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The SNP's Subs
The coalition deal with the Greens is about saving nationalism from the SNP's eventual decline.
Apologies to regular readers for the break in these newsletters. If, like me, you devoted the last few weeks to the summer’s sporting events, it was time better spent. Normal service will now be resumed.
The last few days have been dominated by talk of Scotland’s green credentials. The next few days are likely to be dominated by talk of Scotland’s green coalition. What is going on behind these two stories?
The question of whether, in the face of climate change catastrophe, Scotland should exploit new oil fields, and the Cambo field specifically, has been forced by environmental campaigners and the Labour Party.
Nicola Sturgeon has really struggled on this issue. It was painful to watch her refusing to answer a simple question from young activists, especially when her reason for avoiding taking a position was that she couldn’t comment on reserved matters(!):
Clearly, this isn’t a sustainable position for someone who has spent her entire life doing just that, so she turned to the old tactic of shifting responsibility onto Westminster. She, a nationalist First Minister, decided to write to a British Prime Minister to ask if he wouldn’t mind double-checking whether drilling for oil was bad for climate change. It is literally ridiculous.
Sturgeon normally grabs at any opportunity to be part of the progressive zeitgeist. Why is this so hard for her?
Different variants of the “It’s Scotland’s Oil” message have been core to Scottish nationalism for the entire time she has been a member of SNP. The 2014 campaign she fronted was built almost entirely on a temporary spike in oil prices, and so oil revenues, which allowed her to claim that leaving the UK would mean social democracy without the need for higher taxes.
As the official Scottish revenue statistics will confirm again in a couple of weeks, the oil taxes have all but dried up, so she has nothing to lose by changing policy. But was always more than a fiscal argument for her. Leading the Scexit campaign in 2014, she threw herself into the populism that invited voters to believe that our wealth was being pillaged, for example predicting in an STV debate:
“We’re on the verge of another North Sea bonanza, the only question for Scotland is whether we steward it or allow Westminster governments to squander it.”
When she became First Minister, she showed no sign of following the lead of other small nations, such as New Zealand, Denmark, or Wales in curtailing the exploration or exploitation of fossil fuels. Instead, she gathered the oil companies together to pledge her support for “maximum economic recovery” of fossil fuels, promising to work to ensure “decades” more drilling.
Sturgeon struggles to disavow fossil fuels because it means giving up the animating grievance of the last 50 years of Scottish nationalism. And where would a nationalist be without the ability to fight the rapacious outsider looting native resources?
Why would someone so wedded to fossil fuels choose to go into coalition with a green party?
Why would a government which is already able to get its legislation through choose to get into bed with a party whose culture is as poisonous as that described by their former MSP Andy Wightman?
And why would a leader who badly needs to rebuild the credibility of their economic case give legitimacy to a party with such zany ideas (read this to see just how zany) about how the Scottish economy would function outside of the UK?
Part of the answer is that the Greens come cheap. They have been a wholly-owned subsidiary of the SNP for years now, consistently prioritising their nationalism over their environmentalism. Let’s return to the Cambo issue momentarily.
Sturgeon’s attempt to avoid making a choice by claiming that ‘It’s Britain’s Oil’ after all didn’t fool Friends of the Earth:
“Nicola Sturgeon is deferring to Boris Johnson on the future of North Sea oil and gas, when she must take a bold stance against Cambo and the climate devastation it will unleash."
Greenpeace also refused to buy the con:
“Until she makes her own stance clear this is just a PR exercise.”
Step forward the Greens, with all the guile of Rose from the Golden Girls:
“It’s welcome to see the Scottish Government start to come off the fence.”
The experience of the submissive Greens voting for budgets that cut local services and voting to save incompetent SNP Ministers will have reasurred the First Minister that she will be able to run rings around her prospective partners.
Some have suggested that the limited deal likely to be offered to the Greens - inside government but outside Cabinet - is purely cosmetic. It is to give the pro-oil SNP a green fig leaf ahead of the COP-26 climate conference in Glasgow in the Autumn. I wouldn’t put it past the SNP to form a coalition simply to give Nicola Sturgeon a useful soundbite in October interviews. “I can’ be a baddie, I gave the Green’s the Wifi password.” But I think there’s more to it than this.
Others think a Green deal is about increasing the pressure on the UK government over Scexit. However, with only two out of the last twenty opinion polls showing Scots would vote to leave the UK, the real barrier to Scexit remains the Scottish people, and unless they can convince Scotland another referendum is a good idea, they can’t hope to convince the UK. I think it’s more likely that the Greens play another role in the SNP’s strategy: that of the reserve team.
The SNP government look increasingly tired and in need of renewal.
They can no longer defy political gravity with giveaway goodies, paid for by starving other priorities of funding rather than using their powers to raise taxes. So deep have the cuts to local areas been that the SNP leader of Scotland’s biggest city now finds herself having to recreate David Cameron’s Big Society at a municipal level, promising an end to “municipal paternalism” and talking up her opposition to “statism”.
A new SNP leader may offer a change of face, but the SNP will have been in office for twenty years at the next election. The Tories will have been in power for nearly as long and cannot be relied on to take pro-UK votes away from Scottish Labour as they have at the last few elections.
If the SNP’s decline is a foregone conclusion, who benefits from it is not. If Anas Sarwars’ ambition of building the alternative to the SNP starts to look real it risks ending the hope of another referendum. The Greens are already the remora fish feeding on the second votes the SNP miss. Rather than fighting against the shedding of those votes, giving the Greens a higher profile may be an attempt to maintain nationalist control of Holyrood as the SNP begin to lose control of Scotland.
It will be tempting to try to do to the Greens what was done to the Lib Dems as junior coalition members of the UK government after 2010. In truth though, the Lib Dems did that damage to themselves by failing to make top-up fees a red line and not carving out their own positive policy offer within the overall Tory programme for government. Every parliamentary vote can’t be seen as an opportunity to embarrass Patrick Harvie. When the Greens betray their values, by all means, punish them for it, but making them a more interesting story than they deserve plays into the narrative about renewal in government that the SNP want.
Instead, the opposition parties need to focus on getting better at what they have been bad at since 2011: winning constituency seats. Sharing constituency and regional votes between nationalist parties only works as a strategy for as long as opposition ambition is limited to regional list seats.
With the Greens bought and paid for the SNP won’t face meaningful accountability in the Holyrood chamber. They will only be held accountable at the Holyrood elections. So can spend less time in Edinburgh, worry less about the theatre of FMQs and more about community campaigns, recruit a new crop of parliamentary candidates now, raise resources for organisers and equip activists with the arguments they need to break through polarisation online.
There’s no shortage of material. Just look at the last couple of weeks:
The drugs deaths numbers that are *five times* higher than those of England and Wales. A record high for the seventh year running that the First Minister casually put down to ‘taking her eye off the ball.’
The party that claimed closing the attainment gap was their “defining mission” overseeing the lowest proportion of students from poorer backgrounds going to university for five years.
The shameful attempt to cover up the number of deaths in care homes.