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by Chris Marshall
06 September 2021
A Green New Deal: Far from being a partnership of equals

A Green New Deal: Far from being a partnership of equals

In the seven years since the independence referendum, the issue of Scotland’s constitutional future has never ceased to dominate our politics.

Whether we like it or not, the things which matter to us all – health, education, tackling poverty – so often come back to just one question – Yes or No.

And yet in the time that has passed since September 2014, the world has changed in ways that no one could have foreseen.

From President Trump, to Brexit, to the pandemic, the world of 2021 feels more dangerous, the future more uncertain.

Most terrifying of all are the warnings about climate change and the radical interventions now needed to avert the most catastrophic effects of rising temperatures.

Following publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report last month, its most dire warning yet about the future of our earth, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said a “death knell” needed to be sounded for the future of fossil fuels “before they destroy our planet”.

Contrast that with the SNP’s 2014 blueprint for independence, Scotland’s Future, which mentions “oil” a total of 157 times in its 670 pages.

“An independent Scotland can invest our oil wealth for future generations. By value, there is estimated to be as much North Sea oil still to come as has already been extracted.”

And on the matter of Scotland having full responsibility for its oil and gas reserves following independence: “An independent Scotland will aim to maximise the safe production of oil and gas from the fields off Scotland’s shores, with a stable and predictable fiscal regime.”

Notwithstanding the collapse in the value of oil since those words were written, it is now morally unthinkable that the case for separation could be so heavily predicated on the future of the North Sea.

The ongoing controversy about future exploration at the Cambo oilfield, off the west coast of Shetland, is a case in point. 

But while the SNP was planning for a future in which Scotland looked like Norway, a small country propped up by fabulous offshore resources, the Scottish Greens had a more radical reimagining. 

Founded by Leslie Spoor, a veteran of the battle of Cable Street in 1936 in which protesters clashed with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, the Scottish Greens began life as a branch of the Ecology Party in the late 1970s.

After becoming the Greens, they separated from the UK party in 1990, less than a decade before Robin Harper would be elected to the Scottish Parliament, the country’s first Green parliamentarian and a party leader who was not an independence supporter. 

In 2007, the party entered into a formal cooperation deal with the minority SNP administration led by Alex Salmond and has since propped up successive SNP governments in times of strife, including helping save the political life of the Deputy First Minister John Swinney who faced a vote of no confidence at the end of the last session.

Even during the run-up to the 2014 referendum, the party’s vision for Scotland’s future was more internationalist than nationalist, more focused on climate justice than creating a Norway-style oil fund. 

May 2021 saw the party’s best result yet, with eight candidates elected as MSPs.

The Greens said the result could have been even better, arguing a right-wing fringe group called Independent Green Voice had cost the party enough votes to return another two list MSPs.

Following the election, talk quickly turned to a deal between the Greens and the SNP, one which would give the government a majority and formalise the parliament’s so-called majority for independence.

The deal was modelled on one adopted by New Zealand premier Jacinda Ardern, whose government has two Green ministers, and reflects an international momentum which has seen the German Greens continuing to do well in the polls ahead of the country’s federal election later this month.

Agreed late last month, the cooperation deal between the two parties is built on “mutual trust and good faith”.

The introduction to the draft agreement states: “We both want a country that is characterised by fairness and equality for all; a country that harnesses and develops our economic strengths…We believe that we can work together in Scotland’s interests yet differ on certain matters constructively and respectfully.”

While the agreement commits the Scottish Government to consulting the Greens on its legislative programme, there is no requirement for the SNP to support bills brought forward by Green MSPs.

The cynically minded could argue that everything you need to know about the agreement is contained within the section on excluded matters.

The Greens will have no say on issues relating to the measurement of GDP and economic growth. Nor will the SNP’s new partners be able to influence aviation policy or financial support offered to aerospace, defence and security companies.

The Greens, who oppose the renewal of Trident and want to leave NATO, would have no say on Scotland’s continued membership of the military alliance following a vote for independence.

Also excluded are field sports, the regulation of prostitution and the reform of private schools.

Nevertheless, the agreement means co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater become junior ministers – the first-ever Green ministers anywhere in the UK - although they won’t sit in the cabinet.

Harvie becomes minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights, while Slater’s portfolio includes Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity.

On the day the agreement was reached, Harvie and Slater went to Bute House for a joint press conference with Sturgeon.

Each standing behind their own podium, a saltire over their shoulder, it was political theatre made to look like a partnership of equals.

But while Sturgeon, whose government looked tired and lacking in ideas towards the end of the last parliament, is made to look a little more progressive, a little more focused on the environment in the run-up to COP26, it’s hard to see exactly what the Greens stand to gain.

Indeed, within 24 hours of Harvie and Slater’s portfolios being announced, it was confirmed by Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone, a former Green MSP, that the party would lose its leader’s question at FMQs.

While noting that the cooperation agreement fell short of previous formal coalition deals between Labour and the Lib Dems at Holyrood, Johnstone said it left the relationship between the government and the third largest opposition party “fundamentally altered”. 

“In my view, the nature of the cooperation agreement, which would see the two Greens co-leaders being appointed as junior Scottish ministers, removes their entitlement to a leader’s question at FMQs,” Johnstone said. 

“It is, instead, my intention to allocate the Greens a backbench question in three weeks out of six, and further, to call them at question 3 in two of those six weeks.”

It was also confirmed that the Greens would forfeit opening and closing speeches in debates and that Harvie and Slater, as junior ministers, would be required to resign their membership of Holyrood committees.

There will also be a reduction in the “short money”, public funds paid to political parties, the Greens receive by more than £15,000 a year. 

All in all, the deal with the SNP has left the Greens enfeebled in opposition while offering very little in the way of real power. 

It’s hard not to draw comparisons with Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government which propped up the Tories while setting back the Lib Dem cause for a generation.

Sturgeon herself has described the cooperation agreement as a “leap of faith” but that is far more the case for the Greens than the SNP.

It has deprived the party of holding the Scottish Government to account effectively on its climate ambitions while allowing political opponents to paint it as an SNP adjunct. 

Asked about entering a formal coalition with the SNP back in 2019, Slater described the suggestion as a “terrible idea”.

Only time will tell whether she was right all along.  

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