The Scottish Greens prepare for power

POLITICO, March 2021

If Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party fails to secure outright victory at in May’s parliamentary election, the hopes of those pushing for a second referendum on independence from the U.K. could rest on the success of another party altogether: the Scottish Greens. 

With just five out of the devolved Edinburgh parliament’s 129 seats, the Greens should be a marginal force in Scottish politics. Instead, they are the SNP’s main partner in the campaign for a separate Scottish state and, their activists argue, the country’s most effective vehicle for radical legislative reform.

Polls suggest the Greens are on course to double their tally of MSPs this Spring — a result that would all but guarantee another pro-independence majority at Holyrood and, in the eyes of many Scots, ratchet-up pressure on Westminster to concede a fresh vote.

Senior Greens are confident that their message, which marries a demand for constitutional change with a commitment to social and environmental justice, is resonating among left-leaning, and indy-sympathetic, sections of the Scottish electorate.  

“We’re looking to become the primary party of progressive Scotland,” Ross Greer, a Green MSP for the West of Scotland, told POLITICO. “The SNP govern as technocratic centrists. The Tories are obviously the anchor on the right. Our aim is to pull Scotland generally in a more progressive direction.”

Leftward pull

The Greens have maintained a small yet visible presence at Holyrood since the dawn of Scottish devolution in 1999. In the early years of the parliament, they focused on loose, single-issue campaigns — better community recycling facilities, animal welfare, the repeal of Scotland’s archaic anti-gay laws. 

But that changed in the run-up to the first Scottish plebiscite in 2014, when the party came out strongly in favour of independence and its long-term leader, Patrick Harvie, emerged as one of the most prominent advocates of a Yes vote.

According to one high-ranking party activist, 2014 was a flashpoint in the Greens’ political development. “A lot of the Blairite, ‘neoliberalism-with-organic-targets’ stuff went out the window and was replaced by a much more systematic critique of capitalism and the economy,” they said.

Since then, the Greens’ electoral fortunes have followed the ebbs and flows of Scotland’s constitutional debate. As support for independence has edged up — partly as a result of Brexit; party as a result of Boris Johnson’s botched handling of the COVID pandemic – so too have the Greens’ polling numbers.

The party wants a second referendum to be held quickly within the lifetime of the next Holyrood parliament. “We need to be sensitive to what’s going on with coronavirus,” Lorna Slater, Harvie’s co-leader and the Greens’ candidate for the key target seat of Edinburgh Northern and Leith, said. “But my personal, emotional feeling is that [a new referendum] can’t come soon enough.”

Unionist politicians accuse the Greens of being nationalist enablers: Holyrood lobby-fodder who prop-up Sturgeon’s minority government at crucial moments — during budget votes, for instance — in the chamber.

The Greens have kept a strategic distance from the SNP as the bitter internal feud between Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond has intensified. But the ‘enabler’ charge was renewed last week when the Greens made clear they would, for now, resist demands for a vote of no confidence in First Minister Nicola Sturgeon following a bruising all-day session in front of a parliamentary committee investigating her government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against her predecessor Alex Salmond.

At times though, the party’s relationship with the SNP can be prickly and adversarial. The party boasts of having squeezed concessions out of Sturgeon on everything from council funding to free bus travel for under-19s. And last month, Harvie’s call for an investigation into Donald Trump’s business dealings in Scotland was shot down by a coalition of SNP and Tory legislators. 

The Greens are particularly scathing about Sturgeon’s much-hyped record on climate change, which, they claim, stands in stark contrast to her administration’s continued support for maximum oil and gas extraction from the North Sea; its enthusiasm for carbon-heavy infrastructure projects; and its prolonged equivocation over fracking. 

“The position of the SNP on the environment can be summarized in one word: hypocrisy,” Greer said. “The Scottish government presents itself as a world leader on the climate, but it is absolutely committed to the industries that are causing the crisis in the first place.”

EU return

The Greens are also keen to delineate their vision of independence from that of their nationalist allies in the Yes movement. Like the SNP, they are staunchly pro-European and support Scotland’s re-entry into the EU as an independent member state. 

But unlike the SNP — which wants Scotland to go on using the Pound after independence — the Greens back the creation of a separate Scottish monetary system and central bank, alongside Scotland’s withdrawal from NATO. Sturgeon’s conservative fiscal blueprint for self-government would render far-reaching environmental initiatives like the Green New Deal “impossible,” Harvie stated in 2019.

Though not as public as the internecine blood-letting at the top of the SNP, the Greens have their own divisions. Last year, Andy Wightman, a well-known and widely-respected land reform campaigner, sensationally quit the Green MSPs’ group after a row over trans rights. The party leadership was “censorious of any deviation from an agreed line,” he said in his resignation letter, and resistant to an “open and mature dialogue” around issues relating to sex and gender. (The Greens support updating Scotland’s gender recognition laws to make it easier for trans people to legally identify as their preferred sex.)

Wightman is now planning to stand against his former colleagues as an independent candidate on the regional Highlands and Islands list in two months time. With Wightman gone, Green insiders insist the party, which has roughly 6000 members, is unified on the subject of trans gender rights.

The Greens have never held more than seven seats at Holyrood. After two decades of devolution, the election of ten or twelve Green representatives would be a breakthrough moment for the party, bolstering the case for another independence referendum and dragging the centre of Scottish political gravity to the left.

“We may not be flashy, but we work steadily away at the things that matter to us,” Slater said.

Scottish voters will get to decide how much the Greens matter to them in May. 

Read the original piece here.

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