Growth and Decay: the Green/SNP Deal
James Thornbury reflects on the SNP/SGP deal – a bad idea that cannot be stopped, and shouldn’t be.
What is the point of the Scottish Green Party? That isn’t a rhetorical question. To understand whether the proposed deal between the Scottish Greens and the SNP is good or bad really depends on what the party exists to achieve. It’s a question that has long been taken for granted by Scottish Green members themselves, among whom I’m counted.
All Green parties are united in a belief that the exploitation of our environment has to end. But reading the Global Greens Charter, it becomes clear that no single ideology binds their politics together. In practice, this means that the politics of Green parties across the globe vary wildly, and this variety extends down inside individual parties. Specific to the left-leaning Scottish Greens, what the party exists to achieve according to each member determines how they will vote this Saturday.
Those who believe the purpose of the Scottish Green Party is to reform the excesses of liberal capitalism, to sand off its rough edges and make life more tolerable, are likely to vote for the deal. The proposed policy concessions to the Greens from the SNP are good, and it’s inarguable that many of them cannot be gained by twisting the SNP’s arm when it comes time to vote on a budget.
So too those who think that the situation with the climate is so dire that any improvement, no matter how incremental, is better than nothing. The recent IPCC report, watered down as it is, paints a frankly terrifying picture of the future. Maybe the proposed concessions aren’t enough to make a meaningful dent, but it’s something, at least.
Yet to those who believe the Scottish Green Party, as a party of the left, should be striving to win power and to use it to institute a radical transformation of Scotland; to those who believe that we are in a struggle to the death against an unaccountable oligarchy that is happy to watch everyone else drown or burn; to those who believe half measures cannot save us, the SNP deal is terrible.
Enacted, the deal will bind the smaller Greens and the bigger SNP together, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats to David Cameron’s Tories. The rhetoric around the deal is that it does not constitute a coalition, and much has been made of the technicalities that distinguish it. But the voting public are not easily fooled when it comes to power: the Greens will be in a government wherein they wield ministerial power alongside the SNP. Call it whatever you like, the public will see them in bed together.
And judging by the comments in the papers and on social media, no one has missed that this deal exists because the SNP deigned to offer it. This will not be a union of equals, but the bigger SNP offering a hand to the smaller Greens, which makes it difficult to take seriously suggestions that this will make the Greens look more competent, whether electorally or in governance.
What will be the future of the Greens when this deal goes through? Speaking to former and current members of the New Zealand Greens, where a similar deal was cut, the picture is not rosy. The NZ Greens subsequently increased their vote share by 1.5%, while their partners were rewarded with another 13% for their magnaminty, gaining an outright majority (and ending any vote leverage the NZ Greens had). So too the NZ Greens have become far less vocal in their criticism of liberal policy, less ambitious in their own agenda for government. The NZ Green left believe their party has begun to decay.
It makes sense, really. The draft working agreement, available on the Scottish Government’s website, makes clear that the proposed two Green Ministers will be bound by collective responsibility and not criticise the government. On a few issues they have agreed to allow criticism, but the intent is that this list should only be added to “exceptionally”, and that disputes will be mediated leadership-to-leadership, no members involved.
Ah, but the rest of the Green MSPs will not be ministers, and will be free to criticise! Perhaps. More likely is that there will be a chilling effect, with MSPs urged to soften criticism for the sake of areas of ongoing and potential cooperation. Leaders lead, after all.
Further, and the left NZ Greens despair about this, the SNP will be effectively greenwashed. To the public, their policies on the environment won’t be that bad, can’t be that bad if the Scottish Greens are supporting them in government. And even where the Greens criticise the SNP, how serious can those criticisms be if they are willing to set them aside for power? They’ll be taken as an absence of real urgency, or the presence of obvious hypocrisy, depending on how they’re received.
Most important of all, this will effectively end the Greens’ electoral growth. Their vote will calcify roughly where it stands, and it’s not hard to explain why. To SNP voters (the political majority in Scotland) who like the deal, it will confirm that the SNP pursue prudent governance, taking good ideas where offered. To voters estranged by the SNP, present and future, why would they ever vote for a party actively upholding their government?
Beyond short-term concessions on policy, it’s difficult to see what the Greens will get from this deal. Will Patrick Harvie decline a ministerial car in favour of a ministerial bike? As for the SNP, they get a way to indicate political change and progress in a parliament without meaningful change or progress; red meat for their base with a “united Scotland against Boris” platform when he refuses independence and the courts shrug; and a handy dampener on their rival’s prospects, no doubt.
Speaking from the left of the party, and with my previous experience within it, the deal seems certain to be accepted by members. It is unstoppable… and it shouldn’t be stopped.
Twice now the Scottish Green Party has been offered the opportunity to declare itself a Socialist party, and twice the membership has refused, nor has any other explicit ideology been declared. Politically I think the Scottish Greens exist just left of centre, wherever that centre rests, happy to promote Socialism-adjacent policy only after the winds had shifted in their favour. Absent a political framework that explains in material terms why the world is in such a mess and implies what must be done to save it, all that remains are policies that are good and bad within the dominant political zeitgeist.
Others would say you dig where you can, I suppose. It certainly seems the Scottish Greens are busy digging a hole. All the party media apparatus, which is supposedly neutral until the members speak, has been in overdrive promoting the virtues of the SNP deal. The playbook of moving big things through the party machinery is being followed line by line (and it’s a playbook I know; I kicked off and shepherded a party-wide restructuring a few years ago). Endless consultation to identify objections and craft messaging to talk around them, relentless positivity and a focus on the amount of work being done, and a constant refrain of “Decide when the deal is negotiated,” in lieu of difficult conversations about the fundamental premise of the negotiation being wrong.
I fully expect, at the Extraordinary General Meeting to vote on the deal, at least one or more of the deal’s proponents will put emphasis on how hard and how long people have worked on the deal, how it is a once in a lifetime opportunity that it would be foolish to throw away now. When push comes to shove, there’s always the killer framing, “Why didn’t you engage with the process?” which neatly sidelines the very idea that the process shouldn’t have happened because its product cannot be good.
I anticipate these efforts will be successful. The old politician’s fallacy “Something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done,” will win out on the strength of the policy gains. So it goes.
So it must go, I think. While I intend to vote against the deal (certain defeat is at most a minor deterrence), its passage will begin a process that I believe will ultimately lay bare the political contradictions at the heart of the Scottish Green Party. Reluctantly, I’ve concluded the Scottish Greens have been moved as far left as they are likely to go on their own, and will thereby remain a party of the soft left. They are and will probably remain the best on left-wing policy in Scotland for the immediate future, but the deal makes clear they are not revolutionary in their politics, and the road to liberal hell will be paved with well-intentioned compromises.
Perhaps, given time, the ecological left in the Scottish Greens will recognise the decay and change their approach. By then I think the liberal alignment will be too far gone to walk back, but stranger things have happened. Whether or not they try, and whether or not they fail, the limitations of the Scottish Greens as a vehicle for transformational change will be well established, and the left will be forced to examine other approaches.
Whatever path they choose, at least there will be no question about what the Scottish Greens are willing to support, and at what cost. We will soon see the Scottish Greens call for urgent action on climate while participating in government with a party that is doing the things they criticise. What else is there to say?
In the end, all things that grow must feed, and to stop growing is to decay. The SNP have found a meal to stave off their decay, and it seems certain the Greens are following the arc of decay inscribed by their sister and cousin parties. The question remains what the left will make of it, and whether there will be room for growth when all is said and done.
The shame is that, environmentally, we simply don’t have the time.
Help to support independent Scottish journalism by donating today.