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by James Mitchell
03 September 2021
Comment: The SNP-Green deal offers minimal risk but limited potential wins

Comment: The SNP-Green deal offers minimal risk but limited potential wins

There are two elements to the SNP/Green agreement: policy and process. Neither lives up to the hype from each party, nor their opponents’ gloomy predictions. 

On policy, the deal elaborates where the two parties already agree and agree to differ elsewhere. It does not create a “cast-iron mandate” for an independence referendum. If there is a mandate for a second referendum, then the electorate granted that in May. This deal was not put before voters and while the “coalition of chaos” jibe lacks originality, the notion that the Greens are the SNP’s lackeys might well prove potent.

In policy content, this is a postmaterialist agreement that emphasises quality of life, self-expression and identity concerns. The term postmaterial has its origins in Ronald Inglehart’s 1977 book, The Silent Revolution.

Inglehart, who died earlier this year, argued that a generational shift in values was taking place across liberal democracies as younger, more affluent and secure generations were focusing less on class and material concerns and more on “postmaterial” matters – environmentalism, gender and identity politics.  It fleshes out existing areas of agreement but its incompleteness as a programme of government stands out. It gives the Greens a toehold on power while retaining their purity.

Materialist concerns are either consigned to the too-difficult excluded category or have had a green rinse. The materialist-postmaterialist tension is evident.  Plenty of warm words about the wellbeing economy and circular economy have been agreed but disagreement on the “role of Gross Domestic Product measurements, and economic principles related to concepts of sustainable growth and inclusive growth” will be a source of real tension.

Holyrood’s new fiscal powers mean that economic growth really matters and sustainable economic recovery is much easier said than done. Independence supporters will need a credible economic case in the event of a referendum and this deal shows how unlikely it will be to agree one across these two parties. Just how critical the Greens will be in areas excluded from the agreement will be watched carefully.

Many issues are glossed over with long-term commitments extending well beyond this parliament. There are also areas in which the parties agree to explore options further (mentioned on 15 pages). 

Long-term planning is welcome, but progress-monitoring is needed, otherwise this is simply kicking problems into the long grass. There is also a tendency to hide behind consultations. Citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries and other participatory “innovations” have become the preferred choice for prevarication. 

New processes have been agreed but leave the Greens on the fringe of making policy.  The Greens have taken a significant step but are still not prepared to accept the full responsibility that comes with governing. A formal coalition would have required finding common ground through compromise across the more challenging policy areas. Agreeing where you already agree is the easy bit. 

This deal is closer to the 2007 SNP/Green cooperation agreement (which listed opposition to new nuclear power stations; early legislation to reduce climate change; the desirability of independence and working towards extending Holyrood’s powers; agreeing to consult Green MSPs on the SNP’s policy programme and annual budgets; plus giving a Green MSP a committee convenorship) than a coalition. 

The Greens are not yet ready to abandon the purity of oppositional politics completely.  The Greens have a touch of the “sea-green incorruptible” about them, to borrow Thomas Carlyle’s description of French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre.

The Scottish Government will consult and collaborate with Green MSPs. The authors of the agreement appear unaware that the Scottish Parliament’s founding principles included a commitment to share power between the people, legislators and Scottish executive. All legislators, not just favoured legislators.

But, of course, this simply demonstrates that Holyrood is no different from, and in some ways worse, than Westminster in the imbalanced relationship between executive and legislature. The Greens will find that many of these formal arrangements amount to little in practice, as some of their SNP ministerial colleagues can testify privately.

On the other hand, the two Green ministers have every reason to assert themselves.  The opposition parties will ratchet up accusations that the Greens have become an SNP appendage and that will create pressure on Green ministers to prove otherwise.

Some matters excluded from the agreement will have no practical effect. The exclusion of private schooling from the agreement makes no difference as the SNP will have Tory support to protect private education. But reference to private education allows the Greens to put their radicalism on display. NATO membership is excluded but is beyond Holyrood’s competence anyway, however could signal a split in the event of an independence referendum.

In 2014, there were many Yes campaigners who disagreed with the official SNP line on NATO, and much else, but did not rock the boat. The hope next time appears to be to make virtue of differences. There are, inevitably, many issues that will arise not explicitly included or excluded.  The unexpected and unforeseeable can produce the greatest challenges to governments and often require immediate responses.

Governing is difficult, involves compromises and taking difficult decisions. From another perspective, power corrupts. This deal allows the Greens to dip their toes into the world of government. It minimises risk by excluding areas that would make the Greens uncomfortable, but limits potential wins.

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