2007 - 2021

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.

Pride

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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Comments (17)

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  1. Sue Laughlin says:

    Very astute piece. Greens, avowedly anti neoliberal economic policy but likely to end up colluding with SNP economics. And yes, implications for local government? Glasgow currently a right mess

    1. Wullie says:

      A right mess is paying female employees equal pay and the back money so long denied by the so called Scottish Labour Party, a right mess indeed.

  2. Justin Kenrick says:

    Really helpful article.

    Does this agreement mean that radical politics (1) is being muted through incorporation into the status quo, or (2) is securing tangible specific shifts to social justice without relinquishing the call to totally transform a system that’s tearing our world apart?

    David King, the former UK chief scientist, recently said:
    “What we do over the next three to four years . . . is going to determine the future of humanity. We are in a very very desperate situation.”

    Relinquishing the belief that big business and techno fixes can get us out of the mess both have created, and insisting on total transformation, is not a question of idealism but of survival.

  3. Graham Ennis says:

    Well, many good points in this editorial, but they all assume that things will not change, except by political action.
    This is not going to last. There are powerful forces at work, not just in Scotland, but Globally.
    It is now certain that we only have about 25 years, plus or minus 10, before the massive and now nearly irreversible impact of Climate change
    results in a massive crisis, as no matter what the outcome of the World conference in Sc0tland at the end of this year, we are relentlessly approaching the tipping point, the Point of No Return”, in which climate change is changing faster than anything we do to mitigate this. Bluntly, a sharp point where an accelerating crisis of climate, weather, and its impacts on global food and resources, means things are irreversible, and will be destabilising almost everything. (I was involved in A.M.E.G. (The Artic Methane Emergency Group, whereit was very clear where we are all heading. This is some years ago. The present outcome is now well ahead of the predictions then for this decade.
    There is a lot of lip service paid in the SNP on this issue. The Greens have the right approach, but woefully lack the Science. In the meantime, the weather and climate changes we have seen over the past year, are but a taster for what is coming.
    As far as I know, there are no proper science based plans and policies to deal with the coming disaster. There are some very slick and shiny ideas, written by the PR teams, but little understanding of the sheer scale and size of what is to c0me.
    In this situation, independence for Scotland is no longer a political issue, but an issue of Survival.
    The AMEG group, after being harrassed and pressured by the state, broke up.
    Nothing has replaced it. I know of no actual planning group in Scotland, attached to Scottish Goverment, that is doing anything.
    The survival issue is not even mentioned.
    The predicted dates I have mentioned are actually based on present circumstances, but given the speed of climate change, which is now accellerating, we may have only 15 years in which to do some very urgent things. Independence, rejoining the EU, radical plans on achieving food soverency, etc, are simply not on the agenda.
    I will probably be abused on here and dismissed as a nutter. No, I am not.
    Anyone got any ideas?…as the present political class and system in Scotland have not even got a proper awareness of what is to come. Please comment on this.

      1. Graham Ennis says:

        Thanks for the comment . Its appreciated. Yes we really are in a mess. If you mention the issue of “Food Soverignty ” to the average politician, they look completely blank.
        The situation that Scotland is the same as in most places. Like most places, it will starve and collapse, if something is not done to plan for the worst.
        Food sovereignty is simple. It is when a country can meet all its basic food needs, at a minimum of 1000 Calories a day, entirely from its own internal resources. No food imports. No food exports. Total self sustainability. 1000 calories a day is trhe absolute minimum for long term diet. Below that, for any period of time, and you get organ damage, etc. In post war, occupied Germany, the Allies imposed a tightly rationed regime on the general population. the base diet was around 950 calories. Everyone was looking a bit thin by 1948, when the allies were planning a temporary German Goverment, under supervision.
        Concentration camp inmates, doing heavy work, got 800 calories.
        These are facts. a reasonable minimum diet is around 1500 calories, with significant amounts of vitimin and mineral supplements.
        The Irish were able to manage on 1500 calories, mostly potatoes and root crops, and minimal protein.
        I am being very blunt here. There is no way a functioning society can function on less than 1000 calories. The translation of this into tonnage is 5 million Scots times 1000 calories EVERY DAY, on a long term basis. Say around 1Kg per scot. This is thin grules. its also around 5 thousand tons per day. for humans, say three million tons, plus feed fodder, etc. also Scotland does not produce food supplements, preservatives, freeze drying facilities, etc etc. Plus stockpiling.
        In reality, by cutting meat rations to the bone, and creating supplements (vitimins, minerals, etc, as food additives) we could just about manage.
        This is the zero-point, and is unstable.
        Investing in green farming, root crops, and adequate fertilisers, (Scotland imports most of these, at the moment) would make the system more stable.
        Where do these figures come from?…..well, I was in Bosnia, during the War. I wrote the North Bosnia emergency medical and food plan, for the Goverment in North Bosnia, as the United nations were a disaster. The reality of Bosnia then was akin to what Scotland might look like in around 20 years time, (or less) . So this is doable. But nthere is zero interest, little idea of what is required, and no planning that I know of. Sigh.
        We have, with luck, about 10 years to plan and implement a plan for 25% indigenous food production. The system would then have all the structure and org required for rapid expansion, and the skills. Lets say 2035.
        If you know anyone in the Agriculture ministry, ask if the present Minister has got even the barest outline of a briefing on climate crisis and food production.
        I very much doubt it.
        Your comments welcome. Use my material as you please, to get a debate going. Regards Graham

      2. Graham Ennis says:

        Thanks for the comment . Its appreciated. Yes we really are in a mess. If you mention the issue of “Food Soverignty ” to the average politician, they look completely blank.
        The situation that Scotland is in is the same as in most places. Like most places, it will starve and collapse, if something is not done to plan for the worst.
        Food sovereignty is simple. It is when a country can meet all its basic food needs, at a minimum of 1000 Calories a day, entirely from its own internal resources. No food imports. No food exports. Total self sustainability. 1000 calories a day is trhe absolute minimum for long term diet. Below that, for any period of time, and you get organ damage, etc. In post war, occupied Germany, the Allies imposed a tightly rationed regime on the general population. the base diet was around 950 calories. Everyone was looking a bit thin by 1948, when the allies were planning a temporary German Goverment, under supervision.
        Concentration camp inmates, doing heavy work, got 800 calories.
        These are facts. a reasonable minimum diet is around 1500 calories, with significant amounts of vitimin and mineral supplements.
        The Irish were able to manage on 1500 calories, mostly potatoes and root crops, and minimal protein.
        I am being very blunt here. There is no way a functioning society can function on less than 1000 calories. The translation of this into tonnage is 5 million Scots times 1000 calories EVERY DAY, on a long term basis. Say around 1Kg per scot. This is thin grules. its also around 5 thousand tons per day. for humans, say three million tons, plus feed fodder, etc. also Scotland does not produce food supplements, preservatives, freeze drying facilities, etc etc. Plus stockpiling.
        In reality, by cutting meat rations to the bone, and creating supplements (vitimins, minerals, etc, as food additives) we could just about manage.
        This is the zero-point, and is unstable.
        Investing in green farming, root crops, and adequate fertilisers, (Scotland imports most of these, at the moment) would make the system more stable.
        Where do these figures come from?…..well, I was in Bosnia, during the War. I wrote the North Bosnia emergency medical and food plan, for the Goverment in North Bosnia, as the United nations were a disaster. The reality of Bosnia then was akin to what Scotland might look like in around 20 years time, (or less) . So this is doable. But nthere is zero interest, little idea of what is required, and no planning that I know of. Sigh.
        We have, with luck, about 10 years to plan and implement a plan for 25% indigenous food production. The system would then have all the structure and org required for rapid expansion, and the skills. Lets say 2035.
        If you know anyone in the Agriculture ministry, ask if the present Minister has got even the barest outline of a briefing on climate crisis and food production.
        I very much doubt it.
        Your comments welcome. Use my material as you please, to get a debate going. Regards Graham

        1. I did an interview on food sovereignty last week for Scotonomics.

          I’m working on a revived updated Food Manifesto which might be of interest.

          1. Graham Ennis says:

            Dear Editor, how surprised and pleased I am to see a ghleam of light on the food issue. I look forwards to seeing the result. If you need any input, am more than willing. The key factors here are 1: Timescale 2: structural planning on a national basis. 3: forming an expert group.4:Holding a conference late next year.
            Thanks to the NET, foreign experts and help are on hand. Also, the issues break down to:
            A: Parliamenmtary funding.
            B:networking through the Scots system of expertise. (Agricultural colleges, development agencies doing or have done famine relief.
            C:National awareness campaign. Starts with political linkage to climate campaign groups, Orgs, etc.
            D: The right wing parties in Scotland will have zero input. They are totally against such things.
            E:Core group, starting Next year, full use of the internet, and regular Press and Media PR.
            F: Primary survey is to find out what social and union groups, (As in Trade unions!).
            G:Getting on board media support.
            Regards
            Graham

        2. Tom Ultuous says:

          Good posts Graham.

    1. Roland Smith says:

      100% correct in my opinion with your very pertinent observations. I want independence for my grandchildren to give them a chance to maybe survive the impending crisis. That’s why I pleased as a 2014 SNP member to see the Greens get into power. I am hoping against hope that they will put a rocket up the backside of the SNP who are far too complacent and wedded to vested interests as they have grown used to being in power. We urgently need to change, urgently need to get Independence and then frankly I hope our first Indy Gov is far more radical than an SNP one would be, ditch NATO, join EEA and Schengen being amongst the policies I will be looking for along with food security, renewable energy and hydrogen production.

      1. Graham Ennis says:

        Hi Roland, glad you mentioned Hydrogen. It comes from water, and electrolysis. It can be powered by thermal generators to make it.
        The actual oil and gas are far to valuable to use for fuel.
        They need to be reserved for industrial feed materials, etc.
        No burning of hydrocarbons in Scotia by 2040. Etc etc.
        Graham

        1. Hamish100 says:

          We should realise that oil is a finite resource.

          It will continue to be a useful commodity but not for fuelling cars/ aircraft.

          What industries in Scotland can be tasked to take this forward?

  4. Mouse says:

    The SNP get Greenwashed, and the Greens get Lib Damned.

    As far as I can make out, the Greens get two newly made-up government posts in exchange for one vote per year. (Secretary for Net-Zero Wellbeing Happiness Indexing?).

    If you want to know how cynical the agreement is, on both sides, remember that out of all party’s at Holyrood, the Green Party’s policies are as far removed from the SNP’s as you can get. I guess the Greens didn’t actually mean it.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      It’s a power-sharing agreement, Mouse. How the parties to that agreement use that power is their own business. It’s just a shame that the Scottish parliamentary system has failed to prevent majoritarian rule.

      It’s also disappointing that the Greens have removed themselves from opposition and will no longer be able to hold the government’s feet to the fire over key issues.

  5. John Monro says:

    Thank you, Christopher. I can’t really comment too much on the state of “politics” in Scotland, even the “small politics” that SNP seem to be promoting – I am following Scotland’s course with great interest as an Anglo Scot with Burns’s “My heart’s in the Highlands” a big part of my joy in place, but living in NZ I am providing you all with the furthest geographical opinions to your more parochial matters. But the Scottish Greens do need perhaps to look to NZ’s example of their politics in the last near 30 years since MMP. The Greens regularly gain 7-9% of the vote and have 10 MPs presently. However, for the first time since 1993 a party (Labour) has gained an absolute majority. The Greens find themselves again pretty popular but shut out of real power. There is an arrangement with Labour, for instance the Green’s co-leader, James Shaw. is climate change minister, but is not in cabinet. That tells you quite a lot about the reality of power even in what we’d consider a reasonably fair voting system. The prior Labour administration was a coalition between Labour, a faux “nationalist” party called NZ First who are virulently antipathetic to the Greens, and the Greens. NZ first gained several cabinet positions, but despite the Greens polling similarly, gained no cabinet position but merely supported the Labour led administration under what’s called “confidence and supply”. That means, you’re free to criticise the government, try to get some policies adopted, but if it comes to the crunch in the house you will support any confidence debate, and will support the budget. Prior to that we had nine years of a National (right wing) government under John Key, they worked with a Maori party. The Greens would be most unlikely to support any National led coalition or informal arrangement. What has been apparent though through all these years, even as the Greens continue a fair representation in Parliament for their votes, how impotent they have been in securing any major concessions in regard to their own philosophies, especially, as you point out in your article, in the economic and social sphere. It is true though that latest Greens have secured some advances in global warming and other environmental legislation,. If I were in the Scottish Green party now, and had some responsibility as a SMP or party manager, I’d be contacting the Greens here in New Zealand for some thoughts and ideas – and warnings too perhaps. The fact is that all minority parties have a nearly impossible thing to do – keeping their own supporters happy, working with a usually very reluctant much bigger partner and trying to defend themselves in public opinion if things go wrong, the bigger party naturally being able apportion blame to them in this case, and keep the praise for themselves when occasionally things go right……As you cogently summarise, much needed radicalism continues to fall on very stony political ground. Anyway, as a Green party supporter here, i wish the Scottish Greens, and your country, well.

  6. Ally JG says:

    This is an interesting article, thanks.

    Could some parts be followed up? There’s the part about which tactics the Greens could use to stay radical – I’d be interested to know what these are.

    Also, government staff are overworked and short on time – I’d like to see that uncovered and explored.

    Finally it says local government, council tax and industrial strategy were “probably” left out – were they actually left out?

    These are not criticisms really. I’m using Bella as my trusted info source this morning and I think these areas would make very interesting follow up pieces, especially the second.

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