In this opinion piece Programme Leader for Politics Paula Keaveney discusses the new power-sharing deal between the SNP and Scottish Greens and what it means for the parties and politics in the UK.
Coalitions, or inter-party agreements, are not new at Holyrood. The electoral system makes a one-party majority government very difficult to achieve. The first Scottish Government in 1999 was a Labour-Lib Dem Coalition. And before this May’s poll, the SNP needed votes from the Scottish Green Party to pass some legislation.
What is new today however is a more formalised agreement between the two parties. The Scottish Green Party (which is separate from the Green Party of England and Wales) is pro-Scottish independence and has played a role in many of the separation campaigns. It would, after all, be difficult for the SNP to form an agreement with any of the “unionist” parties. That doesn’t mean the Scottish Greens are completely on board. There are some opt-outs and we can expect to see differences of opinion. Again this is not a new feature of party deals. Remember for example the different stances taken on the Leveson report by the Conservatives and Lib Dems during the 2010 – 2015 Coalition Government.
But what does today’s agreement mean?
To a certain extent, it strengthens the SNP’s hand when it comes to votes in the Scottish Parliament on independence related issues – although given the current policy stances it is hard to envisage the Scottish Greens getting in the way of a pro-independence manoeuvre. While some commentators are claiming this makes independence more likely, the internal Parliamentary support for independence remains what it was. And no deal at Holyrood can actually change the external dynamics. Perhaps more relevant for the SNP is the support it will need for other areas of decision, on health, on transport, on education and so on. The party has recently had to deal with a series of bad news stories, from education performance to drug deaths.
In a limited way the agreement gives the Scottish Greens, and other UK Green parties and movements, a chance to demonstrate the extra credibility of the government. It is important not to overstate this. Green parties have been and are running some local authorities (sometimes through coalitions or power-sharing deals), but in the league table of politics, helping run a Government is seen as more significant than a similar role at local level.
Being involved in Government brings its own banana skins. Association in politics can be dangerous. The “present but not involved” line does not wash. The Scottish Green Party will be portrayed as tied to every mistake or every failure. Small parties in Coalitions, and frankly this will be seen as a Coalition whatever it is, do not always come out of things well. Just ask the FDP in Germany (which plummeted from Parliament for a while in 2013) or the UK Liberal Democrats.
This is where the Green Party opt-outs will be important. The smaller party will be keen to emphasise some points of difference, particularly on areas relevant to its existing “brand”. We should expect to see rows on road building and on oilfields.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the deal is the effect on other parties. The SNP’s message to opposition parties is “resistance is useless”. If the power-sharing deal holds, the opposition can’t win any votes. But what the other contenders will do is develop new lines of attack. We are already seeing the return of the Conservatives “Coalition of Chaos” message for example. The Scottish Green Party was not particularly popular in the Holyrood hemicycle before. In fact, on a visit to the Parliament with a group of Edge Hill politics students, I noticed the level of attack being meted out to co-leader Patrick Harvie. But now the relatively small party has put itself more firmly in the firing line. How the Conservative and Labour blocs in particular react to this will be illustrative.
Both the SNP and the Green party bodies still have to approve the arrangement this month. But it’s unlikely that negotiations would proceed without confidence in support from leading members. Whether activists maintain that support will depend on what happens at the ballot box. Next test – May 2022.
Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University. Edge Hill runs a number of courses in politics including BA (Hons) History & Politics, BA (Hons) Politics & Criminology, LLB (Hons) Law with Politics and BA (Hons) Politics and Sociology. Visit the website for more information.