Sean Bell: Who’s afraid of the Scottish Greens?

“A mooted SNP-Green pact has inspired some profoundly weird reactions, and it’s worth asking what they are supposed to achieve.”

CERTAIN events tell you more about the observers than the observed.

The recent controversy surrounding Naomi Osaka and her apparently outrageous concern for her own mental well-being, for example, revealed far more about the mainstream sporting press than the sport of tennis. Elsewhere, the febrile discourse inspired by a rather silly movie about Cruella de Vil indicates that some cultural commentators might have a little too much time on their hands.

So it has been with the possibility of a formal agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Greens. Once Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that such an option was on the table, a degree of ensuing speculation was understandable and inevitable. Indeed, until an agreement is actually hammered out and its details are made public, the Scottish press has little else with which to fill its pages: listing the potential advantages of such an arrangement, hypothesising likely sticking points in the negotiations, analysing the strengths and weaknesses of respective bargaining positions… One can argue over how useful all this is, but in lieu of Solitaire, it’s not the worst way to kill time.

For some however, this is all a little too dry and predictable – what is the point of speculation if it cannot be used to leverage fear and spread uncertainty, especially in support of agendas freshly frustrated in last month’s election? For this reason among others, a mooted SNP-Green pact has inspired some profoundly weird reactions, and it’s worth asking what they are supposed to achieve.   

It will shock no one that Scotland’s always-crowded stable of right-wing pundits regard the idea of increased Green influence over government policy – be it genuine or superficial – with a mixture of disdain, derision and terror. In the normal course of things, when voices like these begin to squeal, you know you’re on the right track; otherwise, so what?

A few conclusions may be drawn from the content and tenor of this rising chorus, who have better close harmony on this subject than most barbershop quartets. The first is that the Scottish Greens – who have generally absorbed the lessons of the more successful European Green parties, wedding their environmentalism to a broader left-wing platform – are insufficiently scary to be condemned on their own merits. Instead, they must be viewed and judged through the doors of their most reactionary critics’ perception, which at the best of times would give Aldous Huxley a run for his peyote.

A prime example of this was provided by Tory MSP Murdo Fraser this week, who wrote in Wednesday’s Scotsman: “Scratch under the surface of the Scottish Green Party and you find not a cuddly group of promoters of cycling, recycling and protecting wildlife, but a group of hard-left extremists intent on dismantling free enterprise, and restricting personal freedom in the process.”

Meanwhile, in the nether-realm of Substack, Stephen Daisley explains with horror that there are people in the world – and even the Scottish Greens – more left-wing than Patrick Harvie (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…”). As proof, he unveils the smoking gun that Harvie’s co-leader Lorna Slater once said some innocuously nice things about a group of eco-socialists.

Now, the question of how far to the left the Scottish Greens fall on the political spectrum is a vexed one. From the perspective of Daisley and Darth Murdo, so far to the right they are perennially on the verge of exiting the stage pursued by a bear, the Greens and their aims no doubt appear very distant.

If, on the other hand, you spend any time with those who do flatter themselves as “hard-left extremists” – particularly those whose presence in Holyrood is unlikely to extend beyond the public gallery any time soon – you will hear much grumbling that the Greens’ reputation for radicalism is undeserved. (There are also those who seem to think the more anyone talks about liberation politics as they pertain to minorities and the oppressions they face, the less authentic their left-wing politics are. The Greens, to their credit, give this bullshit short shrift.) All of these views will persist, whether or not the Greens hash out some manner of agreement with the SNP.

Yet Murdo’s screed is evidence of a wider phenomenon which can be seen far beyond Scotland. Deprived of anything like an actual socialist to contend with, ex-US President Donald Trump did precisely the same as his Republican predecessors and decided this shouldn’t interfere with running a thoroughly McCarthyite campaign, in which he accused Joe Biden (of all bloody people) of handing control of the Democratic Party to “socialists and Marxists and left-wing extremists”. The fact that this red-baiting strategy didn’t pay off does not seem to have discouraged right-wingers elsewhere in the world from sticking with the smears and fearmongering that constitute their comfort zone.

This presents a problem for the Scottish Tories when facing the current parliament. While they arguably represent the most significant left-wing voice in Holyrood at present, the Greens are a non-socialist party, led by a non-socialist, with a significant number of socialists in it. The SNP, meanwhile, are a non-socialist party, led by a non-socialist, with a significant number of socialists in it. Labour are… Can you see the pattern emerging here?

So yes, there are those within the Greens who believe dismantling capitalism is a necessary provision for environmental salvation, just as there are members of Labour and the SNP who consider themselves near-as-damnit Bolsheviks. You may or may not wish they were more numerous, and perhaps they will one day become so, but none of these contingents look likely to exert much control over their respective party leaderships in the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, this leaves Fraser and his allies without the enemy they evidently crave, and so unless they start picking fights with the Communist Party of Great Britain, they have to manufacture the impression that a spectre is haunting Holyrood. This leaves us with the odd situation where the Tories – in public, at least – regard the Scottish Left as being far more successful, numerous and threatening to the status quo than most Scottish leftists (who are, by and large, a gloomy bunch).

Nevertheless, beyond the shameless dishonesty of these tactics, the idea that a party should be judged by its most extreme members has always been a dangerous one for Tories to play around with. As the political journalist Jamie Maxwell noted at the time, the Scottish Tories elected at the 2017 local council elections “a slew of candidates who either had a track-record of making racist remarks on social media or who had links to far-right groups such as Britain First, the BNP, and the English Defence League.” If we are speaking of ominous currents lurking within otherwise mainstream parties, some might judge this as greater cause for concern than anything the Greens have to offer.

Despite the Tories’ obvious predilection for red scares, I doubt we’ll be hearing this kind of rhetoric for long, not least because the unionist Right in Scotland has never really settled on a joint approach to the Scottish Greens: for every time they are accused of being Maoists in hippie clothing, they are also dismissed as faux-radical supplicants to the SNP. In fact, Stephen Daisley pulled off the trick of doing both simultaneously, describing the party as “extreme ideologues resentful of civilisational progress” and a “Twitter-led, economics-lite, class-unconscious, flags-and-pronouns alliance.” Figure that one out if you can.

As ever, Scottish unionism remains stubbornly resistant to learning from its past mistakes. Ahead of their historic landslide in the 2015 General Election, the SNP were variously portrayed as Tartan Tories or, as one particularly florid Daily Mail editorial put it, “Tartan Stalinists”. Many voters, it turned out, concluded that both of these characterisations could not be true simultaneously, and that based on available evidence, neither were; instead, the SNP were an emphatically centrist party with a neoliberal economic prospectus, coupled with a very practical understanding of those public services and universalist provisions which the bulk of the nation considers inviolate. If critics of the SNP – or the Greens, for that matter – were to engage with the reality of the party, they might make more headway. But that would be less fun that tilting at windmills summoned by turgid Tory imaginations.  

Given that all this right-wing fulmination is taking place after the Holyrood election, one might wonder what’s the point? Fear may be a factor: in the past, as some have already noted, the Scottish Tories could count on some influence over Sturgeon’s government, given that it sometimes relied upon their votes to overcome opposition from the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour. A deal between the Greens and the SNP would deprive them of that, leaving them powerless and irrelevant, like a turd in the wind.   

The more relevant question may be to ask who this scaremongering over a Green-SNP agreement is aimed at. For that, we don’t have to look far for an answer. Such a deal, writes The Times’ Michael Glackin, would “intensify the belief among Scotland’s employers that Sturgeon is anti-business.”

“For those in business in Scotland,” thunders Murdo Fraser, “already concerned about their ability to recover post-Covid, the prospect of the Greens having more influence in government is deeply worrying, bringing with it the certainty of higher taxes and stricter regulation.”

“The unholy coalition between the SNP and the Scottish Greens… could be a looming disaster for the Scottish economy,” Scottish Conservative economy spokesperson Liz Smith told Holyrood, while her leader Douglas Ross lamented: “Instead of business people who understand how to create jobs, it’s the Greens who might get a seat around the first minister’s table.

“A Green party that doesn’t even believe in economic growth and a Green party that wants to risk the entire oil and gas industry and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports.”

Even Alex Massie, normally more restrained and coherent than his colleagues on the unionist Right, condemned the Greens’ “neo-Malthusianism” as “both wicked and misplaced” in The Times before arguing that only a business-based solution could solve the climate emergency.

“When it is in capitalism’s interest to answer a problem,” Massie writes reverently, “an answer will be found.” This carefully elides the question of where blame lies for the problem itself, and why no such answer has yet been presented. Never mind – ‘An Environmental Miracle™, as brought to you by Amazon-Ratheon-Weyland-Yutani’ will no doubt be along any moment now.

Unsurprisingly, much of this is as patently nonsensical as attempts to portray Holyrood’s Green cohort as a modern-day Weather Underground. As Lorna Slater and many of her colleagues have been at pains to clarify over the past week to those who have not actually read their manifesto, it is not their party policy to render all oil and gas workers jobless; believe it or not, there’s this thing called a ‘just transition’, which has been quite the lively topic of conversation in Green circles for some time.

That, however, is irrelevant to those who seek to suggest otherwise. They know that the SNP is committed to keeping Scottish business interests sweet, and painting the Greens as both a threat to those interests and a potential partner in government is a promising fault-line they hope to exploit.

Unfortunately, there is reason to believe such efforts may yield results. Scotland’s nebulous ‘business community’ – who would never waste time lighting a candle when there’s all this darkness to curse – cares about its own interests first and those of the country a distant second, if at all; in this, they are not dissimilar to drug dealers, though your average smack slinger does not have numerous political parties jostling to speak on their behalf.

Despite this enviable position, they are still prone to acting like Cuban plantation owners who’ve just watched Fidel roll into Havana, rather than one of the most powerful segments of society who routinely demand that their favour be curried, that their hand is held through even the most minor of reforms, and that their wrath be feared by all, despite their regular displays of hysteria and absolute absence of backbone.

Tories tend to describe almost anyone they set their sights on as ‘anti-business’, yet the irony is the perpetual carping and baseless sense of entitlement exhibited by Scotland’s self-styled entrepreneurs and captains of commerce is probably the most effective advertisement for anti-capitalism since John Maclean first started handing out leaflets.

These are the forces the Tories and their sympathisers hope to marshal in scuppering an SNP-Green agreement. If they are successful, it will endanger far more than the outward unity of Holyrood’s pro-independence majority.

It will demonstrate – as if anyone needed further proof – that the influence which Scotland’s economic elite regards as its birthright will continue to go unchallenged. It will act as a warning against our elected government pursuing even those goals within its devolved power. And it will warp the discourse surrounding post-Covid recovery, the climate emergency and our future as a nation around a blinkered, apocalyptic conception of ‘economic growth’ that has never delivered for the Scottish people, demands endless sacrifices in its name, and promises no future anyone would wish to live in.

Regardless of what comes from the SNP and Greens’ negotiations, such forces must be repudiated – for all our sakes.

Picture courtesy of Alf Melin