Maggie Chapman gives a frank and honest view on the Scottish Government and Scottish Greens deal.
Some on the left have wondered about the Scottish Green Party’s (SGP) left credentials, but the day SNP and SGP members both accepted the Cooperation Agreement, Andrew Neil, in the Daily Mail, gave a high accolade: ‘Anti-monarchy, anti-Britain, anti-wealth, ECO-ZEALOT MARXISTS’. That’ll do for me, especially as the agreement has many unionists frothing at the mouth.
The deal is historic, seeing Greens in government for the first time anywhere in Britain. It also sees a new kind of cooperation arrangement in British politics – not a full coalition, not minority government supported by a confidence and supply arrangement – but a ‘short of coalition’ arrangement that sees the SGP have both government ministers and opposition MSPs. Whatever one thinks of the deal, these two facts are not insignificant.
As someone closely involved in the negotiations, I want to focus on what it might mean for the SGP as the leading radical voice in Scottish politics. I wrote in Scottish Left Review (May/June 2021) about how the left had won the SGP – by articulating the need to build our country on care, creativity and collaboration; by focusing on policies rather than personalities; and by pursuing a progressive agenda with equalities and solidarity embedded in these policies.
There are some elements of each of these in the Agreement – from the development of a national care service to commitments to strengthen LGBTQI+ rights. But during the course of the negotiations, I was and remain sceptical. Smaller parties – especially those of the left – tend to not do well in coalitions. Even though this Agreement is not a coalition, the SGP runs the risk of taking the blame for anything that goes wrong in the next four and a half years, and not having the communications apparatus to take the credit for the good things that happen.
Fourteen years of SNP government also means that their way of doing government will be very difficult to challenge. Greens’ participatory and decentralised approach to politics – which I believe is necessary to create the kind of future we need to see – is very alien to the SNP. The model of the Cooperation Agreement binds both the Scottish Government and Scottish Greens to act with trust and in good faith, with ‘mutual respect, transparency and candour’. The next five years will test this commitment probably more than any other, given the relative disparity in power between the two parties.
The Agreement and Shared Policy Programme will also challenge the structures, processes and capacity of the SGP. We’ve never held ministerial posts before and we’ve never had to exert influence over the civil service from such positions. I don’t wish to get all ‘Yes Minister’ about this, but the Green Ministers will not be in an equivalent position of power as other junior ministers in this regard. And we will need to rapidly enhance our capacity to support the Parliamentary Group to ensure Ministers and opposition MSPs have the support they need to remain true to our values and principles, and not be co-opted by either the government or parliament machines.
These risks must be acknowledged, taken seriously, and mechanisms put in place to mitigate them if we are to achieve the policy advancess and wider positive changes we hope this Agreement will produce. Tackling the climate emergency, delivering a New Deal for tenants, and strengthening LGBTQI+ rights were three key policy aims we took to the negotiating table, and we have our work cut out for us to ensure we get delivered what has been agreed in the Policy Programme, in these and other areas.
One hard-won element of the Agreement is it secures the space for Scottish Greens to oppose the SNP where we most need to. Whether this is on the speed of the just transition needed, reliance upon failed economic metrics like GDP, our approach to defence and security, or any other issue in the ‘Excluded Matters’ section, Green MSPs must hold on to our radical principles.
It is absolutely vital Greens continue to be driven by progressive social movements like those that enabled us to include rent controls into the Agreement. We have seen Extinction Rebellion and school strikers put climate at the top of the political agenda. We must continue to act with these movements to create the change that Scotland so desperately needs. The Agreement must not change our resolve to keep one foot in the street and one foot in Parliament.
We need to make progress on issues of ownership in the economy and delivering the manufacturing Scotland needs to power a green industrial revolution. The Scottish Government has been much too reliant upon advice from the ‘Big 4’ accountancy firms: we need to seek solutions for the problems at Ferguson’s shipyard and BiFab from unions, workers and the wide variety of policy thinkers who aren’t in the current bubble.
The Scottish Parliament offers a platform for radical politics. I was elected to use it to give voice to the vital ideas that would not otherwise be heard. Any agreement must not remove our voices from that platform. Greens were founded as a party of social movements. From peace and nuclear disarmament to the women’s movement to LGBTQI+ liberation, we have always worked in harness with progressives. With a climate emergency, our focus must be on stopping oil and gas drilling. I am fully committed to ensuring we won’t shy away from full-voiced support for those progressive causes.
Maggie Chapman is a Scottish Green MSP for north-east Scotland and a member of the Scottish Left Review editorial committee. See https://www.gov.scot/news/agreement-with-scottish-green-party/ for the two key documents