Green Grow The Rashes

For the first time, the Green Party in Scotland have entered power. But what does it mean?

Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie, co-leaders of the Green party in Scotland

Over the last week or two, there’s been quite the rash of articles about the fact that the Green party have, for the first time in both Scottish and UK political history, gained a modicum of power. That’s in the Scottish Parliament, to be clear, where the party has entered into a co-operation pact with the SNP – not a formal coalition, but an agreed arrangement based on a similar model in New Zealand, whereby the Greens will support the SNP in some things but are free to criticise others . This has seen the two co-leaders of the party, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, appointed cabinet ministers. Specifically, Harvie has been appointed Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights while Slater has been made Minister for Green Skills, the Circular Economy and Biodiversity. These are non-trivial roles, and their appointment is a non-trivial event. And, rather importantly, they are new cabinet positions.

There’s a couple of significant points around this that are worth mentioning. Firstly, the SNP didn’t have to do this. The arithmetic of Holyrood following the election of 2021 was that they failed to gain an overall majority by one seat. That is, in and of itself, remarkable – the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, which is used in Scottish Parliamentary elections, makes gaining an overall majority practically impossible. That they managed to come that close is frankly remarkable. The position of Speaker has been filled by a non-SNP member – ironically, in fact, it’s a Green MSP – which means the number of voting MSP’s in Holyrood is split evenly and, as is the convention in Westminster, If there’s a tie then the Speaker votes with the government and so the SNP have, for all intents and purposes, a working majority. Sort of. Anyway, they quite definitely didn’t need to do this. It makes their life easier, sure, but it was definitely not a necessity.

Secondly, and perhaps more relevantly, the Greens support independence for Scotland. This is also worth mentioning because the Green party in Scotland has always supported independence since its inception. In fact, the Green party in Scotland is a completely separate and distinct organisation from the Green party in England and Wales, and when the party decided to go into not-a-coalition with the SNP, it was predicated on a vote from its members – all its members. If the party members had voted against the pact, it was all over. In other words, it was properly democratic. That means, with the pact in place, there is a majority of MSP’s in Holyrood who support independence and who have a working, functional relationship together. Time will tell whether Alex Salmond’s Alba party will ever get an MSP elected – they failed in 2021, so for the time being the SNP and Greens are the only pro-independence parties in Holyrood. It makes sense for them to work together and, thusly, they are. This also helps to deflect opposition criticism that independence is the lone obsession of the SNP – the Tories, Labour and the feeble remnants of the Liberal Democrats can’t really turn round and say “it’s just the SNP that want independence” when there’s a very visible – suddenly very visible – party right next to them who want exactly the same thing. And, inconveniently for the opposition, a party who also share the anti-Brexit, anti-Trident, pro-EU agenda of the SNP to boot.

There’s a third item that’s worth mentioning as well, and that’s the upcoming COP26 Climate Conference, which is happening in Glasgow. It is, following the UN’s Code Red For Humanity report, a Very Big Deal. It was meant to happen last year but you know – pandemic and all that. So it’s happening this year and, to the surprise of nobody, it’s a pretty political event for something that’s meant to be about saving the planet. Boris Johnson has made his desire to side-line the devolved administrations explicit and clear – he wants the whole thing bedecked in Union Jacks with nary a Saltire to be seen. From his perspective this makes a certain amount of sense. Since Johnson doesn’t regard Scotland or the Scottish Parliament as much more than an inconveniently troublesome town council, why should he bother to pay it much heed? Glasgow’s in the UK, he’s the UK Prime Minister, Union Jacks at the ready.

Except, obviously, it’s not quite that simple. And now there are actual Green MSP’s with positions of power in the Scottish government it’s even more not-that-simple. It’s one thing to attack the Scottish government – or indeed ignore the Scottish government – for its environmental record, even though that record is broadly speaking pretty good. Not perfect, but still – 97% of Scotland’s electricity comes from renewables. That alone is worth taking heed of. It’s another to do it while, for the first time, there are Green MSP’s with cabinet positions. “You don’t do enough to protect the environment” is a hard line to sell when the government has, in fact, just put people in a position of power whose sole remit is exactly that. And the Westminster government just tried to open a coal mine (yes, really) and are embroiled in an attept to open a new oil field at Cambo – not exactly green-friendly policies. Whether Johnson likes it or not, this gives the Scottish government a bit of leverage, and perhaps more importantly, makes the Scottish government look like the grown-ups in the room right when the world’s attention is suddenly focussed on Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon may not be a perfect leader (who is?) but there’s no doubting just how astute a move this is – in one stroke she outflanks Johnson’s green credentials while re-enforcing her own, makes her government look stable and mature enough to work cross-party, and does it at a time when such things really matter.

And what do the Greens get out of it? Well, cabinet posts, most obviously. But more than that, it highlights just how far a party previously considered little more than fringe has come. There’s real significance to their achievements, both in growing their number of MSP’s, and using that growth to demonstrate a more mature form of politics. The Tories, under Douglas Ross, are trying to sell this as a “coalition of chaos’” – a bit rich from the party that was in an actual coalition with the Liberal Democrats – but it’s not really getting a lot of traction. Why? Well, because it’s clearly not that. The SNP and the Greens have entered into an agreement which means they will support each other on certain aspects – independence, most obviously – but where they are free to criticise each other in other areas, such as the expansion of road-building which the Greens are opposed to. Work together on the things that require working together, have a fair disagreement over the things you don’t. That’s… well. It’s positively sensible. It’s also how most governments in the West operate. And that, again, makes it hard for the opposition.

Labour – once so important in Scottish politics – find themselves pushed even further to the margins by this move, since the Greens are progressive, left-wing and socialist, but without the unpleasant taint of New Labour, unnecessary wars and sell-outs. The Labour party currently hold just 22 seats in Holyrood – that’s nine less than the Tories (yikes) and only 14 more than the Greens, who sit on eight (well, seven plus the Speaker). There’s a fair chance that should be ten, or even twelve, thanks to some duplicity with a far-right party called Independent Green Alliance, who despite having no manifesto, stood and sucked crucial votes from the actual Green party that denied them at least two list seats, but that’s a story for another article. Anyway, it gives progressive, left-leaning voters worried about the planet somewhere else to go that isn’t going to be haunted by the ghostly cadaver of Gordon Brown. The Liberal Democrats are on a frankly hilarious four MSP’s, having done so well in the last election they managed to push themselves into fifth place. Who’s talking about the Liberal Democrats? Nobody. Who’s talking about the Greens? Everybody, because they just entered government.

And that’s the other thing the Greens get out of it – publicity. At time of writing, Green MSP’s have only ever been elected on the list. They’re still awaiting their first constituency win. But having such a high profile makes that win all the more likely. One of the things they can achieve in government is the practicalities of pushing forward an environmental agenda. But another is ensuring that they are noticed – that when it comes time to put a cross in the boxes of the next Scottish parliamentary elections it no longer feels like a potentially wasted vote to go Green on the constituency vote. They almost managed it this time, and the 2021 election saw the Greens get their best every return of MSP’s. It would be remarkable indeed if they didn’t improve that next time round. Far from the right-wing press howls of how they’re eco-Marxists, zealots or environmental extremists (as if any of that is a bad thing), in fact what the Greens have mostly shown is that they are mature enough to see an opportunity, work with it, and move both their agenda and their party forward.

And what might happen in the next five years anyway? The SNP and Greens have stated they will introduce a Referendum Bill for IndyRef2 in the lifetime of this parliament and, assuming Covid is under control, in its first half. The bill will pass, because there’s a pact between the Greens and the SNP. And, having passed, Westminster will then be challenged to have that bill struck down in the Supreme Court, or grant a Section 30 and allow a transfer of power to make the vote legal. This puts Johnson in an essentially unwinnable position. Arithmetically, Scotland has voted and returned a majority of independence-supporting MSP’s. The SNP and the Green party ran on an explicitly pro-independence ticket and won. The Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrat ran on an explicit say-no-to-IndyRef2 agenda – indeed it was basically the only policy the Tories had – and got thumped. Regardless of where you sit on the actual issue of independence, democratically the right to hold IndyRef2 is pretty much unassailable. So if Johnson goes to the Supreme Court and has the competency of the Referendum Bill questioned or struck down – by no means a certain outcome, though constitutional issues are reserved – then he is visibly, and in a very high-profile way, denying democracy. Which in turn only adds fuel to the flames of the Yes movement – and the Yes movement, it’s worth remembering, is distinct from the purely political parties of the SNP and Greens (and Alba). Independence supporters come in all political stripes – even, surprisingly, Tories. If he grants a Section 30, then he’s caving in to something he said he would never do – not that he’s never done that before, dead in a ditch and all that – and could potentially be setting himself up as the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. What is a PM to do? The right thing would be nice, but that seems unlikely given the track record in question.

One thing is certain, though. The Greens entering power makes Johnson’s life substantially more difficult. That, if nothing else, seems like a worthwhile reason for doing it.

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