Independence Before Environment in SNP/Green Deal

For observers of Scottish politics, the wait is over. We now know, more or less, what form the next Scottish Government will take. At a press conference today, the Scottish Greens and the SNP outlined their new power sharing agreement that will see Green ministers in government for the fist time anywhere in the United Kingdom.

The agreement between Nicola Sturgeon’s party and the party led by Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater commits both to working together, to providing support in the event of another confidence vote, and to co-operation on a raft of other policy points too. These include a referendum on Scottish independence in the next five years, a transition deal for North Sea energy, housing reform, an increase in the Scottish Child Payment, and investment in energy efficiency and renewable heating. The deal also includes plans to bolster the rights of tenants, support for renewables and offshore wind, and an overhaul of Scottish public transport. It is, to even the most cynical and jaded eyes, one of the more radical political agendas Scottish politics has seen in recent times.

As was anticipated prior to the announcement, this is not a formal coalition government but appears to go further than a simple confidence and supply agreement. It is, as will doubtlessly be welcomed by its supporters, a hybrid of the two. The Greens, the fourth largest party in Holyrood and the junior party to the deal, have agreed to a significant number of policy points but still retain the right to disagree with the SNP on some issues. Cakes, it would appear, are being eaten and had at once all round.

Both parties appeared confident and upbeat during the press conference with the First Minister arguing that “the spirit of co-operation and consensus-building is very much in keeping with the founding principles of the Scottish Parliament” and Mr Harvie referring to the deal as “historic”.

Of course, there were detractors elsewhere in Scottish politics. The Scottish Tories branded the new, more formal, version of the SNP and Greens’ ongoing partnership as a “coalition of chaos” and accused them of being obsessed with independence while Scottish Labour accused the Scottish Greens of unveiling themselves as merely a “branch office” of the SNP, a term frequently used by Nationalists and others to deride Anas Sarwar’s party and its relationship with the UK Labour Party. While this was a pithy retort, the good sense of dragging up such a term remains unclear.

Meanwhile, in another press conference, newly minted Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, outlined his own plans for the environment in an attempt to take the wind energy out of the Greens’ and Nationalists’ turbines. Time will tell whether not he too has been successful.
Having gone from occasional partners to a more formal arrangement, the Scottish Greens and the SNP find themselves in a honeymoon period at time of writing. Confidence is high, the mood is upbeat, and their freshly rejuvenated attitude of co-operation and partnership is evident for all to see. In their present positions, many a less fortunate politician will envy them their position.

The wait to find out what the nature of the agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Greens will be may be over but what remains is to see how it will work out in practice.

While, as the agreement and today’s press conference shows, there are many areas of policy in which both parties agree, the real test of the new government arrangement will be how it handles the inevitable disagreements between the two; especially those coming from outwith the leadership.

If the SNP and the Greens can focus on the detail of their partnership, get what they have agreed to done, and maintain a solid block in Holyrood then there seems to be, according to electoral mathematics, very little that will stand in their way. Except, of course, for the constantly thorny issue of holding a legitimate, binding, and legal independence referendum – which the present UK Government will presumably be in no mood to entertain, let alone allow.

From what can be gleamed at present, it is the more esoteric issues and personalities within both parties that will present the ‘not quite a coalition’ with its most difficult challenges.

Take the issue of trans rights as just one example among many. While the agreement contains plans to revamp the Gender Recognition Act and improve trans healthcare provision, it remains a possibility that trans rights may still cause an element of friction within the parties themselves and in the agreement between them.

Recently, longstanding former-Green MSP Andy Wightman quit the party over the issue and Joanna Cherry MP remains an outspoken critic of her party’s approach to the subject. While these individuals will not have their hands of the tiller in the new arrangement, their influence in their spheres of politics cannot be denied and they will, presumably, have sympathisers and allies who could, if given the opportunity, cause more than a few headaches for the Sturgeon, Slater, Harvie troika. How they respond on this, as with a range of other so-called ‘culture war’ issues, will doubtlessly have an impact on the way forward.

As the ink dries on the deal and the real-world impact beings to take hold, it will be how the Scottish Greens and the SNP conduct themselves both with regard to each other and the other parties at Holyrood that shape the direction of travel. At the moment, it is all smiles, best wishes, and positive and optimistic statements; as the realities of politics begin to bite and difficult, principle compromising, decisions have to be made then we will see what the future has in store for this new phase of public life in Scotland. One thing is for sure, both parties have lots to gain but could, quite possibly, have a lot to lose also.