MOST EXPECTED AN SNP-Green coalition to emerge organically from the Holyrood election. Then everything went dark, until the SNP announced they were governing as a minority. With cabinet posts declared, matters seemed to be following their familiar course: to paraphrase Belloc, the stocks were sold, the press was squared, the middle class was quite prepared.
Then came yesterday’s announcement of a hypothetical “co-operation agreement”. This stops short of coalition, at least cosmetically, but then (post-Nick Clegg) coalition is such a dirty word. Co-operation could mean the Greens taking cabinet posts and writing joint legislation in return for passing through budgets – a coalition in all but name. Theoretically, it also means a formalised pro-independence majority, although there are few signs that either party is seriously gearing towards a referendum.
From the SNP’s perspective, there are clear advantages. This buys Sturgeon (a politician broadly in the centrist tradition) oodles of left cover at low cost. There are numerous other logistical gains from the nationalist perspective, which are well summarised in Gina Davidson’s analysis for the Scotsman. The question is why announce this at such a late stage. Any serious offer to the Greens (particularly on cabinet positions) risks alienating (or bumping) her own people – unless Patrick Harvie has been bought off with something paltry.
Questions thus centre on the Greens. As Davidson observes, “For the Greens, the reasons to go into any formal arrangement are not so clear cut – after all with great power comes a greater chance to be blamed for when things go wrong.”
Green activists peddle the myth that only their coquettish in/out, kingmakers/budget-backers approach can win progressive policies. Sceptics might well raise an eyebrow. The Scottish Socialist Party abolished poindings and warrant sales with just one highly combative MSP. Monica Lennon alone won the day on period poverty from the opposition benches. Examples abound. Scotland has a surfeit of MSPs happy to back low-cost “progressive” policies. The problem is that Holyrood has no real power where it counts (the economy).
The calculation for the Greens might well transcend Scotland, and raise a more fundamental question of existential purpose. Coalitions are the logical termination point for the Green model of mobilising handwringing purity politics for the dirtier ends of parliamentary cretinism. Austrian Greens joined a coalition with anti-migrant conservatives. The German and Irish Greens joined governments that were by turn militarist and neoliberal.
The claim is that Scotland will somehow be different – better – than those botched experiments. But quite aside from the Scottish exceptionalism, the problem here is that for supporters of Scottish independence, Holyrood politics should actually be worse than comparable European states where Green coalitions happen, insofar as we lack even the notional sovereignty to achieve real change. Thus, unless this coalition is seriously bent on independence with the conflicts that will involve, it becomes just another Euro-Green coalition – but worse.
This could make Patrick Harvie the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of Scottish politics: the hapless fall guy for somebody else’s failures. In a sense, it’s good for democracy if the Greens are now culpable for their budget decisions. But their members might well be wondering if the risk is worth it.