This SNP-Green pact is not dangerously radical. If anything, it’s boring

Commentators have reacted with predictable alarm. But this is an exercise in cautious consensus-building

September 01, 2021
Scotland settling on a broad-based but stable government may be just what voters want. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Scotland settling on a broad-based but stable government may be just what voters want. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Though Scotland’s unionist parties may wish otherwise, the SNP-Green co-operation deal, freshly ratified by members from both parties at the weekend, will probably not result in the smaller party being gobbled up by its larger partner.

Strictly speaking, the SNP did not “need” to seek a co-operation deal. For most of her time as first minister Nicola Sturgeon has overseen a minority administration, albeit one that relied on the votes of Green MSPs to pass each budget. After 14 years in office, internal strains within the SNP have become increasingly evident; bringing the Greens into government could offer renewed momentum on contested issues, like the climate crisis and a second independence referendum.

Inevitably, the Scottish Conservative meme machine was quick to slam this as a new “coalition of chaos.” Such messaging is driven by the notion that the sorry fate of the Liberal Democrats has made the “C word” a political death sentence. But it is the differences, rather than the similarities—in both the deal itself but also the political climate—that are more revealing.

Perhaps the most telling factor during the 2010 coalition negotiations was the deafening background noise from a commentariat which strongly believed a majority government had to be found, in order to placate jittery post-crash markets. The lack of a substantial parliamentary majority granting immense powers to the executive, we were told, risked economic ruin.

However, litmus tests of loyalty to capital are less relevant at Holyrood because many levers of economic control are reserved to Westminster. This in turn means that the SNP has had little incentive to step out of its centrist comfort zone on fundamental economic questions, despite the nudging of an otherwise fractious pro-independence movement. Instead, we can expect SNP-Green co-operation to be framed by Sturgeon as another hook on which to hang her credentials as a pragmatic and cautious builder of soft-nationalist consensus.

The process of constructing this new co-operation deal (which its architects in the Greens and the SNP are at pains to point out is not a full coalition) has taken several months and involved multiple consultations with party members. As a result, it offers significant concessions on policy that seem calibrated for the Greens’ base—rent controls, a shift towards rail and active travel in transport, plus speedy reform of the Gender Recognition Act. All of these measures respond directly to the younger, precarious and socially liberal Green vote, which is often clustered around universities.

As such, it is unsurprising to find that the spectre of Nick Clegg’s U-turn on tuition fees seems to have informed much of the careful work to incorporate the Greens into government. In addition to two ministerial posts and the collective responsibility that goes with them, there is also a series of opt-outs on issues where the parties will continue to openly disagree.

The electoral realities that arise from Scotland’s two-ballot additional members system are also crucial here. With the exception of Glasgow Kelvin—which has been twice contested by co-leader Patrick Harvie, who polled in second place on both occasions—there is no constituency seat in Scotland in which the Greens are serious contenders against the SNP. The party’s seats have always been delivered via the regional PR list.

Currently, the Greens are a distant fourth behind Labour at Holyrood. So while the deal is certainly a gamble, liberation from first-past-the-post means that the party is risking a relatively modest 8 per cent vote share, compared to the 22 per cent achieved by the Lib Dems in 2010.

The distinct political climate within each of the UK’s constituent nations is also significant. Commentators on the right have been quick to condemn the deal as “catastrophic” and “extremist,” in a manner reminiscent of Thatcherite attacks on “loony left” local authorities.

The eco-socialist Greens, though internally divided on the precise ideological implications of this term, are the only anti-capitalist party in the Holyrood chamber. This status was only accentuated by the collapse of the Scottish Socialist Party at the 2007 elections.

But while there is limited evidence that Scottish voters are significantly more left-leaning on specific policies than their counterparts in England, the centre of Scottish politics still retains an essentially social democratic flavour. With a clearer rejection of some of the excesses of neoliberalism the norm at Holyrood—and at the end of a crippling decade for centre-left parties—the drafting of the Greens into government may even provide that most elusive of rewards: a sense of relative consensus and comfort.

Scotland settling on a broad-based but stable government may be just what voters want. It is radical enough to contend that something is being done about the climate crisis—while still pursuing the SNP’s incremental approach to bringing an instinctively unionist “Middle Scotland” into the pro-independence fold.

That wider strategy explains many of the fudges within the deal. Reform of the extremely regressive council tax system, for example, has been deferred by the SNP ever since it first entered government in 2007, a practice that will continue under this new administration. Green quiescence in the face of SNP strategy like this—which holds that Scotland’s wealth cannot be seriously redistributed prior to independence—represents the greatest political risk for the smaller party in the longer term. But with no credible left-wing formation in Scottish politics to challenge them, the likely electoral costs seem minimal.

The first two post-devolution Scottish governments were fully fledged Labour-Lib Dem coalitions. Part of their claim to legitimacy came from decades of work building a consensus behind the campaign for a Scottish parliament. This was largely achieved through forging alliances within the broader church of “civic Scotland” that stood beyond the realm of party politics. 

In contrast, the co-operation deal can trace its origins back to the more populist 2014 referendum campaign—where a diverse Yes movement emerged on the streets and in town halls. The SNP has yet to live up to the collective vision of that moment, which was infused with anti-austerity rhetoric and dismay at the archaic nature of the British state.

In addition to working together in the corridors of power, the SNP and Greens will also have to learn to channel the potential of such popular movements for change in the years ahead; as the prospect of a second referendum returns like knotweed.

The work of building a fresh movement to advance independence, while governing, will be an immense challenge for both parties. Above all, it is the popular democratic project of independence that really underpins claims that the deal is “catastrophic” and “extremist.’

In truth, the relatively modest and incremental measures that have bound the two parties together are boringly representative of mainstream politics in the north. But this new way of governing Scotland does underline the ever more divergent political cultures within different parts of the Union. And thus we pass yet another milestone on the slow and steady path towards the break-up of Britain.