Opinion

The Greens' small step in Scotland could yet have a big say in the UK

The Greens are going into government in Scotland – the first time they've been in power in the UK. Time will tell whether they are convenient political shields or defining voices, says Paul McNamee.

A curious experiment is under way in Scotland. The Greens are going into government. It’s a coalition. But not quite a coalition. The SNP and Greens are calling it a co-operation agreement.

The news hasn’t made huge ripples beyond Scotland. Given all that is going on elsewhere, this is understandable. But it marks a significant change. It’s the first time the Greens have been in government anywhere in Britain. They’ll have several junior cabinet posts and the Greens’ Scottish co-leaders will join full cabinet meetings a couple of times a year.

The why isn’t absolutely clear. The SNP won 64 seats during the May election. It’s one short of an overall majority at Holyrood, but they could have governed as a minority administration without too much difficulty. 

Both sides are making positive noises about the positive outcomes the co-operation government can deliver. They say, for instance, that 10 per cent of the entire transport budget will be given over to promote walking and cycling. They promise they’ll deliver 110,000 affordable homes by 2032. They’re making the right noises about renewable energy and decarbonisation.

Some observers have suggested that the Greens are convenient political shields for the SNPPaul McNamee

The question remains, though – wouldn’t the SNP government have done these things anyway? Decent homebuilding initiatives are not the preserve of the Greens.

The answer, at present, is not clear.

Some observers have suggested that the Greens are convenient political shields for the SNP. The administration, while far and away the biggest party, has not been pulling up any trees recently – so to speak. Their record on education is poor. They can’t get hold of spiralling drug deaths in Scotland. By 2026 they’ll have been in power for 19 years. It’s conceivable that the Greens will have to take flak for the failings of the bigger partner.

The indy issue is a major part. The Greens in Scotland are pro-independence. It now means there is a majority government committed to another independence referendum within five years. This is dependent on the Westminster administration granting it. But the picture is obvious. There is very clear water between governments north and south.

COP26 approaches too. Nicola Sturgeon is no fool. As the world’s leaders gather in Glasgow in November to talk about the need to avert environmental catastrophe, Sturgeon can say, look at us, progressive, listening to the concerns of a young, climate-concerned electorate, we have Greens in government, we’re walking the walk – wouldn’t we be great as a small independent nation. If the plan is to present a bold new nation of social democrats carrying deep environmental responsibility, a nation beyond the old left and right identity squabbles, this move helps.

The invitation to the Greens is a small step. But it could yet have a major impact on the makeup of the United Kingdom, on Europe and on how the world faces forward.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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