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16 August 2023

When will the SNP put itself before the Greens?

The junior partner is the biggest winner from the continuation of the discredited power-sharing deal.

By Chris Deerin

According to John Curtice, the SNP’s Holyrood coalition with the Greens is playing no part in the former’s precipitous decline in the polls. Instead, he says, the fall finds its origins in this year’s somewhat bad-tempered leadership contest to replace Nicola Sturgeon.

I don’t want to argue with the great guru of British psephology, but I wonder if that’s strictly true. And, of course, there’s more to politics than opinion polls, important though they are.

It’s worth remembering that much of the dispute between Humza Yousaf and his challengers for the SNP leadership, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan, was over the direction of the Scottish government since Sturgeon first struck her agreement with the Greens in August 2021. Had Forbes or Regan won, that agreement would probably have become history.

That Forbes came so close to defeating Yousaf, despite Sturgeon and her loyalists throwing their considerable weight behind him, still gives pause for thought. The 52-48 result proved that it wasn’t just Forbes who had her doubts. The broader party was divided over everything from the party’s independence strategy to gender recognition reform to a lack of rigour on the economy. The deal with the Greens is at the heart of all this.

Since then, concern about the disproportionate impact the radically left-wing Greens are having on government policy has only grown. It is remarkable how many ministerial missteps can be traced back to the smaller party, and how often the First Minister has had to publicly stick up for them: consider the disastrous, now abandoned bottle-return scheme, the ongoing gender reform battle with Westminster, which will soon return to haunt the administration, and the attempt to ban fishing in 10 per cent of Scottish waters, also now scrapped.

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Each of these steps bears the mark of what we might call Green authoritarianism: adoption of the moral high ground, a pretence of consultation, then angry exchanges with the affected group, a desperate, last-ditch attempt to ram the policy through, followed by a U-turn in light of basic political and sometimes legal realities.

SNP MSPs such as Forbes and Fergus Ewing believe the coalition agreement should be reconsidered if not scrapped entirely, and though they are its most public critics, they are far from alone. Erstwhile Sturgeon fans are privately brutal about the junior party, the dogmatic nature of its policy agenda, and the incompetence of its ministers.

It’s clear the Greens are spooked by all of this. I’ve lost count of the number of recent articles in the National, the independence movement’s loyal newspaper of choice, that have been written in defence of the coalition. This week (13 August) it was the turn of the Greens’ co-leader Patrick Harvie, who attacked the “right wing of the independence movement” and “some… former Greens” and claimed his party’s prominent position in making the laws of the land (or at least trying to) “scares some people”. Unapologetic, confrontational and convinced of his own rectitude, this is Harvie distilled.

Still, it may work for him. It’s often the lot of the smaller party “to get smashed” (as Angela Merkel once put it to David Cameron), taking blame for failures and receiving little credit for successes – just ask the Lib Dems. I am not certain, though, that that will prove true this time round.

So much effort is being put into defending the Greens by the SNP leadership, against critics both internal and external, that Yousaf almost seems to be performing the role of public shield, asking for any blame to be laid at his own door. The sense is communicated that the Greens remain virtuous and are unfairly maligned, and that – as Curtice says – it is instead the Nats’ inner convulsions that are at fault. This is a bold position for an SNP leader to take. It would not be a surprise if some of the faithful choose to believe him, and breathe purer air by switching to Harvie’s party at the next Holyrood election in 2026.

As the SNP falls, could the Greens rise? And would this, at least in part, be due to the former’s constant attempts to shore up the latter? How odd if this half-baked coalition legitimises the Greens even as it helps to bring down the SNP.

[See also: Could Kate Forbes make a comeback?]

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