‘We must take advantage of the “tide of fortune”’.
‘I know about tides, sir. They leave little fish gaspin’.’ – Terry Pratchett
Edit 28/08/21 – The Scottish Green members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the deal and it was subsequently also voted through overwhelmingly by Council. The SNP members similarly voted overwhelmingly in favour in their consultative ballot. The deal shall now go ahead as written.
Tomorrow is going to be one of those turning point days in Scottish politics. The SNP and Greens have agreed to a cooperation deal that would see the closest relationship between the two parties in Holyrood, the closest that Greens anywhere in the UK have got to being in Government and the closest arrangement between any two parties in Scottish politics since the Labour/Lib Dem coalitions that ran the country between 1999 and 2007.
Tomorrow, the Green membership will decide whether or not to endorse that deal in a binding vote at an EGM.
In this blog, I’m going to lay out why I plan to vote against that endorsement.
My objection is not greatly to do with the policies announced in the shared policy programme – though I see this programme as an exercise in forcing the Greens to compromise with the SNP at a time when the SNP must be pushed a lot harder than they are currently doing to tackle the climate emergency. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Greens go far enough on this either so no compromise between the two can ever achieve the required goals.
I laid out my position on the policy platform in my monthly Common Weal Policy Newsletter and I encourage folk to read that. In short, now that these policies have been agreed between the SNP and Greens (indeed many of them had already been announced by one or both parties prior to this deal) there is no reason for them not to go ahead whether the deal does or not.
I therefore have not been taken in by promises of these shiny things that we’ll get should we vote for the deal. Least of all promises of a second independence referendum being “cemented” by this deal – a claim put forward by the First Minister herself as she asked SNP members to vote for the deal in their “consultative ballot” this week.
(Given that the SNP NEC voted unanimously for this deal it is not known what this non-binding ballot will mean should SNP members vote against)
Make no mistake. This deal neither increases nor decreases the pro-independence majority in Parliament. The Greens are not threatening to withdraw their support for independence if the deal falls and whilst I can’t speak for the SNP I don’t think they are either. The deal is unlikely to draw other parties across the constitutional divide – at worse its passing may harden “anti-independence but pro-referendum” views into being anti-referendum as well but even if it does, that won’t affect the Parliamentary majority in favour of a referendum and in favour of independence.
Nor will the deal apply more pressure on Boris Johnson. He very likely views the SNP and Greens as being virtually in coalition anyway so that has already been priced in to his calculations.
Similarly, it would be a “bold politician” (in the Yes Minister sense) who stands up after this deal falls and says “Sorry tenants. No rent controls for you.”
My objection to the deal comes from the structural arrangements within it. I was particularly dismayed to hear that both party co-leaders have been nominated to fill the two ministerial positions on offer. This is a significant error in terms of accountability within the party. It will draw both elements of the highest authority in the party within the bubble of this deal and reduce the whole party’s ability to critique elements of the deal or ongoing discussions as they develop. (Not to mention reduce the number of Greens who will be able to step within that bubble at all given that the two co-leaders are explicitly also given a place at occasional Cabinet discussions regardless of their ministerial role). It would be much wiser to have not more than one co-leader become a minister so that the other can speak as a Naysmith to and for the party. We’re not as egalitarian as some might want us to be so we should leverage our unique co-leadership structure to its greatest effect rather than subsuming it entirely within this deal.
The SNP have learned to their cost what happens when party democracy is weakened or even broken because the leadership decides to decide and only ask the members for advice later – and then decides to stop doing the second part. With the whole leadership structure of both parties put in the same room for too long, I seriously worry about the same happening to the Greens. Power is a tempting but cursed ring and once picked up is difficult to put down.
As for those ministerial positions themselves I do see opportunity in them but I also have grave concerns coming from my own position as a lobbyist and activist. I have known ministers in previous parliaments who have publicly and vocally promoted policies that they personally disliked but found that they could not countermand “orders from the top”. In the words of one “I have very little control over my own portfolio”. If this is how the SNP treat their own ministers in their own party and government I have little faith that ministers of another party would be treated with more respect.
Other weaknesses of the deal have been picked up excellently by James Thornbury in Bella Caledonia and I consider his thoughts to be a vital part of this debate. I agree with almost everything he’s said with the sole exception being his conclusions that the deal is too late to stop despite its flaws.
The nature of the Scottish Parliament has changed significantly since the May election and the election of the Presiding Officer from an opposition party has tilted the balance from a true minority government as was the case last Parliament to a tied Parliament (As an aside to be explored more fully at another time the idea that this can happen at all because we choose our PO from the pool of MSPs really should be examined along with the negative effects to constituents who lose a great deal of representation if their MSP is selected – perhaps the PO should become an appointed position or be directly elected themselves).
This has removed a lot of the teeth of the Opposition in that it is no longer possible to pass legislation over a united and opposed SNP. The best that can happen now is a tied vote which the PO then causes to fall using their casting vote.
Therefore – and this has been admitted by both parties – the deal is not required for stable government. I believe the Greens’ leverage could be much better used by forming a critical but supportive relationship which results in greater consultation with the Government but ultimately relies on the Greens amending and supporting bills on an ad hoc basis. I believe we lose more than we gain by trading away a lot of our voice in the name of Cabinet Responsibility.
This goes more than double for the deal’s explicit Supply & Confidence requirement when it comes to the annual budget. The Greens have not always used our leverage to greatest effect in previous Parliaments but we have managed to extract some important concessions from budgets using that ad hoc power.
Indeed, we lose a lot of our voice even in the “excluded” areas of the shared policy agreement given the scrutiny some will cast on any possible “weaknesses” in the deal or signs of it breaking. I doubt the SNP will lose too much sleep over being critiqued in those areas. Indeed, the deal hasn’t even been signed yet and the Finance Minister Kate Forbes has already been in the media calling out the “tremendously good news” that the consumerist economy that has been killing our planet is bouncing back faster than expected. So much for “Build Back Better“.
I asked in a recent Q&A if the deal would do anything to discourage an SNP+Tory alliance in the excluded policy areas of the kind we saw far too often in the previous Parliament. The answer was essentially that relations between the parties had broken down to the point where such pacts were unlikely but I consider that to be dangerously naïve. Conservatives are nothing if not paradoxically fluid in their views when it suits them and if they were being smart they would specifically use those excluded areas to drive a wedge between the SNP and Greens. Even if motions are entirely symbolic they could be crafted in a way to maximise the number of times that the SNP and Greens are both allowed by their agreement and forced by their politics to vote in different directions. So much in politics is (sadly) about appearance. And the appearance of a rift may be just as impactful as a real one.
I’ve heard many concerns from fellow members (some of whom still plan to vote for this deal despite those misgivings) that the deal has not been crafted as tightly as it could or it should have been given its importance. I also completely understand the timescales involved in that we are already worryingly late in implementing our own Green New Deal and doing it far too slowly.
If this deal drives faster movement from the SNP on the climate emergency I can see the appeal but I have yet to see many ask if it will drive enough movement to achieve our goals given the very short amount of time remaining.
I want to see those goals met. I want to see the Green party be a positive force in effecting the changes required. I do believe the shared policy programme is a start albeit insufficient in itself and that it should form the basis of the Programme for Government regardless of the deal – though it seems that this year’s PfG will not be affected by the deal one way or the other. But I do not believe the deal as it stands will help us go beyond that insufficient basis. I do believe that any short term gains in power or prestige will be outweighed by longer term risks. As said previously, both the SNP and the Greens need to do a lot more than they currently are to ensure that a Green New Deal is achieved so a deal that results in them meeting in the middle is still a failure.
I encourage people to vote against this deal at the EGM. I encourage neither the Greens nor the SNP to take a negative vote as a vote against the response to the climate emergency (and if either does, they don’t deserve the deal anyway). If closer cooperation is still desired then use the delivery of the shared policies to build the trust and communications to make that happen in a more effective manner. Maybe a better deal can grow from that.
I shall see my fellow members at the EGM tomorrow and I look forward to the coming debate.