More than politics? The SNP/Green deal can be a victory for social movements
Marked by the emergence of a diverse social movement, mass political self-education, and panic at the pinnacle of the British state – the heady days of 2014 are now a far distant memory.
Yet an echo of the strange final weeks before the referendum could be heard amidst the howling from unionist and conservative commentators in response to the SNP/Green deal, published in draft form yesterday.
Whatever its flaws, the possibility of the two parties governing together offers one of the most coherent legacies yet to have emerged from the bygone era of 2014.
Across what really does feel like a generation’s worth of change, the referendum remains a foundational moment. That moment’s promises – and its contradictions – are everywhere, but they are also enclosed behind Perspex, time and again the urge to reach out for a ‘Yes Movement’ politics is blocked by the truth of the unique confluence of circumstances that led to it, and cannot, by definition, be replicated.
The case for independence is therefore at once more pressing and harder to pin down. Tied as it is to the mechanism of a referendum, the cause requires momentum to get things moving, and despite all the absurdities and cruelties of the British state that become more apparent daily, that impetus, in a radically altered and still more complex world, is elusive.
The collapse of so many old certainties in the period since 2014 sometimes makes the seven years that have elapsed feel more like seventy. What remains constant is the dominance of a pro-independence majority at Holyrood. Within those constraints, this proposed new way of governing is a welcome innovation.
But it comes with risks. The problem of the SNP’s unassailable position boils down to something like this: after fourteen years in power, it’s not clear if the SNP has changed the way Scotland is governed, or if the way Scotland is governed has changed the SNP.
The centrist response to this critique heralds control of the ship of state as ‘grown-up politics’; with opposition, particularly from the left, often cast as pointless and infantile.
Getting things done, running the show, and taking responsibility are all political imperatives that the Scottish Green Party will now have to incorporate. Navigating between this role and the party’s status as the only clearly anti-capitalist formation within the Parliament will be extremely challenging.
In policy terms there are notable concessions to the Greens within the proposed deal – there is a palpable sense of pride that they have come this far. But there is also a risk that the smaller party will become swallowed by the all-pervasive governing logics that have turned the SNP into cautious, skittish and biddable legislators.
Part of the difficulty for the Greens may be technical: within the draft deal, they will not only be offered two ministerial posts, but will also get Special Advisers to go with them; appointed at the discretion of the First Minister.
The lucrative Special Adviser posts – which are designed to bridge the gap between party politics and the civil service – mash together a whole raft of duties from spin to policy formulation. They involve a constant churn of high-pressure government business in order to ensure that the public-facing minister maintains an air of control and competency; in some cases they also stand in for a lack of institutional ballast behind that façade.
Therefore, the deal itself is perhaps less significant than the assumptions and practices that could follow from Greens entering government. The statist architecture of St Andrews House belies a deeper problem for all devolved parties: the structures of devolution were set-up in an essentially Blairite mould – at a moment when the kind of statist ‘paternalism’ that the SNP now also condemns seemed to have become obsolete.
It is this boring institutional reality, far more than the individual caution of Nicola Sturgeon, that has tempered any radical instincts that the SNP might once have harboured. The pandemic only emphasises this further.
Scotland is governed by a relatively lean state apparatus, with constrained power and agency, staffed by overworked people who operate using a limited amount of bandwidth to see them through the working day.
Guarding Against Institutional Capture
There is certainly more that can be done within the confines of devolution, but it’s not clear that there is a will do so. Devolution embedded sectoral interests and sought to protect them. The Scottish state can therefore preserve, or enhance, a certain social settlement, but it’s doubtful if it really has the capacity to transform it.
This is why great swathes of devolved Scottish policy remain unreformed. Tellingly, local government, council tax and industrial strategy – were probably never seriously on the table as the two parties hammered out this deal.
This explains the strangely anti-politics opening line of the draft agreement, a kind of mantra for the nation’s liberal-professional elite: ‘Scotland is so much more than its politics.’
Given the Scottish Government’s ‘small n’ nationalism, it’s hard to imagine such a prominent and disparaging statement applied to any other sphere of public life in Scotland.
Government good, politics bad – so the mantra goes. After all, everything comes back to the bland notion that independence is simply a matter of showing that we do things better up here.
Also absent from the deal are several obvious issues on contrasting material interests amongst different sections of Scottish society – entering the clean corridors of power means leaving messy class politics at the door.
The essentially neoliberal basis on which Scotland is governed presents a potentially perilous terrain for the Greens to operate on; because they risk tacitly endorsing areas of perma-injustice and inequality that the SNP has consistently failed to address. Their answer is always a fresh commission, or its upgraded modish successor; a citizens assembly.
However, there are tactics that the Greens can deploy to guard against institutional capture, which can be found in a reiteration of the politics of 2014.
Scotland is so much more than its politics, perhaps – but without its long history of popular struggle through grassroots social movements – it would still be the backwater that Tom Johnston once claimed a Scottish Assembly would pointlessly oversee.
The commitment to rent controls, originally achieved in the UK following Mary Barbour’s iconic rent strikes, is the result of years of tireless campaigning by Living Rent.
This could be a potential crowning achievement for the Greens, but guaranteeing this will involve four long years of defending that commitment from being neutered by lobbyists.
For Scotland’s eco-socialist party, the real challenge that joining government presents is whether it can remain alive to the radical possibilities that Scotland’s diverse social movements seek to enact – on social, environmental and climate justice.
Unlike the SNP, who seek to represent all of Scotland, the Greens need to understand their role in government as representing those who want, and need, to change it.
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