HISTORICALLY, COALITION GOVERNMENTS have been disastrous for Green Parties. In Germany’s Red-Green coalition, foreign minister and onetime leftist militant Joschka Fischer fronted a neo-imperial revival that included participation in the disastrous Afghanistan war. In Ireland, the Greens as Fianna Fáil’s junior partner were complicit in extraordinary cuts and bailouts for the super-rich (having won back some post-Thunberg protest credibility, the Irish Greens have just entered an even more right-wing coalition). Austria’s Greens are in government with anti-migrant conservatives, with predictable consequences.
Similar fates have confronted related protest parties, such as Italy’s environmentalist Five Star Movement, who first acted as left cover for Salvini, then for technocratic austerity. In an earlier phase of Italian history, Rifondazione Comunista, one of the greatest success stories of the anti-globalisation movement, were decimated by the same logic.
Of course, we don’t have to look far afield for disastrous coalitions. Consider the Liberal Democrats, who were punished as the handmaidens of the Cameron era. Or even the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose role in propping up Theresa May was rewarded with the unionist nightmare of a line drawn in the Irish sea.
Every sensible Scottish Green knows this history. Indeed, Scotland’s party have spent years assuring activists that they aren’t like those Greens over there. Their badge has been moral purity. It’s thus curious how little Patrick Harvie’s proposed green-yellow coalition has been debated. This either testifies to growing post-Salmond naivety about Nicola Sturgeon’s agenda or to an underlying uneasiness which has yet to manifest in public. As evidence for the latter interpretation, Harvie has recently dampened down his earlier enthusiasm.
The Greens have led a relatively charmed life until now, being able to take credit for minor budget adjustments while washing their hands of austerity. The ultimate rationale for propping up the SNP has been the building of a coalition towards independence, but despite Scotland has been kept on tenterhooks by Ian Blackford’s bluster, so far nothing has materialised.
In a formal coalition, with independence looking remote, the Greens would be culpable for everything the SNP does, as the Lib Dems were for the bedroom tax and student fees. On the plus side, that involves a degree of honesty. The Greens would have to take the slings and arrows in return for a seat at the table. But the risk is undeniable: there are few examples where a coalition government has benefitted the junior partner. If the Scottish Greens came out well, they would be breaking new ground.
And if Sturgeon is serious about independence, the questions only redouble. Would the Greens endorse Sturgeon’s Growth Commission vision of independence, with monetary sovereignty delegated to the Bank of England, fiscal sovereignty to Brussels, military sovereignty to NATO, etc? Formally they will say no. But then, consider all the cases of coalition government listed above: junior partners tend to get jollied along by the logic of power and the moralism of “unity”.
Worryingly, much of the Green base has recently developed illusions in the SNP leadership. One activist assured me that Sturgeon, having ejected the Alba Party extremists, would now show her true socialist colours. Of course, anecdotes being what they are, it’s difficult to assess how much this derangement has entered the bloodstream. Salmond’s orientation has never been social democratic, not since his first election in the nineties. But it was Sturgeon and her intellectual patrons at Charlotte Street Partners who devised the Growth Commission, a most definitely un-sustainable programme.
If anything, the logic of Alba is working in the opposite direction. With Alba having taken much of the old social democratic wing, Sturgeon’s team has panicked about being outflanked on policy. That is one explanation for the recent flurry of initiatives. Another is that Sturgeon needs a legacy, having spent seven years achieving little, and with progress on independence looking unlikely (tellingly, the SNP are withdrawing it from ballot papers).
The Green leadership now risks becoming embroiled in these power games. If they are preparing a coalition, expect much talk about the risk of social conservatism in Alba, a party that registers as little as 2 percent in some polls, and arguably contains nobody as socially conservative as, say, the SNP’s John Mason (some even raise questions over Kate Forbes, who, unlike Mason, is at the heart of government).
Even if he does gain election, Salmond will eventually be revealed as a washed up, isolated figure rather than some omnipotent demon. With Alba likely to be a sideshow at best, the Greens could move front and centre. If that means coalition, the question will be, have they really thought it through? Can they succeed where so many others failed? Or will voters bundle them in with a government that shows all the signs of ageing, fatigue and even senility?