eyes on realignments still in the making. There may be a quietly audacious gambit lurking beneath the surface of this deal: that the SNP will be pulled in two directions while the Greens siphon off the kind of governing credibility that levers a party into mainstream contention. A reverse-Clegg, if you will.

The SNP’s 40 per cent of the vote (in the regional list section) is hard to sustain, never mind build on. The Greens’ 8 per cent is a far simpler base from which to grow. Scotland has had two big, predominant national parties over the past half-century, each with a profound crisis to navigate. Labour governed Scotland through the crisis of social democracy, the SNP through the crisis of neoliberalism. The Greens are quietly advancing their case to be the national party for the climate crisis, and displaying their reasonableness to the SNP’s own progressive flank in the process.

Two can play at that game. After all, Sturgeon is also using the Greens to renew her own party’s image after three terms in government and several years of sordid infighting. The promise of independence is still there, at the very top of the proposed policy platform, and will no doubt be a vital part of this parliamentary session. But it feels like the national question has lost some of its power to keep everything else moving. It risks becoming an engine of stagnation instead. Devolution, it’s often said, is a process, not an event: like some sharks, it has to maintain momentum to keep the oxygen of popular interest flowing through its gills. If this deal were to fail at this urgent point – for the country, and globally – I get the sense that Scottish democracy would suddenly find itself drifting and confused. The Greens would receive much of the resulting exasperation. 

Yet Green members are right to be anxious about signing up: this small, hungry party has been invited to pluck morsels from an alligator’s teeth. “Just trust me,” the creature tells them as they lean in closer, and the stink of past victims fills their noses. The SNP is simply very good at politics, and ruthless when it needs to be. It might be running out of ideas of its own, but the nationalist machine is built for harder environments than the hopeful, idealistic bulbs of Green ambition.

In a member-driven party such as the Greens, voters have to contend for attention with mutinous foot soldiers. Members will have to try not to recoil from the bitter taste of actual power. And in a few years, if the time is right and the whole order of things is off-balance, the Greens will need to be ready to strike first. The proposed cooperation protocols end bluntly but tantalisingly: “Either the First Minister or the co-leaders of the Scottish Green Party may bring this agreement to an end… by giving the other written notice to that effect.” That doesn’t sound hard, does it?

[see also: The new SNP-Green pact has only one aim: remove Scotland from the UK]