IT’S A SIGN OF our post-election lethargy that there was no sense of intrigue surrounding the putative SNP-Green coalition. No hacks sniffing for a scoop, no drama, no nothing. Nobody was interested, perhaps having concluded that routine would reassert itself regardless of whether Patrick Harvie was granted a cabinet portfolio. There was thus no fanfare yesterday when SNP insiders confirmed, via the National, that a coalition was off the table.
Interpretative caution is advised, as the National’s news section tends to parrot the party line. But it appears the election of the Green MSP Alison Johnstone as presiding officer was central to the decision; with parliamentary arithmetic split 64 to 64, a dependable pro-independence figure in the role offered reassurance. The fact that Johnstone was offered up suggests the Greens are happy with remaining out of government; perhaps no surprise, since, as I wrote in a previous Source Direct, coalitions are disastrous for small parties, especially Green Parties.
The National also highlights two policy conflicts that mitigated against coalition (given the paper’s agitprop function, these assumptions seem solidly grounded in fact). Firstly, the SNP remains committed to North Sea oil extraction, which is not a good look for Harvie with COP26 approaching. Secondly, the Greens were committed to raising income taxes for the wealthiest Scots and to a so-called “millionaire’s tax”, proposals never likely to endear Sturgeon to her leadership’s court intellectuals at Charlotte Street Partners.
What to make of this politically? Above all, it suggests that the pandemic has made little impact on Sturgeon’s thinking except to reinforce her small-c conservative instincts. She remains intent on governing as before, appeasing the Left with low-cost cultural liberalism, appeasing the right with low taxes and by perpetuating wealth and privilege intact. Her agenda remains within parameters that philosopher Nancy Fraser called “progressive neoliberalism”, even as the wider world is abandoning those ideas.
In Scotland, the question of oil is less about the rights and wrongs of putting jobs before the environment. This is to fall into a trap: it’s not as if the SNP leadership has an ambitious jobs agenda that happens to involve oil extraction. Instead, the conflict with the Greens is symptomatic of the calling card of Sturgeon’s leadership, a generalised low ambition, a tendency to offset conflicts and kick “big questions” into the long grass.
Sturgeon’s skill as an empathiser isn’t in question. But that success reflects an instinct for appeasing everything in human nature that screams caution; her political temperament is all about guarding against change. Hence Sturgeon has triumphed over these past seven years precisely by doing nothing (much). Westminster, by contrast, does things, often recklessly, to the point of public exhaustion; Sturgeon appeals to the prudent Jiminy Cricket on Scotland’s shoulder who asks, why change when we’ve got all this?
Perhaps the independence movement benefits from a leader who feels that part of human nature that biases towards the status quo. Perhaps a more vigorously separatist leader would frighten the horses. But the problem is that Sturgeon and Murrell have so centralised the party and the movement that caution has become the only prevailing emotion. Thus, all of the movement’s energies (and cash reserves) are turned to reproducing the status quo.
We are also reaching the stage where we must ask questions of the Greens. Their worthiness gets them a free pass, from defeat-scarred socialists looking to display their non-sectarian credentials, but also from the liberals that dominate Scotland’s comment sections.
Yet the Greens are also succumbing to Scotland’s wider lethargy. They’ve spent a whole epoch of Holyrood politics in a halfway house, neither in government nor in opposition. A constructive, Nordic-style politics of consensus, say supporters. To their critics, it’s a convenient set up, allowing them to take credit for face-saving budget fillips without any culpability for cuts or any risk of unnerving Hyndland’s Sturgeon-fanciers by upsetting apple carts.
An ambitious Green Party might set themselves the task of devising an alternative prospectus for independence, something beyond buzzwords that cuts against the Growth Commission. Instead, they seem intent on a perpetual war of position, without exerting any agency in the historical process. Alex Salmond’s Alba Party – say what you want about the man himself, and I’m a fierce critic – arguably did more to resist SNP intellectual dominance in months than the Greens have in years. Their decisive defeat has sealed a return to the closed loop that reproduces Holyrood politics.
At present, our system has plenty of left cover for Sturgeon’s government. There’s also a unionist left opposition, of sorts, in Scottish Labour (whose cohort includes many chancers but also admirable figures like Mercedes Villalba and Katy Clark). However, there’s tragically little presence for a pro-independence left opposition. With Holyrood closed off and depoliticised, street protests may become increasingly febrile, highlighted both by Kenmure Street and the Rangers riot. But even to talk of that shows we are back to relying on miracles from outside of parliament.