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27 April 2024

Scotland’s old order plots a restoration

The end of the Bute House Agreement is a triumph for those who never adjusted to the SNP.

By Rory Scothorne

In 1985, Neal Ascherson compared the different attitudes which the English and the Scots have to their national histories. When the English think of their past, he argued, they “are gazing from the terrace of a country house down carefully-landscaped perspectives of barbered lawns and positioned trees”. The eye is carefully guided towards a clear focal point: a single, national story, leading neatly up to the present and keeping the past safely organised in the past.

Scots, however, have a wholly different relationship to their inheritance. Instead of a clear linear narrative, Ascherson described Scottish history as “a scrapbook of highly coloured, often bloody scenes or tableaux whose sequence or relation to one another is obscure”. Without much context or perspective in the popular imagination, these scenes might as well have happened yesterday. Scotland’s past can never stay still; it is a black shadow that moves under the waves, looming up to the surface whenever blood is in the water.

Blood is in the water now, and the past is roaring back. When Humza Yousaf decided on 25 April to unilaterally end the Bute House Agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, which guaranteed his government a majority at Holyrood, we must imagine him transporting in and out of time, flickering rapidly through centuries of national self-sabotage: there he is at Flodden in 1513, getting slaughtered by the English with James IV; in Darien, 1699, dying of malaria; shivering in a cave with Bonnie Prince Charlie, wondering where it all went wrong; then finally back to Bute House and its Disagreement, with that always-haunted look on his face like Banquo just walked in.

When the SNP-Green “co-operation agreement” was signed on August 2021, it seemed like a rare instance of genuine political optimism. By bringing the Greens into government after the 2021 Holyrood election, Nicola Sturgeon hoped to guarantee a stable majority and inject some new, youthful energy to her party’s 14-year reign. The Greens, boasting an increasingly professionalised operation of focus groups and well-aimed retail policies, were keen to demonstrate their credibility in office. This was not a coalition, they said; within the agreement were reserved areas, such as GDP growth and Nato membership after independence, where they could agree to disagree. But the Greens bagged themselves two ministerial posts and a lengthy shared policy platform, with a flagship Tenants’ Rights Bill that has only just begun its journey through Parliament.

The political risks of the deal to the SNP were clear from the start. The SNP’s big tent had already begun to bulge and tear, over Gender Recognition in particular, and the Greens are fierce supporters of trans rights. Once the Greens got started in office, new fissures emerged, especially over a deposit return scheme for glass bottles and the creation of Highly Protected Marine Areas, both of which were abandoned. These, alongside broader Green positions on economic growth and ending fossil fuels, neither of which were part of the Agreement, attracted frantic dissent.

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Opposition came from many powerful quarters – economically, it united small businesses, landlords and fossil fuel lobbyists; culturally, it drew together religious conservatives and ageing liberals, whose horror at Green “identity politics” is often tellingly expressed through dogwhistles about “deviants”; politically, it gave the unionist parties a wedge within the SNP to lean on, hard.

All of this dissent was expertly curated by the Scottish press. Whether the complainers were small business owners struggling with bottle labels or humble fishermen facing ruin, they found themselves spoken for by a print media bright-eyed with new, crusading purpose: prodding the weak spots of this happy new relationship, and asking the public over and over again if they really wanted these weirdo Greens in power.

Neither Green voters nor Green members particularly care what Scotland’s old establishment says or thinks, because they tend to get their news and ideas elsewhere. The party’s polling actually improved, if anything, throughout years of non-stop bombardment. But the SNP is a more typically bourgeois party that cares deeply about establishment credibility. At first, Sturgeon’s popularity was weighty enough to shrug this off. But her resignation in 2021, followed by the escalation of a police investigation into the SNP’s finances, turned the Bute House Agreement into a battlefield.

In the bitter leadership contest which followed, Yousaf’s pro-Green pitch narrowly won. His chief opponent, Kate Forbes, emerged as the media’s favourite standard-bearer for a silent majority that was being deftly concocted from an uncertain, impressionable electorate still reeling from Sturgeon’s sudden demise. From a confident, daring attempt to refresh itself, the SNP was plunged into paranoid introspection. 

Once in office, Yousaf could not hold back the flood of hostility. Under pressure, he pondered, postponed, panicked and pivoted, eventually trying to reassure middle Scotland by dusting off Alex Salmond’s vote-winning council tax freeze. After over a decade of cuts to the revenues and autonomy of local government, this was the first major indication that Yousaf was no longer looking to the Greens, who favour decentralisation, for renewal.

The biggest risk to the Bute House Agreement, however, was never either party’s policies or politicians – it was Green members. The Scottish Green Party is an unusually democratic party, and its members anxiously guard a wide range of principled positions that go in and out of fashion. This month, in the wake of the Cass Review, Glasgow’s gender identity service paused the prescription of puberty blockers for new patients under 18. Then the Scottish Government abandoned its commitment to cut carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030. Under pressure from frustrated activists, the Greens agreed to an Extraordinary General Meeting to debate the continuation of the Bute House Agreement. Fearing the humiliation of being dumped by a room full of Green Party members, Humza Yousaf decided to look tough and dump first.

As a reward for his decisiveness, Yousaf now faces the honour of being dumped by a slightly more powerful group of people: Members of the Scottish Parliament. Before they were pushed out, the Green co-leaders had begun their campaign to continue with the Bute House Agreement. Ejected from office for the crime of trying to keep things together, they are furious. They intend to vote for a motion of no confidence in the First Minister next week, leaving Yousaf’s fate in the hands of Alba’s Ash Regan, who came third place in the contest for SNP leader. Yousaf may be gone before then. If he survives, he is unlikely to last long.

The immediate consequences of all this may not be especially profound. If Yousaf stays, or falls and is replaced by someone similar like Neil Gray or Màiri McAllan, the SNP should be able to work with the Greens on an issue by issue basis, especially on key policies such as rent controls, and could find it easier to navigate separately through opposition assaults. But the fall of the Bute House Agreement has given morale and momentum to a small-c conservative coalition which can now set its sights on something bigger.

They are closer than ever to the return of one of those scenes from the past that lie so close to the surface in Scotland: an election that restores devolution’s old guard, flaunting their concern with “real issues” over “identity politics”, who did such a good job ruling Scotland in the 2000s that the SNP managed to win an outright majority by the end of it. This is not just the Scottish Labour Party, which retains many of the same people and the same philosophy as it did then; it is also the civil-society establishment of wonks, lobbyists and journalists who never properly adjusted to the SNP’s half-baked revolution against the status quo, and find the Greens intolerable. When that old order fell, it took the form of a well-earned landslide, and a clear step towards something genuinely new. After a decade and a half, the Bute House Agreement breathed new life into those fading hopes. Now it seems more likely that real change will come crawling out of a tomb, in a faded red rosette.

[See also: The fight to save the fractured union]

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